What do we make of Will Fuller's rookie season for the Houston Texans?
It's a broad question that depends in part on what your expectations were coming into the season for the rookie first rounder out of Notre Dame, and on how much of any underperformance by Fuller can be attributed to the horrific quarterback play he endured all season. So, in short, the answer isn't easy, but if I had to categorize the mood on Fuller from the callers to my radio show and the general Twitter chatter, I'd say it's "slight disappointment sprinkled with cautious optimism," which is fair.
Let's start with the positives:
1. Fuller was very good early in the season, going more than 100 yards in his first two games as a pro, and averaging more than 80 yards per game for his first four games. Additionally, he flashed the ability to impact the return game with the winning touchdown on a punt return against the Titans in Week 4. In short, we know he can do this!
2. When the Patriots, in Week 3, gave the rest of the league the answer key on how to stifle the Texans offense — jam Fuller and Hopkins at the line and keep safeties over the top, and dare everyone else to do anything — it was pretty much the end of any impact deep down the field for Fuller. (Sidebar — getting Fuller stretching the field again has to be a focus item for "new Texans OC" Bill O'Brien.) I will credit him, though, for finding a way most weeks to make a couple of plays that helped move the chains or improve field position. He became a better intermediate receiver as the year went on. In the process, he showed toughness, at times taking big hits — another positive.
3. He might be the Texans' most dangerous kick returner, which is something the team should explore more with him next season, especially if there are still quarterback issues. There's no reason to protect him from work in the return game just so he can get four or five targets in the intermediate area each week.
4. By all accounts, Fuller is a guy who is going to work very hard to improve this offseason, with a real love for football and a high football IQ (despite a few decisions in the return game that may indicate otherwise).
Now, the negatives:
1. For most Texans fans, this section should just be a picture of Fuller's hands and then a bitmoji of them dropping a mike. Fuller's drop rate, while unsatisfactory (5.4 percent on 92 targets, seventh worst among wide receivers with 50 or more targets), was mostly stacked up in the first half of the season. Yes, the drop in the New England playoff game was a killer, so the recency and the impact of that will hang over Fuller like a cloud in any assessment, and probably should. That said, and I know full well this is no justification for Fuller, but his drop rate wasn't even the worst on the team — Braxton Miller (7.1 percent on 28 targets) and C.J. Fiedorowicz (5.6 percent on 89 targets) were worse. How's that taste, Texans fans?
2. Fuller is a smaller receiver. I don't know if that had anything to do with his injury issues, which included a knee and a hamstring, or his performance issues over the second half of the season, but he definitely needs to put on a few more GOOD pounds, just enough to where his speed stays elite.
3. As good as it looked at the beginning of the season, the trend was not Fuller's friend. Over his final ten games, Fuller averaged just 31 yards a game and had no touchdowns. Again, he was playing for a historically bad offense with an über-historically bad quarterback, but the numbers are what they are.
Anybody who has assessed the Texans from a personal standpoint over the footprint of Rick Smith's tenure as GM has pointed out the team's success in the first round of the draft. There are a long line of first round picks going back to 2008 who have all become productive players and, remarkably, are all still with the team.
When you rattle off the names, all are better players than Will Fuller. However, if you sit for a brief review of history, not all had better ROOKIE seasons than Fuller's rookie season. In fact, far from it. So let's rank, in ascending order, the Texans' first round picks since 2008 in order of the quality of their rookie season, and then determine where we would put Fuller.
Here we go...
8. KAREEM JACKSON, CB (2010, 20th overall)
Texans fans were ready to run Jackson out of town after his rookie season in 2010, after he continually gave up big play after big play, and was a big reason the Texans pass defense was among the worst in the league that season. As it turns out, it wasn't entirely Jackson's fault, since he wasn't done any favors by his position coach (David Gibbs) and the inexperience around him (Glover Quin, in his second year in the league, was the opposite CB). The Texans wisely addressed both issues in the offseason, upgrading to Wade Phillips (DC) and Vance Joseph (DB coach) on the staff, and signing five-year vet Johnathan Joseph as a free agent. Joseph took Jackson under his wing, and Jackson steadily improved to where he eventually signed a second contract two seasons ago, something nobody would have predicted after his disastrous rookie year.
7. JADEVEON CLOWNEY, OLB (2014, 1st overall)
Clowney's rookie season was one of the most frustrating in the history of Texans rookies, but not because of underperformance. Clowney's rookie season was marked by injury, fear and immaturity. It started with his first regular season game, when he tore his meniscus after his foot
got caught in one of Satan's seams in the NRG Stadium turf landed awkwardly on a leap to block a pass. He would come back several weeks later before shutting it down entirely to get microfracture surgery. It didn't help that Khalil Mack, the player most comparable to Clowney from a position and skill standpoint in the 2014 draft, was winning Rookie of the Year awards, and it really didn't help when the only news Clowney made in the subsequent offseason was when he got bitten by D.J. Swearinger's dog. It's all water under the bridge now, as Clowney finished the 2016 season as one of the top ten defensive players in the sport.
6. WHITNEY MERCILUS, OLB (2012, 26th overall)
Of all the rookies on this list, including Clowney, the one who took the longest to self-actualize was probably Mercilus, who flashed here and there his first three seasons, but was largely "just a guy" out there. That's probably a big reason that the Texans were able to (wisely, as it turns out) lock him in at what is now a below-market deal for a double-digit sack guy before 2015, the season in which he truly arrived with 12.5 sacks. As for his rookie year, Mercilus did have six sacks, but he was a backup to Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin all year, and his sacks seemed to be largely of the "someone had to make the tackle, hey, Whitney is right there!" variety. Four years later, Mercilus might be one of the biggest bargains in the AFC.
5. DUANE BROWN, T (2008, 26th overall)
In a tackle-heavy 2008 draft, Brown was the seventh offensive tackle selected in the first round, a morsel of trivia that would turn out to be a big motivator for the 26th overall pick out of Virginia Tech. However, as with many rookie offensive linemen, it wasn't easy right away. While Brown started all 16 games his rookie season (the first Texans rookie to start an entire season on the offensive line since Chester Pitts in 2002), he split snaps, at times, with veteran Ephraim Salaam. Brown was inconsistent that rookie season, but in his second year, he grabbed hold of the position and protected Matt Schlub's blind side in back-to-back 4,000-plus-yard passing seasons in 2009 and 2010. (Must note that Brown did miss four games in 2010 with a PED suspension.) Brown would go on to garner 2nd team All-Pro honors in 2011 and 1st team All-Pro in 2012.
4. DeANDRE HOPKINS, WR (2013, 27th overall)
Despite the obvious differences in their skill sets, Hopkins and Fuller had remarkably similar rookie years. Like Fuller, Hopkins was hugely impactful in his first two NFL games, both Texans wins, in grabbing 5 passes for 66 yards in the season opener at San Diego, and catching 7 passes for 117 yards and the winning touchdown in overtime against the Titans. Unfortunately, like the Texans in 2013, we would see the best of Hopkins in the first two games. The next 14 games, all Texans losses, would be marked by a Schaub-Keenum yo-yo at quarterback, which was an overall drain on the team and a dynamic that didn't help a rookie receiver trying to find his way, as Hopkins averaged just 44 yards per game the rest of the season with one touchdown. Hopkins would progress to Pro Bowl caliber in years two and three with 1,210 yards and 1,521 yards, respectively.
3. KEVIN JOHNSON, CB (2015, 16th overall)
I will admit, I wanted the Texans to come away from the 2015 draft with Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon, but the Chargers moved up in front of them to the 15th pick, and that was that. As it turns out, it worked out well for the Texans, since they chose to strengthen a strength and draft a third cornerback (and future starter at the position) in Johnson, whose rookie year showed off his stellar coverage skills and solid tackling. If there is one criticism of Johnson, it would be that he seemed to tail off at the end of the year, hitting a rookie wall of sorts. But Johnson was a very solid addition and is (assuming his broken foot is not an ongoing issue) likely a substantial piece of this team's defense for the next decade or so.
2. J.J. WATT, DE (2011, 11th overall)
Believe it or not, there was a time when a healthy J.J. Watt wasn't crushing souls and making worlds surrender. In fact, the first ten games of Watt's career saw him sack the quarterback only 2.5 times, on a defense where there were plenty of other players drawing attention. Don't get me wrong, Watt was a good player (a starter from Day 1, and eventually 2nd team All-NFL on Pro Football Focus in 2011), but he didn't become a destroyer until the 2011 postseason with the pick six against the Bengals and a 2.5-sack, nine-tackle game against the Ravens. After that, he made winning Defensive Player of the Year a virtually annual tradition over the next four seasons.
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1. BRIAN CUSHING, OLB (2009, 15th overall)
That Brian Cushing had not only the best rookie season of any Texans first round pick ever, but also that Brian Cushing's best individual season may have been his rookie year in 2009, both underscore just how confounding and, at times, frustrating a career Cushing has had. That's another post for another time, though. As far as his rookie year in 2009, Cushing was by far the best of the first round picks since 2008, going to his only Pro Bowl and winning AP Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. As an outside linebacker, Cushing had four sacks and four interceptions, and more subjectively brought a snarl and a swagger that was so lacking on the Texans defense to that point that it quite frankly made Cushing feel like some sort of alien. His 2010 season was derailed by a controversial four-game PED suspension, and in 2011 he was moved inside in Wade Phillips's 3-4 defense, a move he took to very well until two gruesome knee injuries sent his career spiraling sideways in 2012 and 2013.
I think the rookie seasons of Cushing, Watt and Johnson are all clearly ahead of Fuller's. Hopkins's season is, conveniently (considering position), a decent comparison, and there are reasons to consider Fuller's season as more encouraging and productive. The impact in the return game is certainly something Hopkins can't replicate, but if the team doesn't use him there going forward, then who cares. I'll slot Fuller behind Hopkins, because of Hopkins's consistency catching the football over Fuller's. Hopkins dropped just two balls as a rookie on virtually the same number of targets (91) Fuller had.
So congratulations, Will Fuller. Your rookie season is fifth among the nine Texans first-round picks since 2008!
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.