HOUSTON -- Although DeAndre Hopkins is the Houston Texans' top receiver, it has been clear that receiver Will Fuller has been an important target for Deshaun Watson as well. With the team having won five straight games and sitting atop the AFC South, it is imperative that the Texans replace Fuller's production after he tore the ACL in his right knee during Thursday night's victory over the Miami Dolphins.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, 24 of Watson's 34 career passing touchdowns have gone to Hopkins or Fuller. In the 11 games Watson and Fuller have played together, the pair have connected for 11 touchdowns.
Watson and Fuller's success started last season, when the quarterback was a rookie. This year, they picked up where they left off. Fuller averaged 11.7 yards per target this season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, among players averaging six targets per game when Fuller went down, that ranks second in the NFL.
ESPN's Adam Schefter reports Fuller will have surgery this week and is expected to miss six to nine months. Even if it's closer to nine months, that will allow Fuller to be ready around the start of training camp next year.
Coach Bill O'Brien said the Texans will first look at their own team to see how they can use players in other positions to help replace Fuller's production, but he also said he and general manager Brian Gaine will "explore everything."
O'Brien acknowledged that while Houston has other receivers who can fill in for Fuller, "obviously, if they could do them like Will [Fuller], they would've been out there like Will."
One player who should help make up some of Fuller's missed production is rookie receiver Keke Coutee. The fourth-round pick had a strong debut after missing three weeks with a hamstring injury. Coutee injured his other hamstring in the Texans' Week 7 victory against the Jaguars and missed Houston's Thursday night victory.
O'Brien said he hopes Coutee "can come back at some point" from the injury, and though he acknowledged that the rookie has a very different skill set than the speedy Fuller, the Texans' ability to move Coutee around on the field should help. The rookie is primarily a slot receiver, though, so he won't be able to help Houston spread the field as it would with Fuller.
"I think Keke's a very versatile guy," O'Brien said. "He can do a lot of different -- you've seen us put him in the backfield, he's played on the outside, obviously he plays on the inside -- so he's got versatility. A little bit different than Will [Fuller], no doubt about it."
Along with Hopkins and Coutee, the Texans have Sammie Coates and Vyncint Smith, who have combined for two catches this season. Smith has similar speed to Fuller but has been inactive when Coutee is in the lineup. Houston could also lean on its tight ends in the passing game, especially rookie Jordan Thomas, who has made several big plays for the Texans this season and had his first two NFL touchdowns against the Dolphins.
With the trade deadline on Tuesday, Houston could explore adding a veteran receiver, though it seems unlikely the Texans would want to add a big salary or a long-term deal with Fuller expected back next season. Houston could find a fit in Buccaneers receiver DeSean Jackson or Lions receiver Golden Tate, but neither is likely to be available with their teams hanging around the playoff race in the NFC.
On Sunday, Schefter reported that 49ers receiver Pierre Garcon has drawn interest from teams. Another possibility of a receiver on a team who is unlikely to make a playoff run is Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas, who has one more season on his contract -- the 2019 season -- and has a $17.533 million salary for that season. If the Texans did make a move, it would likely be for the rest of 2018.
Houston has the draft capital to make a trade. The team has all of its picks for the 2019 draft and an additional second-round pick acquired from the Seahawks in exchange for left tackle Duane Brown last season. However, the team will have several holes to fill after going without a first- or second-round pick in 2018.
Gaine and O'Brien are unlikely to mortgage the Texans' future to trade for an available receiver. A mid-round pick wouldn't be unreasonable for a veteran receiver such as Garcon or Thomas, though.
Regardless of what the Texans do, O'Brien said Houston knows it has a void to fill with Fuller's absence, and the coaching staff will need to figure out how to "construct the offense" with the changes.
"I think if you go through every team, everybody's dealing with injuries," O'Brien said. "It's such a cliché, but the coaching staff, the players, we all have to pitch in and figure it out and figure out how we're going to construct the offense. Maybe some things will be the same. Maybe some things will be a little bit different."