If when Brycen Hopkins was drafted by the LA Rams, and you heard that his dad was an NFL offensive lineman for the Tennessee Titans, you may have said something like, “Who? Never heard of him.” There’ve been thousands of NFL players you’ve likely never heard of, so who can be blamed for not knowing of some second-string guard who toiled for a couple of years on a practice squad and then made a handful of starts for a basement feeding team? That would be understandable. If that’s what Brad Hopkins was for the Titans.
It’s not what he was. And Brad Hopkins is well aware that many people aren’t well aware of him. He knows who to blame for that too.
The Tennessee Titans.
“My accomplishments don’t seem to matter,” said the elder Hopkins a few years ago in an interview with The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus. Is he just “whining”? That’s what Hopkins figured people would think about him when he came out and said he felt “disrespected” and slapped in the face by the team he spent all 13 of his NFL seasons with. He wondered why he wasn’t in their Ring of Honor.
Reading his story, I wonder that too.
It is difficult to go back to find recruiting info on him now, but Brad Hopkins was born in South Carolina in 1990 and was a basketball/football star at Moline High School in Moline, Illinois. He played alongside power forward Acie Earl, a future first round pick of the Boston Celtics. On the football team, he played tight end and defensive line, but committed to play Illinois, where he would hone his skills as a tackle.
Entering Illinois in the 1990 season, Hopkins blocked for future No. 1-overall pick Jeff George and the 9-2 Illini. Following his freshman season, however, Hopkins cemented himself as a starter for the Illini and never relinquished the job. In his junior year, Hopkins was named All-Big Ten. His senior campaign saw him flourish in Orange and Blue. As an All-Big Ten and All-American, Hopkins went on to have one of the best careers on the Illinois offensive line.
Heading into the 1993 NFL Draft, the Houston Oilers were already a successful team, having won at least nine games in each of the previous six seasons. They had made the playoffs as a wild card in ‘92, losing to the Buffalo Bills 41-38 in overtime that year.
You may remember the score just after halftime: Oilers 35, Bills 3.
Perhaps anxious for redemption following “The Comeback” (which from Houston’s perspective, was more of “The Collapse Down”), the Oilers traded up from 19 to 13, sacrificing a third rounder for the jump. That draft saw Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer go 1-2, the PHOENIX Cardinals drafted a two-time Pro Bowl running back (Garrison Hearst) at three. The first Hall of Famer off the board was tackle Willie Roaf to the New Orleans Saints at eight, followed by the second two picks later when the LA Rams selected Jerome Bettis, another running back, at 10. Between them was a three-time Pro Bowl tackle in Lincoln Kennedy going to the Atlanta Falcons, and the Oilers must have felt the pressure to make a move now.
They moved up and picked Hopkins out of Illinois to be the blindside protector of 37-year-old Hall of Fame QB Warren Moon.
They spent one season together and in 1994, the team fired head coach Jack Pardee after a 1-9 start and promoted Jeff Fisher to interim head coach. Fisher is the last head coach that Hopkins would have over the rest of his career. The first pick in Oilers history with Fisher as the head coach: Steve McNair. One year later, they picked Eddie George.
McNair, George, Frank Wycheck. These are the names I think most people would say they remember from the mid-90s teams, just as the franchise re-located in 1997, two years before they would change their name to “Titans.” That was also the offseason that Brad Hopkins had a son. Named Brycen. March, 1997.
Hopkins started 11 games as a rookie and stayed there without missing a game until his sixth season in the league, when he missed three. Hopkins was essentially the only left tackle they had from 1993 to 2005, starting 188 games and only missing 14 games in his 13-year career. He made the Pro Bowl in 2000 and 2003. He blocked for George as he rushed for at least 1,294 yards in each of his first five seasons, and at least 939 in all eight seasons with the Titans. He blocked for Steve McNair during all three of his Pro Bowl appearances. He was the left tackle for a Super Bowl team.
You of course remember that Super Bowl team. At 13-3, perhaps one of the most “well-balanced” teams of the era in that they did a lot of things good and few things great. Jevon Kearse and Bruce Matthews may have been the only “stars” on the roster. In fact, it was that year that the Titans would in some small way answer for “The Comeback” with “The Music City Miracle.”
But one of the most important attributes in any player who agrees to smash bodies for money is availability. It is perhaps the greatest ability, they say. And while versatility is also important, so too can be consistency. I’ve rarely seen players who have careers this long, with this many starts on the offensive line, without moving positions.
He was overshadowed by Hall of Fame guard Bruce Matthews for most of his career, but Hopkins was with the Oilers/Titans for many great moments. He gave them a lot and expected more to come his way after going so far above and beyond what most teams should actually expect from their first round picks. He expected better from the Titans.
He’ll now hope that the Rams can do better for his son Brycen if he succeeds, just as they did better in that Super Bowl. (I do not mean to rub it in, Brad, but this is a Rams website you understand.)
Brycen Hopkins played at The Ensworth School in, you guessed it, Nashville, Tennessee. It is interesting to think about how the life of Brycen, and therefore many other people as a result of the ripple effect, would have gone differently if the Oilers had stayed in Houston. What high school would he have gone to then? Would he have chosen to play football sooner?
Clearly not intent on being quite as big as his dad, but perhaps with height and athletic gifts, Hopkins focused on basketball first. He began playing organized football as a junior and as a result, wasn’t heavily recruited. But because of his bloodline — not just name recognition but the size and athleticism — Hopkins couldn’t be totally off the national radar in spite of making only 11 catches as a senior. And it was his skills as a basketball player, not a football player, that eventually attracted Purdue to have him come play for them … as a football player.
Gerad Parker, the Boilermakers’ recruiting coordinator at the time and currently the interim head coach, told the Washington (Ind.) Times Herald he offered a scholarship after he watched Hopkins in a pick-up game.
“He drove the baseline and just ripped the rim off the hinges, almost,” Parker said. “I was like, there you go.”
Hopkins, the son of former Tennessee Titans tackle Brad Hopkins, only took up football as a high school junior. Therefore, he did not have a big reputation in recruiting circles. Rivals.com rated him a two-star prospect. 247 Sports saw him as a three-star prospect.
He ultimately drew interest from a number of schools. Florida made him an offer after he committed to Purdue but he stuck with his first choice.
Another alternate reality would be to think of what would have happened if Hopkins had chosen to go to a traditional powerhouse to spurn one of the worst programs in division-I at the time. Purdue had gone 1-11 in 2013 under first-year head coach Darrell Hazell, then 3-9 and 2-10 in the following two seasons.
Hopkins redshirted during that 2-10 season, then caught 10 passes for 183 yards and four touchdowns in 2016. Despite his lack of playing time, Hopkins finished second on the team in touchdown catches. His quarterback was David Blough, who you may remember as the QB who shockingly made five starts for the Detroit Lions last year when injuries struck the top two options. Blough was a fun story, but went 0-5.
He also threw 21 interceptions for Purdue in 2016.
The team mixed in Elijah Sindelar at QB in 2017 and improved to 7-6, the first year under new head coach Jeff Brohm. Hopkins caught 25 passes for 349 yards and three touchdowns. The formula was mostly the same in 2018 and Hopkins improved to 34 catches, 583 yards, but only two scores. His 17.1 yards per catch average led the team and was third-best in the Big Ten after Terry McLaurin at Ohio State and K.J. Hamler at Penn State.
McLaurin had a fantastic rookie season and Hamler was the 46th overall pick this year. The Lions used the eighth overall pick on tight end T.J. Hockenson last year (to pair him with Blough, of course) and while there’s plenty that separates Hockenson from Hopkins, their 2018 campaigns in the Big Ten were statistically similar: 49 catches, 760 yards, 15.5 YPC, six touchdowns for Hockenson at Iowa.
While Brohm didn’t get the results he wanted in the W-L column last season (4-8), there were some individual successes. True freshman receiver David Bell made national headlines (86 catches, 1,035 yards), but somewhat in his shadow, Hopkins had done more than just catch up to what Hockenson had done a year before:
61 catches, 830 yards, seven touchdowns. For a 4-8 team with Jack Plummer (no relation to Jake, unfortunately) at QB, plus Aidan O’Connell, and Sindelar. The Boilermakers threw the ball a lot and Hopkins helped get them down the field a few times. He was name a co-captain. He had a 10-catch, 140-yard game against Maryland, most by a Purdue TE in either case since Tim Stratton in 2001 and Dustin Keller in 2007.
He had eight catches, 127 yards, and two touchdowns against Wisconsin. And eight for 142 and two more scores against Indiana.
Hopkins finished fifth in the Big Ten in receptions, 10th in receiving yards, and tied seventh in touchdowns. First among tight ends in all those categories. He was the Big Ten’s tight end of the year and a first-team All-American by several major publications. But he still had plenty left to prove during draft season, none of which may be bigger than his one-dimensional potential as a receiving tight end with a drops issue.
Not a minor red flag. But also not a typical prospect or athlete.
If not for a shocking time by the 258-pound Albert Okwuegbunam (4.49), Hopkins could have tied as the fastest tight end at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine. At 6’5, 245 pounds, Hopkins ran a 4.66, same as the 248-pound Stephen Sullivan.
In the last 10 years, there’ve been some really good tight ends in the same height, weight, and 40-yard range as what Hopkins posted:
Tyler Eifert, 6’5, 250, 4.68
Dennis Pitta, 6’4, 245, 4.68
Hayden Hurst, 6’4, 250, 4.67
Mark Andrews, 6’5, 256, 4.67
Lance Kendricks, 6’3, 243, 4.65
Julius Thomas, 6’5, 246, 4.64
He’s faster than Rob Gronkowski (barely, and at 19 pounds lighter) and taller than Aaron Hernandez (by three inches, but roughly the same speed and weight) and this is a good way to get drafted. He’s got the size. He’s got the speed. He even had production. If you line him up against Andrews and compare their athleticism and college stats, you won’t get much separation. Andrews was a third round pick, Hopkins is a fourth round pick. It’s all there. But there are also plenty of names who I didn’t mention on that list of six names above.
Hopkins is an athletic receiving tight end with the potential to be a high-volume ‘U’ tight end at the next level. While he’s a work in progress as a blocker, his speed, body control and route-running abilities should see him be high in command in a class that doesn’t have a lot of top-end talent at his position.
For all the upside that Hopkins brings as a pass-catcher, he still needs to get better as a blocker. His pad level could use some work, as he isn’t great at sinking his hips into contact and staying low when engaged with a defender. His grip strength is decent at best, and he doesn’t have the nastiest of edges as a run blocker.
Drops have also been an issue Hopkins has dealt with from time to time. His film has a handful of double-catches in it, as well as just straight up drops. If he wants to make it into that upper echelon of tight ends in the NFL, then he will have to work on his hands a bit.
From The Draft Network:
NFL COMP – Jared Cook
While his hands must become more consistent, Hopkins profiles nicely as a receiving threat at the next level. His route running skills are advanced and he has excellent ball skills. While he lacks the mass and power to be an impact blocker, Hopkins demonstrates great effort and brings the fight on every rep. Hopkins does have the upside to start in the NFL and at a minimum should be a quality No. 2 option that thrives in 12 personnel sets.
From another writer at The Draft Network:
NFL Comparison: Vance McDonald
Summary: Brycen Hopkins is a Day 2 candidate for a team looking for a primary target at the TE position who can create explosive plays up the seam or after the catch. Hopkins’ ability to create mismatches against base defenses will be attractive to NFL teams looking for more receiving juice from the tight end position, and his athleticism illustrates a high NFL ceiling as a receiver — but he underwhelms as a blocker, which limits how many snaps he can take early, and inconsistent hands could leave him a bit disappointing as a high-volume target. Hopkins will contribute in Year 1 and can become an impact starter by Year 2 as teams figure out his best usage.
Needing a blocker perhaps more than anything else, the LA Rams selected a player who does almost literally “anything else.” With the 136th pick of the 2020 draft, the Rams selected Hopkins to become their TE3 next season and the eventual replacement for Gerald Everett when he becomes a free agent in 2021. Hopkins can use the time between then to become familiar with the offense, to get comfortable with Jared Goff as a passer, and to ask his under-appreciated father advice on how to improve as a blocker.
Though there aren’t many people pushing for any tight end in the class of 2020 to become a star, and Hopkins was taken after quite a few, many see a future with him as a starter. We just have to remember that not all starters, are stars. Or well known by other teams. Or well respected by other teams.
But they all hope to be respected by their teams, at least.