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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Houston scored in droves

Astros drub Twins in finale to take series win

Houston's offense showered Minnesota with hits in Sunday's finale. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

After splitting the first two games, with Houston's offense uncharacteristically ineffective in the loss on Saturday, they tried to turn things around with a win to take the series on Sunday. The Astros would bounce right back at the plate, getting hits and runs all through the afternoon to rout the Twins.

Final Score: Astros 14, Twins 3

Astros' Record: 37-28, second in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Framber Valdez (3-0)

Losing Pitcher: Michael Pineda (3-4)

Valdez keeps rolling

Framber Valdez continued to impress in 2021 after starting his season on the IL, posting another quality start with a win against the Twins. After four scoreless frames, he allowed a solo homer to start the bottom of the fifth, just the third hit of the game for Minnesota to that point. He went on to retire the next three batters to get through the inning.

He faltered a bit in the bottom of the sixth, allowing a leadoff double followed by a single, with a run coming across on an error on that play. He once again rebounded to finish that frame, then put up a 1-2-3 seventh to finish his day off, notching another quality start and a win. His final line: 7.0 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 1 HR, 97 P.

Houston keeps their foot on the gas

While Valdez's outing was a highlight of its own, Houston's offense was the story of the day. They put their foot down on the pedal all day and did not let up, starting in the top of the first when Jose Altuve turned the first pitch of the game around for a single, later scoring on a sac fly by Alex Bregman to put the Astros in front 1-0.

After two scoreless innings, they got right back on the scoreboard in the fourth with a two-run homer by Kyle Tucker, then kept pouring it on with two runs in the fifth on a sac fly by Yuli Gurriel and an error, making it 5-0 at the time. The runs kept coming in the top of the sixth, with a two-RBI double by Michael Brantley, who would score later on a two-run bomb by Yordan Alvarez. Then, in the top of the seventh, Brantley struck again to push it to double-digits with a two-RBI single to make it 11-2 and give Brantley 4 RBI on the afternoon.

With Houston swapping out starters with the hefty lead, even their pinch-hitters were getting involved, with Chas McCormick leading the top of the eighth off with a solo shot to make it a ten-run game. They then loaded the bases with no outs, setting up a sac fly for Myles Straw to make it 13-2.

Astros take the series

In the bottom of the eighth, Ralph Garza Jr. came in as the first reliever out of the bullpen for Houston. He recorded two quick outs but then met Nelson Cruz, who lasered a solo homer to put it back at a ten-run game before finishing the frame. Houston put their twentieth hit on the board in the top of the ninth, their highest total this season, en route to another scoring inning with a sac fly by Robel Garcia to make it 14-3. Garza came in for his second inning of work to wrap things up in the bottom of the ninth, giving the Astros a successful end to this series and road trip.

Up Next: Houston will travel home before an off day on Monday to rest before 20 days of consecutive games. They'll kick off a six-game homestand on Tuesday, welcoming in the Rangers for two starting at 7:10 PM Central. Lance McCullers Jr. (3-1, 2.96 ERA) will make his return from the IL for the Astros, though Jake Odorizzi will "piggy-back" him, and Kyle Gibson (4-0, 2.13 ERA) will take the mound for Texas.

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