HOUSTON - Nick Caserio needed to make the call. For now, that call is leading to an important possible departure.
The Houston Texans will need to find a true No. 1 receiver, as Will Fuller doesn't seem to be their guy. Houston elected not to franchise tag him, allow the fifth-year pro to test the waters of free agency.
Fuller, who will possibly end his time with 209 catches for 3,110 yards and 24 touchdowns in 52 games with the Texans, could garner a hefty payday. His 4.28 speed will be highly regarded on the open market for teams looking to add a vertical presence.
What does all this mean for Houston moving forward? The TexansDaily.com staff comes together to give their Roundtable thoughts.
Cole Thompson: Alright guys, let's talk about this move. Houston certainly has made their fair share of mistakes in the past 18 months, but this is a move I personally understand. Tagging Fuller comes with its perks, but there's also the risk of him missing time like he has for the past five seasons.
The difference? His salary hit this time would be over $15 million on the tag. He's always flashed the upside, but it never stuck. It felt like fans were waiting to see that breakout potential and it only came in a handful
Either way it was a risk with Fuller. I could save that type of money in free agency, gain a comp pick later and use the cash for smarter purposes. Do you two agree?
Anthony Wood: I must admit that as much as I enjoy watching Fuller play in Houston, this move could be seen a mile off. While their salary cap situation has improved somewhat in recent weeks with Caserio trimming down the roster, affording the franchise tag or a long-term deal for Fuller along with all the other free agent/draft moves they will have coming up was always going to be tough at best.
Also — you hinted at this Cole — the concern with Fuller's health remains. Because of said suspension, he still hasn't played a full 16 game season. And while he seemed healthy in 2020, how much of that was down to the PED he was banned for having taken? It could have had absolutely nothing to do with it, but how can teams be sure?
I also believe that the sound production from players like Keke Coutee and Chad Hansen following Fuller's suspension did somewhat hurt his value. It raises the question of how much of Fuller's production was down to him, and how much was enhanced by Watson? He made Hansen look excellent at times, despite the fact he hadn't played since 2017.
Mike Fisher: One thing about free agency and the cap: When a team suggests, 'We can't afford him,' what they really mean is, 'We don't like him enough to afford him.' Tagging Fuller would've made things tight for now - but Houston passed on doing so out of "choice,'' not "need.''
Thompson: The biggest concern now though is what to make of Deshaun Watson in all of this? Should Fuller join another team, two of his three best weapons since entering the league will be gone. And sure, he's under contract until 2025, but does that strain the relationship even more? Houston knew Fuller was a player Watson specifically wanted back in the building this offseason.
I get the reasoning for letting Fuller go. His breakout stats came in moments, he missed time and in a loaded wide receiver class, it's easier to start fresh on a cheaper option. Still, Watson's relationship in Houston is rocky and this probably doesn't make it better, wouldn't you agree?
Wood: This absolutely will not help. As you said, Watson was keen on Fuller remaining in Houston, but the cap was just too tight. Realistically, unless Fuller would have been willing to take a team-friendly deal, there just wasn't a deal to be made, especially with the salary cap set to plateau.
Players know that at the end of it all, this is a business. Teammates will come and go regardless of how much they may appreciate working with one another. Fuller is an excellent player, but there are plenty of free agents and potential draft targets who could be equally productive with Watson as their franchise guy.
To be frank, Watson's relationship with the Texans already appears to have hit rock-bottom. As such, it's hard to imagine this move could make it any worse than it already was.
Fisher: Not that star players should dictate who should be on their roster, but their voice should be heard. Houston seemed to realize that for a moment with Watson ... but then Jack Easterby or somebody lost Deshaun's number, or the dog ate Jack's homework, or something. But yeah, if you wanted to curry favor with Deshaun, you keep Fuller.
And by the way ... "keep'' doesn't mean "tag.''
"Keep'' could've meant, "Sign him to a contract.''
Thompson: The first question now is, where do the Texans go from here with Fuller? They could resign him to massive deal or potentially let him walk in free agency to a different club.
For me personally, this all comes down to pricing. Fuller put up record-setting numbers in his career during a contract season. He was healthy, playing great and well on his way to his first 1,000 yard season. Then came the suspension that led to him missing the final five games of the season.
That's now four seasons of 11 games or fewer. It's why I get Caserio not offering the tag. However, he still has value and could be looking for a "prove-it" deal rather than say an average salary of $7 million over the next four season. Should he be willing to return on a one-year contract, I'd be on board with Fuller returning. What say you?
Wood: A one-year prove-it deal could go a long way to boosting his value ala Tyrann Mathieu. That being said, with the likelihood being the Texans will have either a rookie or stop-gap starter at quarterback next season, that sort of instability and lack of a pre-existing connection between him and the QB likely won't result in any performances or stats that would boost his reputation beyond where it is now.
If — and this is a big if — Caserio can work some magic and convince Fuller to stay then perhaps that could go some way to appeasing Watson. Given they are declining trade calls for him, the impression they're giving off at this point is that they fully believe they can convince him to return next season. Could Fuller be a part of this plan? It seems unlikely, but not impossible.
Fisher: I think it would be strange to skip over the tag option only to turn around and offer Will a "massive'' deal. Houston will appear indecisive if it does that. Probably not the plan.
Thompson: Say Fuller walks in free agency. Where does he best fit?
I personally think a team like Washington would look to add him. They have $54 million in cap space and Ron Rivera has been looking for speed. They also need size, so former Lions receiver Kenny Golladay could be an option.
With all that money and the success of Terry McLaurin, Washington financially could add both in free agency. Maybe target a quarterback in the draft? Either way, after last season's receiver struggles, Fuller could get the money he's looking for in D.C. but where's his best fit for you?
Wood: We heard a lot of rumors that Green Bay was chasing Fuller prior to the trade deadline last season and given Aaron Rodgers' age it makes sense that they'd do all they can to win while he's still playing. Fuller would go a long way to doing so.
New England would also make sense given their lack of standout receivers, but their QB situation would surely be off-putting to a receiver. The other two teams that jump to mind are the Bengals and Dolphins. Both have young quarterbacks and both teams look to be on the up.
Miami looks to be a good fit, especially if Watson is eventually traded there.
Fisher: Remember that Houston could've traded Fuller to Green Bay at the deadline, and maybe just needed to compromise to a third-round pick to do it. Packers make sense.
Thompson: Houston now is going to need a receiver, but how should they go about it?
If I'm Caserio, I'll add a name or two in the draft rather than free agency. Several experts I've spoken to believe that the 2021 class is just as strong at receiver as 2020's. That No.67 pick could have a future Pro Bowl waiting for the taking.
Should he be available, I'm going after UNC's Dyami Brown. He's finished with over 1,000 yards the last two seasons and averaged 20 yards per reception in that time. He's also a touchdown machine who can play on the perimeter or inside.
Brown is a sleeper in the class and would fit Fuller's role, but what would you do in this situation?
Wood: I'm inclined to agree that the draft is the way to go, simply because they need to prioritize their available cap space for veteran defensive starters.
For me, the defense has to be their priority at this point. Reason being, they have Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb, and Coutee all returning. They were each capable receivers with Watson. The defensive line and defensive backfield need work from top to bottom.
Thankfully, this is a deep receiver class and there's value to be found across the board. Of the guys I've looked at so far, the standouts have been UAB's Austin Watkins, Illinois' Josh Imatorbhebhe, and Tennessee's Josh Palmer. Each fit the bill for a tall and productive outside receiver - Watkins in particular.
There's also a number of other receivers available like North Texas' Jaelon Darden or South Carolina's Shi Smith who might not be the tallest but equally have potential.
Fisher: I think what Houston does here will help reveal what they really think they are in 2021. If Caserio and company view themselves as a non-contender, they won't tend to spend. And they do likely view themselves as a rebuilding team and therefore a non-contender ... right?
Oh, and also: How do big-time free agents view the 2021 Texans? If they also view Houston as a non-contender ... well, with Deshaun in limbo, this is not exactly an "NFL destination city'' right now.