Injuries in football are upsetting to see. With such a high level of physicality to the game, great teams and talented players can be wiped out completely just by virtue of bad luck. In 2007, the New England Patriots had arguably the best team of all time. The only team to ever go 16-0 in the regular season; the ’07 Patriots won decisively in the playoffs before coming within a field goal of capping off an elusive perfect season. This was no fluke either: the Patriots had a dominant, championship-caliber roster, with a total of nine All-Pros, including QB Tom Brady, WR Randy Moss, and DT Vince Wilfork.
#Texans WR Will Fuller, who broke his collarbone on Wed., expected to be out until at least October, maybe November, sources say. 2-3 months
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 3, 2017
The following year, the team was largely intact. With Brady, Moss, and Wilfork all there, and key pieces like LB Jerod Mayo added in the offseason, the Patriots looked poised for a repeat. However, everything changed before the season even got fully underway. Early in the Patriots’ Week 1 showdown with the Kansas City Chiefs, Brady tore his ACL on a low hit from blitzing Chiefs’ safety Bernard Pollard. With that, it was all over. One quarter into the season, and the Patriots’ hopes of repeating 2007’s perfection were gone. With Matt Cassel at the helm, the Patriots finished with a 11-5 record, improbably missing the playoffs.
Football injuries, like Brady’s ACL tear, diminish the quality of the NFL product, and add a bizarre element of luck that can affect teams and players for entire seasons and beyond. No injuries, however, are more disappointing than the ones that happen before the season even starts. Regularly, impact players are taken out as early as in training camp, and the league’s youngest players often end up paying the biggest price. Bengals’ CB William Jackson III and Bears’ WR Kevin White are two examples of talented athletes that lost full seasons of valuable development to injury before even getting a chance to start their respective careers. This year, the injury bug is particularly bad, as young players like RB Kenneth Dixon, WR Mike Williams, and G Forrest Lamp are all due to miss extended time. However, factoring in both the lost game experience , and the need to surround a rookie quarterback with weapons, no injury may end up being costlier than Houston Texans’ WR Will Fuller V’s broken collar bone.
What Will Fuller Brings to the Texans
When the Texans signed QB Brock Osweiler last year, it was obvious that they intended for him to be a gunslinger in an explosive vertical offense. As a result, they drafted Will Fuller in the first round to complement DeAndre Hopkins. While Hopkins is a physical route-runner with strong hands that thrives on intermediate routes, Fuller is a burner. With both blinding 4.32 speed and a sharp vertical route tree, Fuller is the perfect player to build a deep-passing scheme around. Hence, he thrived early in his rookie season. Through the first four weeks, Fuller accrued over 300 receiving yards and two touchdowns, as well as another touchdown as a punt returner. With Hopkins struggling–due in large part to Osweiler’s ineptitude in throwing to underneath routes–DeSean Jackson comparisons were thrown around left and right as Fuller became the next “big thing” in Houston.
Eventually, Fuller slowed down. Due to a combination of injury, adjustment by defenses, and a dramatic mid-year shift to a tight end-centric passing scheme, Fuller finished with just 635 yards in 14 games played. However, he still is a promising player. Despite his weak hands and frequent drops–including a heartbreaker against the Patriots in the Divisional round–Fuller can get open deep, track a deep ball, and also contribute on special teams. Most importantly, however, with rookie QB Deshaun Watson now in the building, Fuller would have been an important cog in allowing Watson to be eased into the NFL game.
At Clemson, every piece in Watson’s offense was there to play a distinct role. Mike Williams, a big, physical target that can work a sideline and thrives on fades, was the primary option. Deon Cain, the “Robin” to Williams’ “Batman” was also vitally important, serving the role of the deep threat. Then, alongside Williams and Cain, Artavis Scott and Hunter Renfrow provided two solid options out of the slot, with the latter also adding some field-stretching ability. This was a rare, diverse supporting cast that allowed Watson to drive Clemson to a national title, and Houston actually had the potential to mimic this before Fuller’s injury.
Hopkins, big, strong, and physical in his own right, fits Williams’ role. Across the field, Fuller, the burner, would play the part of Cain. Braxton Miller, a shifty former quarterback–not unlike Renfrow–would have manned the slot. The Texans even have scat backs like Tyler Ervin and Dare Ogunbawale, and a big tight end in C.J. Fiedorowicz, to fill the respective roles of RB Ray-Ray McCloud and TE Jordan Leggett at Clemson. While not as dominant as Watson’s offense at Clemson, this cast would have significantly eased Watson’s NFL transition, while also allowing him to thrive in his skill set. A talented touch passer, Watson would have worked wonders with a player like Fuller, while also hitting Hopkins on red zone fades. However, if Fuller misses significant time, this entire idea is thrown into disarray.
The Texans’ Offense Without Fuller
Fuller is particularly important because he is really the Texans’ only true deep threat. Even with Deon Cain out at Clemson, players like Renfrow were able to step in. However, this is not really the case in Houston. Although DeAndre Hopkins has the ability to go deep, he rarely does so, and usually only finds success against slower corners, like Darrelle Revis in 2015. Braxton Miller is almost strictly a slot receiver. He is quicker than fast, and mostly makes his money after the catch. Jaelen Strong theoretically fits that role from an athletic standpoint, but he has struggled to adjust to the NFL so far, barely even cracking 150 receiving yards in each of his first two seasons.
Without other “home run hitters” to go around, a removal of Fuller is like a removal of Draymond Green from the Golden State Warriors. He may not be the best player of the group, but his skill set is the most indispensable. With Watson at the helm, this is especially true. Watson does not have the arm or timing to effectively hit tight windows on intermediate routes, so he wouldn’t make a particularly effective game manager. Rather, he needs deep threats to thrive off of his touch and ball placement on deep routes. Furthermore, with tackle Derek Newton still recovering from his double patellar tendon tear, Watson would be swimming in treacherous waters behind a shaky offensive line.
Top alternatives to Will Fuller in #Texans WR corps
HOU could also resort to more 2-TE sets.
— Evan Silva (@evansilva) August 2, 2017
How to Fill Fuller’s Role
Although the free agent market is somewhat thin this time of year, there are still multiple options out there for vertical threats. The most obvious option is Eddie Royal, who still has speed despite his age (31). Although he never produced in Chicago due to injury, he was actually fairly efficient when he was on the field, picking up 369 yards over an injury-plagued nine games last season. However, there are also three younger, more intriguing options. K.D. Cannon, Dorial Green-Beckham, and Kolby Listenbee all feature unique skill sets. Cannon in particular is interesting, as he was largely expected to be an undrafted steal due to his speed, but has already been cut by two different teams. However, with the concerns surrounding him speculated to be attitude-based as opposed to performance-based, a team like Houston could take a flyer on him. Green-Beckham is also someone to gamble on. Even though he flamed out last season in Philadelphia, he is big, fast, and explosive, and could find a niche similar to Dallas Cowboys’ wideout Brice Butler.
The Texans could also opt to sit and wait. It wouldn’t be easy, but the Texans could try to work with the pieces that they have. Although Hopkins is not known for it, he can work a sideline as well as anyone, and Watson has the touch to hit him on fades and streaks. Jaelen Strong could also take the next step with increased reps and a greater role in games. Furthermore, new options could open up after preseason cuts. If the Bears release undrafted rookie Tanner Gentry, the Texans would be remiss not to give him a long, hard look. Though he doesn’t have Fuller’s speed, Gentry can track a deep ball and has a tremendous downfield catch radius. Fellow undrafted rookie Ishmael Zamora could also be an option if he is cut by the Raiders. Although he is raw, he can play in the vertical route stem and use his 6’4” frame to come down with jump balls.
Will Fuller is not the most complete receiver in the league–far from it. His hands are desperately lacking, and he offers far more in straight-line speed than lateral quickness. However, with that said, he has a specific role on the Texans that is vitally important to Deshaun Watson’s development, and is extremely difficult to fill with anyone else on the roster. Last year, the one piece that Jared Goff desperately needed was a deep threat. Surrounded by receivers like Kenny Britt and Tavon Austin, Goff was forced to play away from his strengths, leading to an abysmal rookie season. Watson, who has a similar skill set to Goff, could see similar struggles early on if Fuller indeed misses “2-3 months,” as he is projected to. This is especially problematic, as Watson is capable of starting from Week 1. He is mechanically sound and makes solid pre-snap reads, so he wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the NFL game. However, without anyone filling Fuller’s role, the Texans may actually have to stick with Tom Savage. Unless the Texans find a stop-gap option like Cannon or Gentry, their offense will likely be greatly restricted, and, more insidiously, their rookie quarterback’s development could be delayed.