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NFL Draft

What Do Houston Texans Need From Will Fuller In 2020?

  • The Draft Network
  • June 17, 2020
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Back in 2015, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins was finishing up his second 1,000-yard season with the Houston Texans, logging a career-high 1,521 receiving yards, which ranked third in the league behind Julio Jones and Antonio Brown. The Texans earned a playoff berth that season—mostly because of Hopkins carrying the offense—but lost in the Wild Card round for the second straight year. This caused them to set their sights on getting some help for Hopkins and the rest of the offense via the NFL Draft.

They say you can’t teach speed, but the better phrase for the game of football might be you can’t guard it. The Texans had Hopkins as their star, but he needed help; not just any help. Not simply another veteran body to bring experience to the group. They needed a player who could bring stress to the defense; a player who could truly open up the field for Hopkins and the rest of the offense.

The man they believed could do that for them was Notre Dame’s Will Fuller.

Entering the 2016 NFL Draft, Fuller was coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons for the Irish. Maybe more important than that was the fact that he was coming off two seasons where he scored 15 and 14 touchdowns respectively. And maybe even more important than that was his 17.4 yards-per-catch average, amplified by his 4.32 40-yard dash (best time at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2016 for a wide receiver). All that is why the Texans chose to make Fuller their first choice in the first round that year.

When he’s been on the field, it’s hard to argue Fuller hasn’t done exactly what the Texans have asked of him. Note the following:

In 2017, Fuller's second season, he became the first player since 1991 to reach seven receiving touchdowns on 11 catches or fewer. That same season (Deshaun Watson's rookie year), Fuller and Hopkins combined for 20 receiving touchdowns, which was the most by a pair of teammates in franchise history. Fuller was also the first Texans player to catch 10 touchdowns in his first 25 games.

Since 2016, Fuller’s presence has certainly opened up the offense for both Hopkins and now franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson. But the issue here is that his presence isn’t present as much as the team wishes it was. 

Four seasons in and Fuller has yet to top 1,000 yards receiving in a single year. This isn’t due to lack of production, it’s due to a lack of games played. In those four seasons, Fuller has never played in more than 13 games in a single year (which was his rookie season) and is currently coming off just an 11-game season in 2019. Over the years, Fuller has suffered a broken collarbone, multiple hamstring injuries that have forced him to miss time since 2016, and a torn ACL in 2017.

The encouraging news for Fuller is that before his ACL tear in 2018, he was on pace to top the 1,000-yard mark (having already recorded more than 100 yards in three of his seven games), haul in around nine touchdowns, and average a YPC number that would’ve been top 15 in the league. When he returned in 2019, he even recorded his first 200-yard game, catching 14 of his 16 targets that day.

All of that as background information is to say that, to this point, Fuller has been enough for the Texans despite his availability issues. Watson and Hopkins have thrived, and the Texans’ offense has been in the top half of the league over the last two years.

But now they need him to do more.

The most shocking move of the 2020 offseason was the Texans shipping off Hopkins for not much offensive help in return—not a good recipe for a young franchise quarterback building momentum. The Texans did bring in Brandin Cooks and veteran Randall Cobb, but Cobb is not the receiver he was during his heyday with the Packers, and Cooks is coming off the least productive season of his career.

The No. 1 receiver role in Houston won’t be filled by either of them, or by the speedy Kenny Stills, who is also on the roster. It must be filled by Fuller. But can it be?

If you want the classic Will Fuller highlights, they aren’t hard to find. Just head over to YouTube and you’ll be able to see countless examples of what Fuller can do when he’s given open space. But that last part is what is likely going to change, and is the main component of a discussion regarding whether or not Fuller can be a true WR1.

Fuller can take the top off a defense. He’s been one of the best deep-threat receivers in the game for three years now. That’s exactly what he was drafted to be as a complement to Hopkins—when Hopkins got the extra set of eyes in coverage via safeties or linebackers, it was on Fuller to beat single coverage on the other side. Fuller did that and continues to do that very well, but heading into 2020 those extra eyes won’t be on another receiver, they’ll now be on Fuller full time.

The play above is a good example of what Fuller does really well and also what he’ll be up against moving forward. In the play above, Fuller was lined up as the outside receiver on the left side of the offense. Hopkins was lined up on the right. The Texans were facing single-high coverage on the back end, and knowing that both Fuller and Hopkins were running deeper routes, they knew they’d put that safety in a bind. Their plan was to throw the ball to wherever the safety was not. If he helped on Fuller, they’d throw to Hopkins; if Hopkins, then Fuller. 

The safety chose to double up on Hopkins, something that has been the norm over the last three years. That left Fuller and his man in a foot race with no help over the top, a situation in which Fuller rarely loses.

But moving forward there won’t be as many foot races for Fuller. Instead, he’ll have that safety now watching his route and putting a lid on where his open space can be. That will be an adjustment for Fuller, though I would also point out in the clip above that Fuller isn’t shy on contact. Though he is known as a speed receiver, he still has good strength at the catch point to bring passes down with defenders around him. This gives some faith to the fact that, though he’ll get extra looks on his deep routes, there’s still a worthwhile chance he can come down with the ball.

Along with extra attention from safeties, Fuller will probably see more press coverage as a result of each team’s top cornerback now targeting him on a week-to-week basis. As stated before, Fuller can be physical, so I don’t see this as a liability, rather something he’ll just have to adjust to. 

Fuller isn’t just going to do what Hopkins did. For as valuable as he can be as a receiver, that’s not his game. The Texans will still use Fuller in ways that get the most out of his game. If healthy, I still think that translates to a potential 1,000-yard receiver, especially with the likes of Stills, Cooks, and Cobb around him.

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