Will Fuller, The Houston Texans and Justifying Draft Picks

At this time of the year there is a lot of rationalizing being done.

Everyone needs to justify the moves their team made in the draft, so you talk about the benefits a “pro-ready” quarterback will enjoy from sitting for a year or two, you search out obscure stats that tell you trading up to take a kicker in the second round is closer to genius than crazy or you talk up a lesser prospect after passing on a better one because a video revealed something you already knew about him at the last moment.

Nobody wants to say that they made a mistake. Nobody wants to consider that this draft may not be the one that turns the franchise around or pushes it closer to a Super Bowl. And nobody actually knows for certain at this point, so why not be as optimistic as you can be?

Accepting the presence of the unknown at this time of the year is fine, it’s required really, but problems arise when you push your logic too far to rationalize a decision.

One of the most polarizing moves from the draft was one of the most predictable. Bill O’Brien and Rick Smith spoke about their need to infuse their offense with speed early on during the process. From that point forward, EVERYONE expected them to take Will Fuller. O’Brien and Smith adopted an evaluation process that would make Al Davis proud, not only picking the Notre Dame speedster but trading up one spot in the first round to do so.

Fuller’s speed was/is obvious. He ran a 4.32 forty at the combine, the fastest for any receiver in the class and the sixth fastest for any receiver since 2006. Receivers such as Brandin Cooks, Philip Dorsett, Mike Wallace, John Brown and Tavon Austin were one step slower. That speed helped Fuller produce big numbers at Notre Dame. During his final season, he caught 62 passes for more than 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns. He averaged an incredible 20.3 yards per reception.

20.3!

If the Texans were desperate for speed, nobody doubts that they got it. Fuller will be able to outrun any defensive back in a fair race from the moment he steps onto an NFL field. Defensive backs will be intimidated whenever they meet him in space. This all seems like a perfect marriage. The Texans matched talent to need, adding a dimension to their offense that was missing. However, if this was the extent of Fuller’s profile he wouldn’t have been a polarizing player.

While Fuller’s big-play ability isn’t doubted, his quality as a receiver is. He has a limited scope of abilities when he’s not running deep routes and dropped a huge number of passes in college. Comparisons to Ted Ginn were inevitable and tough to argue against. Ginn’s reputation has grown over the past 12 months, but even his biggest fan would have to acknowledge that his inconsistency is a major issue that crippled the Panthers passing game at times.

Nobody in the league would trade a first-round pick for Ted Ginn so the Texans will need Fuller to outperform that expectation to justify their investment in him.

The Texans believe that Fuller, flaws and all, adds what they are missing from their offense. He won’t need to be the number one receiver in the offense, that is obviously DeAndre Hopkins. O’Brien was quick to highlight the partnership between Hopkins and Fuller after drafting the young receiver, via Battle Red Blog:

“We feel good about the diversity at that position now. Obviously with DeAndre Hopkins, 111 catches, all the things that he can do on the outside, on the inside, being able to move him around and how much better he’s gotten every year. He allows us to be able to go out there and go get a guy like this. Will will come in and start on the outside, but he does a number of different things. He’ll start off as an outside receiver, but as he learns and he gets better every day, we’ll begin to move him around and do different things with him.”

O’Brien himself didn’t discuss it in greater detail but Pat Kirwan and Jim Miller offered quotes to represent the chorus of analysts who have pointed out how Fuller will stretch the field for the Texans. The implication here is that Fuller will make the offense around him better solely by being on the field. He will force safeties to drop deeper so they can’t focus on Lamar Miller running the ball or Hopkins working the middle of the field.

The other implication is that Fuller will be able to take advantage of any coverage that is rolled towards Hopkins because he can stretch the field for a big play when given space.

While speed and complementary skill sets do matter at the receiver positions, the perception of what actually happens has been stretched far away from reality. It’s extremely rare that a secondary will double team an opposing receiver or roll their coverage to one side specifically for him. Fuller won’t be benefiting from Hopkins in any way except when they face defenses that ask their cornerbacks to follow specific receivers. In those situations, Hopkins will always be the priority.

Creating space over the middle of the field by clearing out the coverage is something that does happen with some regularity. Fuller can offer value in that role, but it’ll be limited value if he offsets it by dropping too many passes. This field-stretching isn’t likely to impact alignment so it won’t open lanes for Miller, it is more about distorting the defense after the ball is snapped.

Fuller’s fit with the Texans isn’t enough to justify the selection when there was a clearly-superior receiver waiting to be picked when they were on the clock. O’Brien was asked about him too.

“I would say again that Rick (Smith) and I considered everybody that was available at that pick and every position. We think that Josh Docston is a hell of a player too, we just felt like Will fuller was the guy to help our team.”

Doctson is a more consistent receiver than Fuller, he’s a more refined receiver than Fuller and he’s a better all-around athlete. The only area of their skill sets where Fuller comes out looking better is straight-line speed. O’Brien specifically said that they chose Fuller because he was the guy to help his team, that, along with his previous comments, suggests that speed was a big factor if not the deciding factor.

While it’s important for receivers to complement each other with their skill sets, that is only true when you have receivers who aren’t well-rounded. Doctson may not have Will Fuller’s speed, but he ran a 4.5 forty at the combine and showed off extremely impressive explosiveness and fluidity to adjust to the ball at TCU. Doctson is a similar receiver to DeAndre Hopkins, but that wouldn’t be an issue because both Doctson and Hopkins would be able to threaten every level of the defense.

Having two accuracy-erasing receivers would alleviate the pressure on Brock Osweiler to play well. Doctson projects to be a better blocker than Fuller and will make more contested catches, so any benefits that are felt from Fuller’s speed wouldn’t be missing with Doctson in his place. They would just be represented in a different way.

Selecting Fuller and Hopkins over Doctson and Hopkins is like selecting Ted Ginn and Hopkins over DeAndre Hopkins and Hopkins. Nobody of rational mind would do such a thing willingly.

Even if the Texans desperately needed that element of speed, they could have found a third receiver who fit that mold for cheap.

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