The Houston Texans' offense runs a whole lot better with a healthy Will Fuller lined up at the wide receiver position opposite DeAndre Hopkins. If you have a working set of eyeballs and/or access to any stats website, then you are aware of this. I'll trust your eyeballs work, but if you need access to some numbers to backup this scalding hot take by me, here you go:
DeShaun Watson splits w/ and w/o Will Fuller in the lineup. Just 2019 on left and career on right. When Fuller is on the field, Watson takes it to another level pic.twitter.com/yf3yGojC4v— David Willsey FF (@willson8tor) December 11, 2019
We saw another example of the dichotomy between a Fuller-ful and a Fuller-less offense in this past Saturday's game in Tampa Bay. Somehow, the Texans found a way to win a game in which they were nearly doubled in total yardage. Not all opposing quarterbacks are going to be as giving as Jameis Winston was last weekend, though. Certainly, once the playoffs roll around, the Texans will need to move the football better than they did Saturday, and they'll have to do it, at least early on in the postseason, without Fuller's services:
#Texans speedy WR Will Fuller’s groin injury will keep him off the field in Week 17 and is likely a three-week injury, sources say following tests. Fuller has an outside chance to play in their first playoff game and will likely be available if they win and advance.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 23, 2019
This Fuller "soft tissue injury" thing is a problem, and unfortunately, it's become so repetitive that complaining about it feels redundant and unnecessary, like complaining about humidity in Houston in July and August. Like that oppressive weather, Fuller going out with nagging injuries for weeks at a time is a given. It is what it is.
The question becomes "How do you deal with it?" Dealing with the humidity successfully is pretty easy — stay inside in the air conditioning, or build a swimming pool. Dealing with the Fuller stuff isn't as simple as avoiding it or buying new toys. It must be confronted head on with (presumably) only the resources on this roster providing solutions.
Let's dig into the big questions on this Fuller deal...
Can Bill O'Brien scheme around Will Fuller's absence?
Unfortunately, there is very little evidence right now that O'Brien can have the Texans' offense performing at even a C+ level without Fuller in the lineup, which boggles the mind when you consider the talent on the revamped offensive line, an All-World No. 1 wide receiver (yeah, Fuller isn't even the number ONE wideout on this team!) in DeAndre Hopkins, and a quarterback firmly in the top eight in the entire league. It becomes even more frustrating when you watch the Texans play a team like the Bucs this past weekend, who were missing TWO Pro Bowl wide receivers, and still managed to gain 329 yards through the air. At this point, the pressure is squarely on O'Brien to scheme the Texans into some productivity. It's inexcusable that Fuller's absence brings things to a screeching halt with this much talent on the roster.
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What are the available solutions in Fuller's absence?
Barring the McNair family putting all of their souls into a bag and selling them to Satan himself, and then calling Drew Rosenhaus to sign Antonio Brown, the solutions will have to exist on the current roster. Kenny Stills has had a nice season as a third wide receiver complement to Hopkins and Fuller, but when he's been asked to bump into the role of "sole deep threat" with Fuller out, it has not gone well. Keke Coutee flashing the promise of the two games against the Colts in his rookie season would be a welcome development, hell, almost a necessary one, at this point. DeAndre Carter made a big play down the field against the Bucs, but he isn't the answer over the course of 70 or 75 snaps. Again, this will go back to O'Brien utilizing all of the skills of Watson in the run-pass option game, and staying away from being predictable offensively in order to go get the 30 points this team will need to beat good teams in the postseason. And that's a scary thought, if you're a Texans fan.
Does J.J. Watt's (possibly) coming back on defense balance any of this out?
For what it's worth, O'Brien didn't dismiss nor deny the likelihood of Watt's return in his Monday press conference, he just sidestepped it altogether. The report from Rapoport over the weekend was that the Texans "expect" Watt back for the playoffs. Unfortunately, as great as Watt is, as glaring a need as Watt's skills are, unless O'Brien takes a big step up as an offensive architect/play caller, Watt's return doesn't cancel out Fuller's absence. It will be nice to have Watt back, assuming it happens, but with Watt and no Fuller, the ceiling for the Texans is still pretty much the same as not having Watt at all. A healthy Fuller makes this an elite offense.
What's Fuller's future long term?
Right now, he is slated to come back in 2020 on the fifth year option of his rookie deal, so if there is one silver lining in all of these pulls, strains, and tears that Fuller has suffered it's that they don't have to make a decision on a long term contract with him this offseason. They have enough on their plate with trying to bring back Whitney Mercilus, D.J. Reader, and Bradley Roby, and extending Laremy Tunsil and Deshaun Watson. Fuller's camp can't complain one bit if the Texans decide to make him prove he can stay healthy in a contract year in 2020. I doubt the Texans would move on from Fuller altogether for 2020, he's just too valuable when healthy. However, it wouldn't shock me if depth at wide receiver was something they targeted in free agency, with a plug and play veteran who can pick up the playbook quickly.