HOUSTON - The Houston Texans had started to move on after the DeAndre Hopkins debacle, and Will Fuller's emergence was a big reason why there could be some confidence in the wide receiver group in Houston.
But that was "then.'' This is "now.''
Fuller's most recent misstep, where he blamed a doctor for administering a substance banned by the NFL leading to a suspension, throws a wrench in the plans for the pass-catchers.
Fuller's ascension to an NFL No. 1 was clear this season. He had been healthy for the whole season with the exception of a hiccup against the Ravens. He was running every route. His chemistry with QB Deshaun Watson was never more apparent. The team rebuffed offers for him at the trade deadline.
Now, his future is a huge question mark. What one day ago would have been simply deciding how much money the Texans could afford to pay Fuller could turn into a nasty discussion of how much the team can trust Fuller.
This is the fifth season in a row in which Fuller has missed significant time. The previous four seasons were all injury-related. With a banned substance behind his suspension the questions about how exactly he stayed healthy this season come into serious question.
The Texans still need a true No. 1 receiver, though.
Brandin Cooks has filled in nicely to his role with the team. Watson's chemistry with him has grown too. But he is far from a top receiver and is better suited in the second wideout role. His contract will be an interesting discussion point in the offseason, too.
Cooks is set to make $12 million, but none of the money left on his deal, which runs through 2023, is guaranteed. The team will keep him, but almost assuredly they will want to lower the cap hit and Cooks will desire some sort of guaranteed money.
Randall Cobb is for sure on the 2021 team with a dead-money charge of over $12 million next season. Keke Coutee should be back on the final season of his rookie deal. Both players are exclusively inside wide receivers and so there isn't much to worry about there.
Back outside, life without Fuller could be grim. Rookie Isaiah Coulter has yet to play an NFL snap despite having practiced with the team for a few weeks. He should be forced into duty with Fuller's absence and the departure of Kenny Stills. Steven Mitchell is a former undrafted free agent who has been with the Texans for the better part of three seasons.
Neither would inspire confidence as the starter opposite Cooks next season.
While free agency boasts a varying level of veterans such as A.J. Green, Allen Robinson, T.Y. Hilton and Marvin Jones, the Texans are light on cap space. Pursuing a free agent at wide receiver would be expensive and those players would need to build a relationship with Watson on top of learning a new offense.
This brings the Texans back to Fuller and his suspension. Could it potentially be a blessing in disguise?
The Texans surely can't use the franchise tag on a player who has never played a full season. Guaranteeing that level of investment is something the previous general manager would do, hopefully not the next one.
What is Fuller's market? Robby Anderson, who left the Jets for the Panthers, signed for $10 million a year for two years. Fuller has played about 20 fewer games than Anderson has in his career.
Approaching Fuller for an extremely team-friendly and backloaded deal is a possibility. It would be a new general manager and regime talking to Fuller. Just business. Fuller has shown he can succeed with Watson, and all the questions the Texans have about him the other teams in the NFL will have too.
Factoring in a potentially depressed free agent market due to teams being impacted financially by COVID-19, Fuller's best option may be a very friendly deal for the Texans.
While Fuller won't play in the season opener of 2021 due to his suspension, he very well could - all things considered - still be in a Texans uniform while sitting out.