PRESSURE COOKER

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

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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The Astros rotation looks like a strength moving forward. Composite Getty Image.

The Houston Astros are coming off a much-needed series win over the White Sox, but have a quick turnaround as they host the Orioles on Friday night at Minute Maid Park.

The 'Stros dropped the first game of the series with Framber Valdez on the mound, but were able to rebound with Hunter Brown and Spencer Arrighetti starting the final two games.

Brown was brilliant once again, and Arrighetti bounced back after a disastrous start against the Tigers over the weekend. Despite all the injures to the Astros staff this season, their young pitchers are stepping up when they need them the most.

Brown has six consecutive quality starts and is beginning to show signs that he can be the top of the rotation pitcher the club always hoped he could develop into.

Arrighetti has stepped in and shown that he belongs in the big leagues, and has provided innings Houston desperately requires with so many pitchers on the injured list.

Speaking of which, with Justin Verlander on the IL, Double A prospect Jake Bloss will make the start for Houston on Friday night. Bloss has quickly progressed through the farm system, having been drafted just a year ago.

We'll see how he performs in his MLB debut, but the club seems to have a lot of quality pitching options moving forward, especially with Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers scheduled to return in late July and early August respectively.

And as we look at the Astros rotation moving forward, perhaps they will go back to a six-man rotation during certain stretches in the second half of the season.

Which could prove to be vital to the team's success. As good as Ronel Blanco has been, he's never pitched as many innings as he'll be asked to pitch this year. Same goes for Arrighetti. And let's face it, sending Verlander out to pitch on four days rest consistently at 41 years old doesn't sound like a wise decision. He's already been on the IL twice this year.

While some see Garcia and McCullers as wild cards to help the team this season, Astros GM Dana Brown doesn't see it that way. He told the Astros flagship station this week that he's counting on those guys to make big contributions when they return. And he's counting on their postseason experience should they get there.

Keep in mind, Garcia has a 3.61 career ERA and has been durable outside the Tommy John surgery. And McCullers has always been good, it's just the health that causes concern.

Garcia is also an example of how a player can skip Double A and Triple A and have success right away in the big leagues. Hopefully, Bloss can follow in his footsteps, since he's bypassing Triple A to make his first start.

So what's the short and long-term outlook for the Astros rotation? And should we expect Verlander to return in 2025?

Be sure to watch the video above as we address those questions and much more!

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