Fantasy Football

Will Fuller Fantasy 2018: Primed to Explode, or Destined to Regress?


Will Fuller Fantasy Impact 2018

Will Fuller had quite the rollercoaster season last year. He fractured his collarbone in training camp and wouldn’t make his season debut until the Texans‘ Week 4 matchup. Later in the season, Fuller suffered a rib injury against the Rams in Week 10 and would miss the following three games recovering.

While he finished the season 48th among wide receivers in standard scoring formats with 85.2 points, he played in only 10 games, and his 8.5 fantasy points per game were 22nd among wide receivers. That number included his first four games catching passes from Deshaun Watson, and the remainder of his games catching passes from a combination of Tom Savage and T.J. Yates.

It’s those four games on the field with Deshaun Watson that caught the attention of the fantasy football world. Fuller’s seven touchdowns during that stretch were the most among all wide receivers, one more than even league-mate DeAndre Hopkins. Determining the likelihood that Fuller can even approximate a repeat of that performance is the key in his valuation for 2018.

Will Fuller Fantasy 2018

The 2018 Houston Texans: Roster Continuity

Moving up to the 12th overall pick to land DeShaun Watson in the 2017 NFL draft cost the Houston Texans their 2018 first round pick. Moving on from Brock Osweiler’s contract cost them their 2018 second round pick.

With the Texan’s first overall pick in the third round, Bill O’Brien drafted tight end Jordan Akins, a move tight end who enters his rookie season as a 26-year-old following a four-year minor league career with the Texas Rangers.

The Texans drafted their next offensive skill position player, wide receiver KeKe Coutee, with their fourth-round pick. Coutee is a speedy slot receiver out of Texas Tech whose 4.43 40-yard dash tied for the sixth-best mark among wide receivers at the 2018 combine.

Finally, the Texans drafted the hulking tight end Jordan Thomas in the sixth round. Thomas ran a 4.74 40-yard dash at 6’6″, 265 pounds, for an 82nd-percentile-speed score of 107.2, per playerprofiler.com.

In free agency, the Texans focused mainly on re-stocking the offensive line and adding defensive pieces.

The Texans chose not to add competition to the outside receiving corps, which means Fuller’s role should be secure. That role is heavily dependent on Fuller’s trump card: speed. Fuller’s 4.32 40-yard dash was the fastest among all wide receivers in the 2016 draft, and it’s translated directly the NFL.

Will Fuller Fantasy 2018

Fast & Fuller-ish

The good news here is that capitalizing on Fuller’s speed in the deep passing game is an area in which Watson is uniquely qualified. Per Pro Football Focus, in 2017, 19.6% of Watson’s passes were deep throws (throws of 20-plus yards). That was the highest percentage among all quarterbacks with at least 20 attempts. This would mean very little if Watson were air-mailing bombs to random destinations, but in addition to volume, Watson’s 47.5 adjusted completion percentage on 40 deep throws was the third-highest among all quarterbacks with at least 20 deep passes.

Deshaun Watson TexansMeanwhile, in Weeks 4, 5, 6 and 8, the four games in which Watson was the starting quarterback (the Texans had a Week 7 bye), Fuller saw 10 targets of 20-plus yards among his 22 total targets. 45.5% of his total targets were deep targets, and among the 38 wide receivers who were targeted at least 20 times during those four weeks, that was far and away the highest percentage. Not to be outdone by his quarterback, Fuller was extremely efficient with those deep targets, catching 50 percent of them to tie for the 9th-highest rate among 51 wide receivers with at least three deep targets during that those same four weeks.

We’re focusing on a very small sample size of four games here, but it’s not as if Fuller suddenly developed an affinity for deep passes in 2017. In 2016, Brock Osweiler was the Texans’ starting quarterback. His adjusted completion percentage of 25.4 on deep throws was 33rd out of 34 quarterbacks to throw at least 22 deep passes. Meanwhile, Will Fuller was targeted deep on 35.3% of his 2016 targets, the fourth-highest percentage among 60 wide receivers with at least 3 deep targets, and caught 33.3% of them despite less-than-ideal circumstances with his signal caller.

Will Fuller Fantasy 2018: Reasons For Optimism

An obvious reason to expect a strong 2018 for Will Fuller is the fact that his skill and efficiency in catching deep passes aligns perfectly with Deshaun Watson’s own skill in throwing the deep ball. What Fuller lacked in safer, short-to-intermediate targets in 2017, he made up for with touchdown volume. With touchdowns being a notoriously volatile stat, is there anything to support his continued excellence in that area?

Actually, there is, and it’s Deshaun Watson’s (and the Texans’) propensity to go for deeper shots when in their opponent’s territory. Per Warren Sharp’s sharpfootballstats.com, there were 40 quarterbacks in 2017 with at least 50 pass attempts inside their opponent’s 40-yard line. Looking at the percentage of the yards that came in the air versus yards gained after the catch from this group, Deshaun Watson had an astounding 81% of his yardage inside the opponent’s 40 come from aerial yardage. By comparison, Aaron Rodgers had 55% of the yardage from passes in that same area come from aerial yardage.

The Texans featured regular deep target options in their playcalling from within the opponent’s 40-yard line, and Watson took full advantage of those opportunities. For a wide receiver with Fuller’s speed, the best chance of maintaining a healthy touchdown share comes from playing in a system that is liberal with deeper throws on the opponent’s side of the field, with a quarterback that’s excellent at just such throws.

It’s also worth noting the receiver often on opposite side of the field from Fuller: Deandre Hopkins. Hopkins is one of the premier wideouts in the entire league, and will most often command the coverage of a defense’s top cornerback, as well as regularly drawing safety help to his side of the field. This means that not only will Fuller often avoid his opponent’s best cornerback, but if he can beat his coverage down the field, he’ll see plenty of situations in which there’s no safety close enough to stop him.

 

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Reasons For Pessimism

A single 16-game season isn’t an ideal sample size for any player, and a four-game sample size is even less so. That’s all we have to work with when it comes to Fuller and Watson sharing the field, and the numbers they put up are so off-the-reservation, they scream, “Regression incoming!”

Last season, the average touchdown rate for wide receivers with at least 10 receptions was 7.5%. Antonio Brown had an above-average 8.9% touchdown rate. Will Fuller’s touchdown rate for the entire season was 25.0%. In the weeks in which Watson and Fuller shared the field, Fuller caught 13 passes, and seven of them were touchdowns. That’s a touchdown rate of 53.8%.

Fuller’s injuries cost him six games last season. They weren’t they soft tissue injuries that tend to recur and weren’t of the variety that should affect his speed in any way, but they were contact-related injuries. If Fuller can’t stay on the field for a whole season, it will be difficult for him to reach his ceiling as a wide receiver.

Even if Fuller’s numbers don’t significantly regress, there’s still the likelihood that Watson’s will. For all quarterbacks with at least 20 deep attempts in 2017, the average percentage of those passes to go for 20-plus yards was 12.4%. Watson’s 19.6% should almost certainly regress negatively to some extent, which would mean less opportunity for Fuller.

Will Fuller

Target or Avoid?

I don’t expect either Fuller or Watson to replicate the efficiency they showed together in 2017. That being said, I do think it’s likely that their shared efficiency on deep passes will remain well above the league average.

Let’s say, for example, that Watson regresses a bit in his percentage of deep passes, from 19.6% to 16.0%. Watson averaged 31 attempts per game with Fuller in the fold, so i’ll use 30 attempts per game over 16 games, or 480 attempts. 16% of 480 attempts would equal 77 deep passes for Watson over the course of the full season.

In the four weeks that Watson, Hopkins, and Fuller were all playing, Watson had 28 deep attempts; 11 of them went to Hopkins (39%), and 10 of them went to Fuller (36%). If Fuller’s target share is reduced from that to 32% of 77 deep targets, that’d be 25 deep attempts. Fuller’s catch rate was 50% on deep passes, so let’s assume that also drops, down to 40%.

With what would be a decent regression for both Watson and Fuller, that would leave Fuller with 10 receptions on deep targets, which is something only 12 wide receivers managed last season:

20+ Yard Targets
 Wide Receivers Receptions Yards TDs
 Marvin Jones Jr. 16 599 5
 Brandin Cooks 16 608 3
 DeAndre Hopkins 16 468 5
 Antonio Brown 14 450 2
 Tyreek Hill 13 628 6
 Doug Baldwin 13 387 4
 Julio Jones 13 394 2
 Stefon Diggs 12 324 4
 Robby Anderson 12 408 7
 Kenny Stills 12 366 4
 Ted Ginn Jr. 10 342 3
 Adam Thielen 10 306 1

These are rough estimations, of course. They use 2017 numbers as a baseline and don’t take into account games missed due to injury and other variables, but I think it gives a decent look at what reasonable regression might mean.

So, does all this make Will Fuller someone to target or avoid? Per fantasyfootballcalculator.com, Fuller’s ADP currently sits at 74th overall, or 6.12. In bestball leagues, I think he’s a strong buy at his ADP since the week-to-week decisions that determine when to start him are removed.

Wide receivers who rely on deep passes and touchdown volume can be a challenge in weekly leagues, where it’s inherently more difficult to avoid the inevitable bust weeks and maximize the boom weeks. In weekly PPR leagues, where Fuller’s ADP currently stands, I’d be more inclined to target some of the other receivers likely to be available in the sixth round. Michael Crabtree, Marvin Jones, and Pierre Garcon have safer floors on a week-to-week basis while sharing a touchdown ceiling somewhat in the neighborhood of Fuller’s, and all are likely to be available in Fuller’s range.

However, if you reach the sixth round of your draft having drafted two or three wide receivers expected to receive a high volume of targets, Fuller has league-winning potential. A 10-plus touchdown season is well within his reasonable range of outcomes, and that would more than compensate for what he lacks in target volume.

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