Will Fuller

HOUSTON -- Deshaun Watson knows what it’s like to play without Will Fuller, and the Houston Texans quarterback knows he doesn’t want to be in that position.

So after Fuller caught a touchdown last Sunday for the sixth game in a row and Watson was asked about Fuller not being traded before the recent deadline, the quarterback had a quick answer.

“It would have been hell if they would have did that, for sure,” Watson said.

Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson is a lot more effective with receiver Will Fuller on the field:

                     ON       OFF

Action plays   953       855

Yds. per att.   8.8       7.5

TD-INT          58-18   30-16

Total QBR       77.0     64.4

(ESPN Stats & Information)

The numbers show why he feels that way.

In his career, Watson averages 8.8 yards per attempt when Fuller is on the field and 7.5 yards per attempt when he is not. His Total QBR drops from 77.0 with Fuller to 64.4 without.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Watson also takes significantly more shots down the field with Fuller on the field. On passes at least 15 yards downfield, Watson averages 9.5 air yards per attempt. That drops to 8.0 when Fuller is on the sideline. When Fuller is on the field, Watson’s touchdown-to-interception ratio is 3.2, compared to 0.9 when Fuller is not playing.

With numbers like that, it might be surprising that Fuller is even playing on his fifth-year option. But one number also stood out to former head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien: 22, the number of games Fuller missed because of injuries in his first four seasons. Ultimately, the front office decided they could not commit to a long-term deal with a wide receiver who missed so much time.

Midway through the 2020 season, Fuller has made a strong case for that long-term contract. On Wednesday, Watson was asked how valuable Fuller has become to him and the team.

“He’s always been valuable,” Watson said.

The production has always been there for Watson and Fuller when the receiver was healthy, but his consistency and health this season has allowed him to put up the numbers the Texans sought when they drafted him in the first round in 2016. Fuller’s six-game touchdown streak is not only the longest in franchise history, but it is also the longest streak by any player since Antonio Brown for the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers (eight straight games). Through eight games, Fuller already has more touchdowns than he had in either of his last two seasons.

Texans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly said he’s noticed that Fuller has been playing with more confidence this season -- especially after he strung together some strong performances early in the season -- and that has made a difference on the field.

“[He’s] going out there and making those huge plays; it seems he’s good for one or two a game,” Kelly said. “He’s always played fast, but especially the past couple of weeks it appears that he’s playing even faster. Him and Deshaun have done a really good job throughout the past couple of years of building this chemistry and building the relationship that they have, and Will’s doing a great job of going out and producing on Sunday.”

Fuller pointed to that chemistry as one of the reasons for the success, saying this is “the longest I have ever played with a quarterback in my football life.”

Will that continue in 2021? Ultimately, that will be a call for the Texans’ next general manager, whoever that might be. Right now, the Texans have more than $22.5 million committed next season to receivers Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb, although none of Cooks’ salary is guaranteed for either of the two remaining seasons on his contract.

In a contract year, Texans WR Will Fuller is healthy and having his best NFL season. He's typically been productive, but staying on the field has been the biggest challenge.

Fuller's per-game averages in each season:

YEAR    G    REC.    YDS.    TDS

2020    8     4.5      73.8    0.75

2019    11   4.5      60.9    0.27

2018    7     4.6      71.9    0.57

2017    10   2.8      42.3    0.70

2016    14   3.4      45.4    0.14

Career  50   3.8      56.4    0.44

     (Pro Football Reference)

While the Texans took trade offers for Fuller before the trade deadline, the current regime, led by interim general manager Jack Easterby, didn’t get what they believed was an adequate offer -- a second-round pick -- for Fuller.

After the trade deadline passed, Fuller said he is “happy to be here and to play with Deshaun,” but when asked whether he wants to stay in Houston after the season, the receiver only said, “I’m just focused on staying healthy and helping my team win.”

It is rare that No. 1-caliber receivers hit free agency, so even if the league-wide salary cap stays the same or goes down in 2021, Fuller should still get a big contract if he can stay healthy the rest of the season.

How rare is it for a No. 1 receiver to hit the market? Between 2011 (the first season of the fifth-year option) to 2017, there have been 28 wide receivers drafted in the first round. Of those 28 receivers, only 15 had their fifth-year option exercised. According to ESPN Stats & Information, only two of those 15 players played the entire fifth season with the team that exercised the option and did not receive an extension before they became a free agent. (Amari Cooper signed a new contract with the Cowboys just as free agency began.) Fuller would be the third.

So few top-tier receivers hit free agency that there aren’t a lot of contracts to compare to what Fuller could receive on the open market. Robby Anderson, who the New York Jets did not re-sign after he played the 2019 season on a one-year, $3 million contract (the amount of his RFA tender), signed a two-year, $20 million deal with the Carolina Panthers in March. If Fuller stays healthy, he could easily top that deal.

Although the cap-strapped Texans might be priced out of being able to re-sign Fuller, the offense has started to hit its stride with Fuller and Cooks, who combined for eight catches for 183 yards on Sunday against the Jaguars, each catching a long touchdown.

“They make explosive plays, possession plays, everything,” Watson said. “You got [Randall] Cobb, [Kenny] Stills when he comes in, and then get those tight ends rolling, it can be very, very scary."

If Watson, Fuller and Cooks continue to put up big numbers, it might be tempting for the Texans’ new general manager to pay the hefty salary Fuller is likely to command.

That is, after all, exactly what Watson is hoping for.

“I’m glad to continue to play with Will [Fuller],” Watson said. “We’ve been making a lot of big, big plays since I came in this league.”