We’re not supposed to get too caught up with an NFL draft prospect’s 40-yard dash time anymore. Al Davis’s decision to pick Darrius Heyward-Bey seventh overall in 2009 after the Maryland product ran a 4.30 is probably the most famous example, but pages of the draft’s history are littered with teams reaching for athletes who could run but just couldn’t play football.
If one player from the 2016 draft was going to fulfill that reach-for-speed archetype, it looked like it would be Notre Dame’s Will Fuller. His 4.32 40 was enticing, but he’d dropped nine passes in each of his last two years at Notre Dame, and when you can’t catch the ball, it’s hard to be much more than a novelty in the NFL. When the Texans picked the Fighting Irish receiver no. 21 overall, there was one very clear subtext to their decision: We’re willing to live with the drops as long as he delivers on that big-play potential.
With a quarter of the season gone, Fuller looks like the best receiver in this rookie class. His speed has been devastating against NFL defenses, and while he’s dropped more passes than the Texans would like, he’s more than made up for them with explosive play after explosive play.
It didn’t take long for Fuller to integrate himself into the Texans offense. He’s already developed chemistry with Houston’s new franchise quarterback, Brock Osweiler, who signed with the Texans for four years and $72 million over the summer. And he’s already outpacing his teammate DeAndre Hopkins, who, you know, caught 111 passes and scored 11 touchdowns last year and is one of the best receivers in the NFL. Fuller leads Houston in targets (34), catches (19), yards (323), and is tied with Hopkins in touchdowns (2). On Sunday, against the Titans, he added a punt return touchdown, which ended up being the game-winning score. He’s averaging 17.0 yards per catch, he became just the second rookie (DeSean Jackson is the other) with 100-plus yards receiving in his first two games as a pro, and he’s the first rookie in league history with 300-plus receiving yards and a punt return touchdown through four games.
In the same way that Brandon Marshall or Amari Cooper can drop a pass on one play and then make an amazing grab on the next, throughout a single game, Fuller’s hands run the spectrum from terrible to great. In the second quarter of the Week 1 win over the Bears, he dropped a deep pass that he probably could’ve taken for a touchdown. But then in the third quarter, he went up and made a leaping grab over Deiondre’ Hall, deep down the sideline on a double move.
Against the Chiefs in Week 2, he made a nice grab on a deep drag route, scooping a pass that Osweiler threw low and behind him.
Then, against the Titans, he reeled in a one-handed grab on a slant route when Osweiler’s pass led him a little too far.
Whatever version of Fuller’s hands you’re going to get, his mere presence on the field makes the Texans so tough to defend. Opposing coaches must now account for another threat beyond Hopkins who has the speed to get off the press and the ability to get behind the deep safeties. Having two playmakers to worry about downfield is a safety’s nightmare.
"That is hard. You can take one away, but you can’t take two away," said Titans coach Mike Mularkey of Fuller after the Texans won 27–20 on Sunday.
That was clear late in the first quarter, when Osweiler hit Fuller on a quick slant off of play-action from the 5-yard line for a touchdown. Hopkins lined up on the left, along with Jaelen Strong, and when Titans safety Kevin Byard drifted to his right to help over the top, it left Fuller all alone on the left against Perrish Cox. Cox thought he was getting help from his safety and passed Fuller off, but that help was too busy paying attention to Hopkins.
We saw that same interplay on Fuller’s 53-yard catch Week 2 against the Chiefs. Fuller lines up tight to the formation on the right. At the snap, Kansas City safety Eric Berry is shaded slightly toward Hopkins, who ran on the opposite wing, and the two or three drop-steps Berry made before breaking on Fuller’s route was all that the rookie needed. His outside-in head fake and juke turned cornerback Marcus Peters around and left him in the dust, and Berry arrived too late. Fuller almost dropped the ball, but managed to reel it back in.
Fuller’s speed has shown up in Houston’s screen game as well. In the fourth quarter against the Bears, a quick toss to the wing negated Chicago’s blitz, and Fuller’s incredible burst helped get him to pay dirt.
On Sunday, Fuller looked like he was shot out of a cannon on another big screen play. Look at how quickly he can get going from a dead stop.
In fact, Fuller’s blistering speed has already gotten one opposing coach fired.
Teams crave the type of speed that Fuller possesses because it changes the way that defenses have to play. You can no longer line up defensive backs so close to the line of scrimmage. You must commit another defender deep to prevent the touchdown strike over the top. Whether Fuller is running deep or taking a screen pass on the wing, corners have to pursue and tackle, and safeties have to take disciplined angles. With the type of speed that Fuller brings to the table, there’s no margin for error for the defense. Miss one tackle, miss one angle, or take one wrong step, and he’s gone.
While Fuller’s impact is obvious, the Houston offense still hasn’t been able to kick things into the higher gear it envisioned when Osweiler signed back in March.
Osweiler has had his moments. The first quarter of Sunday’s game against Tennessee, when he completed 12 of 13 passes and threw two touchdowns as the Texans raced out to a 14–3 lead, was a glimpse of the potential this offense has. But Osweiler’s also thrown too many interceptions (six) and has struggled distributing the ball to the seemingly easy underneath areas that defenses will give him thanks to the deep threat both Hopkins and Fuller provide. Week 3’s matchup with the Patriots was a good example: New England sat two safeties over the top to take away Fuller and Hopkins as dual deep threats, and Osweiler completed just 24 of 41 passes for 196 yards as the Texans were shut out.
With a terrible mix of Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, and Brandon Weeden running the show in 2015, Houston’s offense finished 31st in yards per play (4.9), 29th in the yards per pass attempt (6.6), and produced just 46 pass plays of 20-plus yards (25th) while averaging 21.2 points per game (21st). Through four games this year, the Texans aren’t much better. They rank 29th in yards per play (4.9), 28th in yards per pass attempt (6.5), have 11 passes of 20-plus yards (tied for 19th), and are averaging 17.3 points per game (29th).
The crazy thing about Fuller’s blazing start is that Houston hasn’t even come close to optimizing his abilities. With the rookie burning down the field and creating new highlights every weekend, defenses have to tilt to his side and give up passes underneath. That should allow Hopkins to feast on lighter coverage and Osweiler to pick teams apart with short and intermediate throws. Except, that hasn’t happened yet, and it’s unclear if it ever will with Osweiler under center. But while the Texans might still be without their ideal quarterback, they’re getting what they wanted from Fuller — and a whole lot more.