In perhaps the biggest move of the off-season, Texans star wide receiver Deandre ‘Nuke’ Hopkins was traded to the Arizona Cardinals in return for running back David Johnson, a 2020 second-round pick and a 2021 fourth-round pick.
While the removal of one of the NFL’s most dangerous weapons would be a severe handicap to most teams, and I’m sure the Houston will miss the impact of Nuke in 2020, the Texans have Will Fuller ready to step out of Hopkins’ shadow and into the role of WR1 this upcoming season.
Drafted in 2016, Fuller has shown flashes of what he’s capable of – that being an incredibly dangerous weapon and number one target for Deshaun Watson. Fuller’s rookie year, he came out of the gate hot; posting back to back 100+ yard games in Weeks 1 and 2. In 2017, Fuller caught 5 balls for 125 yards and 2 touchdowns away to the Seattle Seahawks. In 2018, Fuller had three 100+ yard games. And in his most recent season, Fuller exploded in Week 5 recording 217 yards and 3 touchdowns on 14 receptions.
With Fuller’s explosive ability in mind, it’s important to note that through a combination of injury, as well as inconsistent play, the Texans WR has never been able to string together a solid campaign. The Texans speedster has taken part in 42 out of a possible 64 games for Houston, missing 22 in the process. Fuller’s most recent injury history includes hamstring and groin injuries that forced him to miss time in 2019. On top of that, Fuller missed a lot of time in 2018 – only playing 7 games – due to a torn ACL. An injury which Fuller has seemingly made a full recovery from.
Looking at Fuller on paper, at the stats and his injury history, he appears to be a typical boom or bust type of athlete. However, with players, such as Tyreek Hill, falling into the similar archetype of Fuller being utilised more efficiently year on year, there is hope that he can find some consistency in the near future.
Sign of things to come
With all that said, let’s take a look at Fuller’s most recent top game – that 217-yard outing against the Falcons in Week 5 of 2019 – and see just what makes him so special, as well as how he can slot into that number 1 receiver role for Houston in 2020.
Here we join Houston at the start of the second quarter on 1st & 10. It’s play-action which affords Watson the time needed for the two-deep crossing routes ran by Fuller and Hopkins to develop – the Falcons only sending 3 defensive lineman also aides this process.
The corner at the bottom of the screen does a good job at playing Fuller inside. To create separation, Fuller pulls off a, barely noticeable, deft double move before making his definitive cut across the field. The switch to the S is too late and Fuller makes the solid catch in the endzone for 6. Just an example of Fuller’s deep threat ability coupled with a nice bit of route running to create a nice bit of separation.
Next, we’ll look at a concept Houston utilised a great deal this game called bunch tight sets, or, in this case, stacks. Here we see Houston originally lined up in a bunch tight set at the bottom of the screen. Watson sends the man in motion to identify the Falcons playing man to man coverage. This leaves Hopkins and Fuller stacked up together.
After the ball is snapped, Hopkins acts as a jammer to ensure Fuller gets a free release to the outside on his out route – horrible CB play from Isaiah Oliver also helps. Fuller makes the catch and has a nice bit of R.A.C. for a 36-yard completion.
A bit later on, as the Texans approach the end zone, we see Hopkins and Fuller stacked up once again. However this time, the play is an RPO as we see the offensive line begin run blocking to the right side of the field. The Falcons linebackers shift entirely to the right as a result and Watson opts to pass to Fuller on the screen pass.
Once the ball is in his hands, Fuller shows some nice run after catch ability in a tight amount of space, resulting in being tackled inches away from the plane.
Notice how these pass plays are designed for Fuller to receive the ball and Hopkins to act as the decoy. Sure, this is probably the case due to Hopkins being the focus of the Falcons D – leaving Fuller with less defensive attention. However, these two concepts shown could both work for Hopkins just as well as they did for Fuller.
The final clip of Fuller we’ll look at is perhaps the most important one. It’s the 2-minute warning late in the 4th quarter and the game is still in the balance 40 – 32 in favour of the Texans. If the Texans don’t convert here on 3rd & 5, then Matty Ice and co. will have a chance to tie the game up.
Fuller goes in motion to once again create that stack look. However, this time, the Falcons defend Fuller with the close defender, instead of allowing Hopkins to act as a blocker and giving Fuller a free release. Fuller doesn’t expect the close defender to cover him, preventing the out-route. Consequently, Fuller plays a little backyard football and spins down the field – burning his man in the process and scoring the TD to ice the game.
A veteran, explosive play which, if Fuller can be consistent in executing, can make him one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL. Neat play-calling and play design by Bill O’Brien helped Fuller explode for over 200 yards against the Falcons. If Fuller can stay healthy and O’Brien remain competent in his scheming then expect much more of this in 2020.
Texans Reciever Room
Bill O’Brien went out and added the talents of Randall Cobb and Brandin Cooks in free-agency. While both of these players are solid depth to have, as well as a nice veteran presence, they are not the players you sign to replace a talent like Nuke Hopkins.
Although Cooks may have been a WR1 a few seasons ago, injury, concussion issues and age have all had their cruel effects on the speedster. Cobbs’ status is similar to Cooks’. After enjoying a solid comeback season in Dallas – 828 yards and 3 touchdowns on 55 receptions – Cobb is looking to establish himself as a nice depth option and mentor to both Fuller and slot WR Keke Coutee.
If O’Brien were to opt for a more ‘receiver by committee’ approach – that would be understandable. Fuller, Cooks, Kenny Stills, Coutee and Cobb comprise a nice receiver corps. Stills, in particular, poses the highest level of threat when it comes to dethroning Fuller as WR1 this year. Underrated yet a consistent contributor, Stills has constantly been productive wherever he’s gone. However, what Stills makes up for in reliability and steady play, he lacks in explosiveness. Defences don’t gameplan around Kenny Stills – they should around Will Fuller.
Fuller is not just a one-hit-wonder, he is showing signs, season upon season, that he can accomplish great things in the NFL. However, injury and a lack of consistency have been two of Fuller’s largest weaknesses. Fuller has to step up big this season now he is out of Nuke’s shadow. DeShaun Watson and the Texans are counting on it. After flashing multiple times, Fuller has to make the leap out of the shadows and into the spotlight.