FREE AGENCY

With free agency looming, the Texans have to make a decision on Will Fuller

The Texans could use the franchise tag on Fuller. Composite image by Jack Brame.

The offseason agenda for the Houston Texans is more than trying to salvage their relationship with Deshaun Watson. But it will remain by far their most important objective. Nick Caserio has a plethora of responsibilities he must take care of in his first few months as Houston's general manager. One of which is deciding what to do with pending free agent, Will Fuller.

Midway through the 2020 season, Fuller was on pace for a career year — amidst his contract season. Pro Football Focus ranked Fuller as the ninth-best receiver in the league (86.2 PPF grade) after recording 879 yards on 53 receptions and eight touchdowns. He was on track to prove he is worth all the $16.9 million of his market value. But more importantly, that he could be the Texans' No. 1 receiver following DeAndre Hopkins' departure.

However, Fuller's season came to a premature end after he violated the NFL's drug policy. The six-game suspension could have a negative effect on his suitors once free agency begins in March. But it appears that the Texans have seen enough to make a long-term commitment to Fuller, according to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

But is it worth it for the Texans to sign Fuller to a long-term deal? That will depend on what will happen with Watson and the Texans in the coming weeks.

Retaining Fuller's services will be a step in the right direction in an attempt to keep Watson in Houston. The two players have developed a close relationship since becoming teammates in 2017. And before his suspension, Fuller was Watson's favorite receiver in the post-Hopkins era with a team-high 75 targets. In November, Watson deemed Fuller's return to the team "very important" after his season came to a halt.

But that was before Watson's relationship with the Texans became estranged. If Watson is not around, it may be best for the Texans and Fuller to go their separate ways. The Texans will enter a full rebuild if Watson is no longer under center in Houston. And his departure would allow the Texans to focus on the development of their younger talent.

"Hopefully, we can get him back," Watson said during his exit interview in January. "I'm definitely going to be on that with the organization and with him. We're all on the same page in what we want to do. And hopefully, we can get him back with (Randall) Cobb and Brandin (Cooks) here and get some other guys, some other pieces that can help us out and we can really take another step, especially offensively."

One position that could benefit from a player development movement is Houston's receiving corps. The Texans have a good mix of veterans and young talent at the position. And entering the 2021 season with the most potential is Keke Coutee.

No longer trapped in Bill O'Brien's doghouse, Coutee took advantage of the playing time he received in Fuller's absence. He was significant in filling in the void, as he registered 362 yards on 27 catches during the final five games of the season. Coutee's performance was a glimpse of what he is capable of when given suitable snaps. And the arrival of Robert Prince as Houston's new wide receiving coach could help Coutee reach his full potential. But if Fuller remains on the roster, the crowded rotation could hinder Coutee's progress due to the lack of playing time.

Fuller is a risk factor for any team interested in signing him. Injuries have prevented Fuller from playing a full season on several occasions — missing 21 out of a possible 51 games between 2017-2019.

In 2017, a broken collarbone suffered during training camp sidelined Fuller for the first few games of the season. In 2018, Fuller appeared in seven games before an ACL tear prematurely ended his season. And in 2019, a reoccurring hamstring injury kept Fuller in and out of the lineup. Fuller said he made adjustments to his offseason training in an attempt to stay healthy this season. And he appeared in all 11 games before his suspension. However, it's hard to determine what impact the illegal substances had on Fuller's durability.

There is too much at stake for the Texans to commit close to $70.0 million over the next four years to Fuller — especially if Watson is no longer around. But given the questionable state of the franchise, does Fuller even want to remain a Texan? In addition to their disgruntled quarterback, over half the team wants out of Houston due to their concerns about the direction of the organization. Including Fuller, a source told SportsMap.

As of now, it is unsure what lengths Fuller will go to depart from the organization. He does not have the leverage as that of Watson. But his concerns about the future of the team may cost the Texans extra money to keep him happy in Houston. Deciding whether Fuller is worth keeping on a max contract would be Caserio's top priority in an ordinary offseason. But much like the world fighting through a global pandemic in 2021, the Texans are in unprecedented times as a franchise.

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