What Will Fuller’s injury means for the Texans’ offense

The first big blow to the Houston Texans 2017 season came one week ago, when second-year wide receiver Will Fuller broke his collar bone and was deemed out indefinitely.

Since then, head coach Bill O’Brien has clarified the extent to Fuller’s injury a little bit.

But regardless, this is a serious injury that takes several weeks to heal and may never truly heal properly. If the recent case of one Tony Romo is to be believed at all, a broken clavicle could easily break again.

Fuller’s injury puts an already woeful Texans offense in a precarious position. O’Brien has repeatedly praised Fuller this offseason, and Patrick Starr’s (excellent) training camp reviews for State of the Texans has touched on Fuller’s improvement multiple times. Fuller is supposed to be the deep threat that pulls coverage away from DeAndre Hopkins—without him, three Texans will need to step up, big time.

1. Jaelen Strong

Next man up, right? The first player called upon to replace Fuller’s 635 receiving yards will be Strong, the third-year player out of Arizona State. While that may not seem like a huge number, that was good for second on the team behind Hopkins, which may say more about Brock Osweiler than any receiver.

In two years, Strong has played just 18 games and recorded 28 catches for 292 yards. Strong has been unable to stay on the field in his young career thus far, missing half of last season with an ankle injury and reporting to the team out of shape as a rookie.

That said, Strong reportedly has developed a strong rapport with announced-starting quarterback Tom Savage. Anybody who saw the countless incompletions and interceptions Osweiler tossed towards Hopkins last season can attest to the importance of chemistry and communication between a quarterback and his wideouts, so Strong has that at least working for him. And lest we forget, Strong is a good athlete himself—he had an NFL Combine-high 42-inch vertical leap and ran a 4.44″ 40. He will have to stretch the field to the best of his ability to open up Hopkins.

2. Braxton Miller

Strong has spent a lot of time in the slot when on the field, so if he is moving wide, then Miller, the second-year converted wide receiver from Ohio State, will need to step up as well. Miller’s rookie season was far from successful, with just 15 catches and 99 yards in 10 games. You read that correctly—he averaged fewer than 10 receiving yards per game.

Miller’s story is well-known; after being named the Big Ten MVP two years in a row, shoulder problems relegated him to the third-string. He made the switch to wide receiver and in his lone season at that position, caught 24 passes for 329 yards and three scores while adding 234 yards and another touchdown on the ground. Coming out of college, he was considered a high-upside raw receiving prospect.

Miller’s measurables are spectacular. His 4.50″ 40 and 35-inch vertical leap are solid, but it’s Miller’s change-of-direction drills that indicate he could be a weapon out of the slot. Miller recorded combine-best times of 6.65″ in the 3-cone drill, 4.07″ in the 20-yard shuttle, and 10.84″ in the 60-yard shuttle. Miller has the potential to be a fantastic weapon in this offense, but he needs to gain a better command of the system, become a better, more consistent route runner, and stay healthy. Miller struggled to make an impact while playing through hamstring issues last season, but it was another shoulder injury that landed him on injured reserve in December.

3. Tyler Ervin

Fuller made an impact on the Texans’ return game last season, and his speed and vision will be missed on the special teams unit. Already entering the season as the 32nd ranked group, the Texans’ special teams couldn’t get much worse than they were a year ago. To climb out of the bottomless pit of despair, the team will need Ervin to perform substantially better than a year ago.

Ervin was drafted for his athleticism; the former fourth-round pick was the combine top-performer in the 40 (4.41″), vertical jump (39.0″), and broad jump (130.0″). Those talents however did not translate to the field his rookie year. Ervin registered just three catches and a single carry for 21 yards in 2016.

As a returner though, Ervin was eighth in the league in average punt return yards (9.7). Fuller, in just 11 punt returns, racked up 167 yards and a score; in addition, Fuller returned two punts for 34 yards in the playoffs, while Ervin fumbled twice. Ervin will have to step up his return game to fill in for Fuller’s absence.