The Texans lost their leading wide receiver Will Fuller and their best cornerback Bradley Roby after both players were suspended by the NFL for six games for using performance enhancing drugs—enter your “So that’s why Will Fuller stayed healthy!” joke here. This means the last five games of this season and the first game of next season, the Texans, currently at 4-7 and always convincing themselves they are in a postseason run, will have to do so without two of their most important players.
Fuller has convinced most that he’s a true WR1 after catching 53 of his 75 targets for 879 yards and 8 touchdowns this year. This says more about his big play ability than what a true number one wide receiver—someone who can carry an entire passing offense on his own by continuously creating first downs—is. Fuller has been insanely efficient and effective, ranking 1st in DYAR and 2nd in DVOA, but he doesn’t quite check that box.
That being said, he’s the Texans best wide receiver and has been one of the best receivers in the league this year. In his place goes Brandin Cooks, who has to prove he’s more than a deep threat, even though he hasn’t even been a deep threat this year. The other outside wide receiver is going to be either Steven Mitchell Jr. or rookie Isaiah Coulter; both have exactly zero targets this season. In the slot will be more Keke Coutee. This is what really matters. Coutee has flashed once again as a slot receiver, beating man coverage and jumping off the screen. Getting him more playing time is vital.
These are the only options Houston as at the wide receiver position since they released Kenny Stills and Randall Cobb was placed on Injured Reserve with a foot injury. So it’s Cooks, Coulter, Mitchell, and Coutee. That’s all Houston has.
That doesn’t mean this is how they’re going to replace Fuller’s targets, though. It won’t be through the wide receiver position. Those days of empty five wide receiver sets are probably gone, placed in a drawer for next season. Instead it’s going to be more snaps and targets for the tight ends. Get ready for the zone read drag flat offense again. Get ready for a lot of Darren Fells, Jordan Akins, Pharaoah Brown, and hopefully Kahale Warring. Houston isn’t going to spread the field out with Fuller out. They’re going to utilize more two and three tight end sets. They’re going to establish the run. They’re going to run play action off of it. They’re going to throw the ball into the flat.
Defensively, Roby is the only cornerback Houston has who you can describe with adjectives like competent, or good, or acceptable. Roby is a perfectly fine player. Ideally, you want him to be the third best cornerback on your team. If he’s your best corner, you have a bad pass defense, which is exactly what Houston has. That being said, Roby can make big plays, break on the ball, and is a 50-50 match up against the game’s best wide receivers.
Behind Roby is Vernon Hargreaves III—remember, he just needed to play press man coverage to become a good player in Houston (?)—and Phillip Gaines. This is the worst cornerback tandem in the NFL. Eric Murray can play some cornerback as well, which he’s terrible at, as seen by his slot cornerback performance against Green Bay and other snaps he’s had at this position throughout the season. Roby’s absence also means the chance for rookie fourth round pick John Reid to play again. Houston hasn’t utilized him much since he played the first half in the opener against against Kansas City (because Bill O’Brien suspended Lonnie Johnson Jr. for a half without admitting to it).
Speaking of Lonnie, the Texans have no idea what to do with him. He doesn’t play cornerback anymore. They stuck him at deep middle safety, where he stands with his hands in his pockets, his sunglasses on, never affecting the game. Houston constantly plays 10 on 11 with him back there. Lately, Anthony Weaver has been blitzing him off the edge with some success, which may lead to him moving to strong safety, but he struggles at tackling and hasn’t had much luck covering tight ends either.
Lonnie was drafted as a cornerback and was expected to play cornerback. From the very start, he was a body, a developmental pick, and the Texans have failed to develop him. Houston is playing a lot of Cover Three this year. Playing deep thirds on the outside is the only real shot Lonnie has left to play corner. He’s long and athletic. He has the typical body of a Cover Three corner. Weaver should give Lonnie corner reps to replace Bradley Roby, stick Justin Reid at deep middle, and keep Hargreaves on the other sideline. He isn’t going to do that, but he should.
This is the ideal way to handle Roby’s suspension. The reality is everything is going to stay the same except Gaines will start at cornerback now. At the slot, they’ll rotate John Reid and Eric Murray. Weaver will continually move Lonnie Johnson Jr. and Justin Reid around at safety.
If you had any hopes of Houston making a playoff run with remaining games against the Colts, Bears, Bengals, and Titans, you are a beautiful soul who has never seen an empty glass in your entire life. If you still have any hopes of Houston making a playoff run after the Fuller and Roby suspensions, you’re a turd-chomping insane person. Houston’s offense is going to drop off without Fuller and the empty sets Watson has been thriving in. Houston’s already abysmal defense that didn’t seem to be able to get any worse is going to get worse.
The good news is the Texans will get the chance to see what they have in Coulter and Warring, Cooks as a pure outside receiver, and what magic they can create in multiple tight end sets, which will give them information to base future decisions off of. Defensively, none of this is good unless they play Lonnie Johnson Jr. outside more which, once again, they aren’t going to do.
At least it will all be over soon.