PRESSURE COOKER

Why it's all on the line for this Texans receiver in 2020

Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images.

During the Houston Texans 53-32 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, Will Fuller's numbers seemed like a replica performance from Madden 20. He recorded a career-high 217 receiving yards (15.5 AVG) on 14 catches, to go along with three touchdowns in the win. After the home victory, Fuller credited his performance as a result of playing alongside his All-Pro colleague, DeAndre Hopkins.

A few weeks later, Fuller had another breakout performance, this time during the Texans' 20-17 victory against their AFC South rival, the Indianapolis Colts. Although he failed to find his way into the end zone, Fuller recorded a team-high 140 yards (20.0 AVG) on seven receptions in a Week 12 win inside NRG Stadium in Houston. Again, following his performance, Fuller acknowledged Hopkins as the reason for his explosive play on the field.

Since his arrival to Houston in 2016, Fuller has entrenched himself as one of the most talented receivers in the league. The Notre Dame product has recorded a total of eight career games with 100 or more reception yards while becoming the first Texan to catch 10 touchdowns in his first 25 games.

In most circumstances, a franchise would normally consider Fuller as their No. 1 option, but playing alongside Hopkins for four seasons has categorized him as a hidden gem for the Texans — due to the amount of coverages the four-time Pro-Bowler demands on the weekly basis.

As he enters his fifth season, Fuller can no longer reap the benefits of playing next to Hopkins following his departure to the Arizona Cardinals. Houston will rely heavily upon Fuller's ability to fill an enormous void left by Hopkins — as James Palmer of the NFL Network reported, many believe Fuller will become the Texans No. 1 receiver in 2020.

Although he has the skill set to step in as the Texans' primary target, the conditions surrounding the Philadelphia native may create an immense amount of pressure for Fuller to live up to.

"Playing with Hop, like I always say, is easy," Fuller said. "He gets a lot of coverages thrown his way, and I feel like that's why they brought me here, to help him out. It took me a while, but I finally had this big game, so I'm just trying to help ... out." — Fuller via ESPN.

In a year when he will be taking on more on-field responsibilities, the Texans are asking Fuller to do so in his contract season — the most important year of his career. At 26-years-old, the 6-foot receiver is entering the final year of his rookie deal and will become an unrestricted free agent in 2021. The calculated market value for a player of his caliber is worth 50 million over the next four years, which signifies next spring as Fuller's largest payday of his career.

When taking a look at his next deal, one must wonder whether Fuller has done enough over past four seasons for the Texans reward him with a new contract in the likes of his contemporaries Stefon Diggs, Alshon Jeffery and Allen Robinson — whose current contract resembles what Fuller may receive come next offseason.

Talent-wise, yes. production-wise, no.

Each of the previous three receivers has recorded 1,000 or more receiving yards at least twice in their respective careers, with Jeffery leading the way with 1,421 yards as a member of the Bears in 2013. Fuller has yet to register a season posting over 1,000 receiving yards. In fact, his career-high came after he posted a total of 670 receiving yards during the 2019 season. Certainly, Fuller has never been in a position to record over 1,000 receiving yards for a season, but the absence of the milestone goes far beyond playing in the shadows of Hopkins.

The most significant amount of pressure surrounding Fuller next season is his ability to stay healthy. Hall of Famer Bill Parcells once stated, "The best ability is availability," and for Fuller, his availability is rare.

After appearing in a career-high 14 games as a rookie, Fuller has only been active for 29 out of a possible 51 games since 2017 (including the postseason). Last season, he barely appeared in 11 games, as an abundance of ailments kept Fuller in and out of the Texans lineup. Despite the addition of Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb, the Texans cannot afford for Fuller to miss a significant amount of time given his importance to the team's success this year.

If not for the constant groin, hamstring and knee-related injuries, the burden Fuller is carrying into the new season would be little to none. There would be no concerns about Fuller's ability to step in as the Texans' top option, and a new contract would be inevitable to remain in Houston. However, this is the reality of the situation. Health and living up to the high expectations in the midst of a contract season are all the ingredients to create the perfect pressure situation for Fuller entering the 2020 season.

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Correa could be on his way out. Composite image by Jack Brame.

It has not been the best of times to be a star athlete in Houston. In the last year, Jadeveon Clowney and DeAndre Hopkins were solid off for a warm bucket of spit. George Springer won't be back. James Harden and Russell Westbrook rumors are rampant. J.J. Watt might be moving on as well.

Now, reports are the Astros are listening to offers for Carlos Correa.

Predictably, Astros fans are livid. And if it's true, they should be concerned about the bigger picture.

Trading Correa makes sense - if you have no plans on keeping him after next season, as was clearly the case with Springer. If the Astros can get a haul and replenish the farm system, it would be the right move, especially considering Correa's injury history.

But in the long run, it does not bode well for the direction of the team. All recent indications are that the Astros are going cheap.

They would still be a competitive team without Correa, but it would be yet another indication their World Series window has closed. Alex Bregman could slide over to shortstop, but who would play third? And they only have one starting outfielder on the roster as it is. Putting together a competitive lineup around Bregman, Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker, Yuli Gurriel and Yordan Alvarez would still be possible, but if the Astros aren't going to spend money, that could be problematic.

The writing was probably on the wall when the team hired James Click as GM from the notoriously frugal Tampa Bay organization. The good news is the Rays have been successful. But this is a new direction for a team that was not afraid to spend big money to make runs at the World Series.

If they lose Correa, they lose a team leader, one of the few players who embraced the villain role in the wake of the cheating controversy and was not afraid to speak out. But he has never lived up to his MVP potential, has battled injuries and will command big dollars on the open market. He is still young enough to become that kind of player, and someone will gamble big money that he will.

Sadly, if this rumor is true, it won't be the Astros.

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