The Promise of Will Fuller

Texans wide receiver Will Fuller played in seven games last season and he seemed healthy for maybe three of them.

Fuller, 25 in April, is a breed of player that I would argue has become more and more rare as teams have gotten deeper into sports science and nutrition. The team has every incentive to keep him on the field, but they can’t.

His ACL tear against the Dolphins in Week 8 was unfortunate, but even outside of the ACL, there were 33 separate Rotoworld updates on the status of his hip and hamstring over the first eight weeks of 2018. Fuller had knee surgery after the 2017 season, a season in which he also missed time due to cracked ribs and a broken collarbone suffered in training camp. The leg and hamstring problems also bothered Fuller in his rookie season, forcing him to miss a couple games. As much as I’ve joked in the past about how the NFL seems to overworry about how a player’s body looks from a scouting perspective, Fuller was heavily dinged for his skinny build coming out of Notre Dame. Not just his overall build, but his legs in particular. So far, those concerns have been realized.

Last year, Fuller took a massive step forward on the field. I would argue, in fact, that his numbers even underrate how good he was because he essentially played decoy while his hamstring was bothering him. Fuller led all non-qualified receivers in Football Outsiders’ DYAR in 2018, and his DVOA in 2017 ranked him 17th in the NFL despite playing several of those games with Tom Savage. In six starts with Savage after Watson tore his ACL in 2017, Fuller managed just 144 total receiving yards.

Nearly a third of Fuller’s targets in 2018 came on Curl or Comeback routes, per Sports Info Solutions charting. He builds enough respect with his speed that this should be a staple play of the offense. Here’s one example of it in Week 3 against the Giants:

I don’t think Fuller gets enough credit for how few drops he’s committed over the past couple of years. He only had two in 2017 per Sports Info Solutions. Last year? Zero. Now that’s not to say that he’s not ever going to drop a pass again, but it’s a lot less of a weakness than I thought it’d be in 2016. This particular catch against the Giants showcased a nice ability to make a play on a short ball. Here’s another catch that Fuller’s speed manufactured against the Colts in Week 4

The Colts come out with a quarters look, but transfer over to Cover-3. Fuller sells his deep speed so well on this play that the corner gets completely turned around respecting Fuller’s deep speed. The only question on this corner route was if Watson was going to be able to sneak it in before Fuller went out of bounds.

Here’s a complete list of every post-merger NFL receiver to have 11 touchdowns in his second and third season in the NFL while playing 17 or fewer games: Will Fuller, Kenny Britt. If you expand that list to 24 games (giving a player a half-season off), here’s how that expands:

Chris Henry AND Kenny Britt? What a list.

When I create a list like this I play around with a lot of splits to try to find what I think is the right control group of players — the hard thing about comparing Fuller to most of these receivers is the lack of receptions. The comparison that actually wound up ringing the most true to me, both stylistically and statistically, was Marvin Jones. Jones wound up with 51 receptions in his second season alone — even despite being surrounded with A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Mohammed Sanu, and Jermaine Gresham. Jones then missed his entire third season to ankle and foot issues. Players like Britt and Chris Henry hit on off-field scenarios that Fuller isn’t dealing with. Players like Julio Jones and Watkins, I would argue, had better pedigree and delivered more immediately.

Houston’s passing game going forward is one that has a lot of no-brainer situations to me. Deshaun Watson deserves to have the Brinks truck backed up in front of his house. DeAndre Hopkins is going to be a star as long as he stays healthy. Keke Coutee is going to be, at worst, a good slot receiver. The offensive tackle position needs to be sledgehammered and rebuilt. These are all positions that, give or take a grade of effectiveness, I think most rational people can agree on. Fuller is the element of this passing game that is entirely volatile.

From a contractual standpoint, Fuller is intriguing because he’s up against a lot of things the NFL typically values highly. He’s not healthy. He hasn’t been consistent from game-to-game. At the same time, he has so much going on from a scouting perspective that offers value — the speed, the ability to take safeties with him, the effortless way he changes gears. Jadeveon Clowney’s franchise tag situation has been interesting to watch and project on to Fuller, because I’d argue they had a similar beginning to their careers even if imagining them as the same is kind of funny because of the body disparity. They both make things look incredibly easy when they’re on. When they win big it’s a splash play that can change the entire game. But the injuries and inconsistencies are real.

If Fuller plays a healthy 16-game season in 2019, I think we might be talking about a top-10 NFL receiver. What’s it worth to have two of those on the same team at the same time, and what’s it worth if you can’t count on one of them to stay there? The fifth-year option debate with Fuller is going to be pretty easy — the second-contract one is going to inform a lot about the Texans cap situation and offense going forward, and it may be a significant risk for them no matter how good Fuller is.

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