Tank Dell called his shot in the huddle, signaling what was about to unfold. When the Texans’ diminutive rookie wide receiver told C.J. Stroud, “I’m gonna go deep,” the rookie quarterback turned that message into a touchdown pass.
Stroud rolled out to his right, eluding pressure and Dell created separation behind Arizona Cardinals cornerback Marco Wilson. He was already cooked as Stroud delivered a perfect spiral into the outstretched hands of a leaping Dell for a 40-yard touchdown.
That marked Dell’s franchise rookie record sixth touchdown catch of the season with seven games remaining in the regular season for a playoff contender competing for the AFC South division title.
Although obviously undersized at 5-foot-8, 165 pounds, the former University of Houston star is proving that his speed, skills and heart mean a lot more than his measurements and weight.
Dell caught a season-high eight passes for 149 yards, another rookie single-game record for him, in a 21-16 victory over the Cardinals.
Drafted in the third round, Dell ranks second in the NFL among rookie receivers for yards behind the Los Angeles Rams’ Puka Nacua’s 897 yards and second in touchdown catches with one less than Minnesota Vikings first-round pick Jordan Addison. He leads all NFL rookies with a 15.7 average per catch. And he’s tied with Andre Johnson with three 100-yard receiving performances for the franchise rookie record.
“Everybody in the NFL is good,” Dell said. “Everybody excels at certain things. Me being fast and quick and knowing how to be a separator, that’s my God-given ability. I work on that and God gave me that. That’s what I try to use to the best of my advantage. Other players use their physicality. I can get physical when I ant to.”
After the NFL draft, Dell wrote down a list of the eight wide receivers drafted ahead of him for additional motivational fuel. That included first-round draft picks Jaxon Smith-Njigba (Seattle Seahawks), Quentin Johnston (Los Angeles Chargers), Zay Flowers (Baltimore Ravens), Addison and second-round picks Jonathan Mingo (Carolina Panthers), Jayden Reed (Green Bay Packers), Rashee Rice (Kansas City Chiefs) and Marvin Mims (Oklahoma). Nine games into his rookie year, Dell has been proving his point.
“Man, Tank is the example that objects in the mirror may appear different, and he’s every bit of that,” said Justin Allen, an elite NFL trainer based in Houston who helped Dell prepare for his first NFL season. “He’s just having fun now. Everything we talked about, he’s living it. Beyond proud of him.”
Yes, Dell is smaller than his fellow rookies.
Yes, his 4.49 40-yard dash is good, but not great.
None of that matters, though. Especially not to Dell.
“It’s just extra motivation that made me walk around with two chips on my shoulder,” Dell said. “When I do get my chance to go out there and perform in front of the millions of people, I just try my best and do what I have to do and God blesses me.”
Dell ranks second on the team in receiving yards behind Nico Collins even though he missed one game after suffering a concussion when he landed on his head against the Atlanta Falcons. He’s third on the all-time Texans franchise single-season rookie receiving yardage list behind Andre Johnson’s 976 yards in 2003 and DeAndre Hopkins’ 802 yards in 2013.
Dell is also a willing and effective blocker despite giving up a lot of inches and pounds to the defenders he routinely walls off downfield.
“The best thing I would actually say is that he thinks he’s Nico Collins in the run game,” Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik said. “My man will throw himself in there with reckless abandon to the point where we have to pull him back, and I love that because he attacks everything the same way. He’s an elite separator in the pass game.
“He’s made tons and tons of plays in the pass game. Has a lot of speed and, yet, still is going to go try to put his hat on a safety in the run game when he’s about half his size. To me, that says a lot. That says a lot about how much he cares about the team, what he is, what his character is, and I think that’s why he continues to just grow and grow and improve through the course of the year. I think that’s who he is as a man.”
Dell has showed the same explosiveness, crisp hands and precise attention to detail that he’s routinely displayed throughout an impressive training camp and preseason that has earned him a major role in the passing game and as a returner for the Texans.
And Dell hasn’t forgotten those names of his peers drafted before him.
“I still remember those names, I’ve got them written down,” Dell said. “Nothing personal. I feel like the hardest worker is going to go the farthest. I’m always going to be the hardest worker in the room.”
And toughness is a part of his game, too.
Dell embraces the physical aspect of the game.
“Because we want to see each other succeed,” Dell said. “We know if the running game is going, it opens up the pass game. If the pass game is going, it opens up the run game. We’re an unselfish team. We want to see each other win and succeed and bypass our goals we set for ourselves.”
A well-traveled 23-year-old, the Daytona Beach, Fla.. native played at Alabama A&M and Independence Community College before accepting a scholarship offer from the Coogs. He finished with 292 career receptions for 4,285 yards and 43 touchdowns.
“For Tank, the vision is the same,” said private coach Delfonte Diamond, who coaches multiple standout NFL wide receivers in a group that includes the Dallas Cowboys’ CeeDee Lamb and the San Francisco 49ers’ Deebo Samuel. “Tank showed in college that he was an explosive playmaker. We expect him to do the same thing in the NFL, just to be himself. Electric receiver. Anything a receiver needs, he can do. He can play outside. He can play slot. I’m talking about a lethal weapon.
“Tank understands the game. He’s an all-around player. There’s a lot of cats that are as fast as Tank, but they can’t control their speed. It’s always about body control, foot placement. He’s the total package.”
How Dell has performed reinforced that his game translates at the NFL level.
Although Dell is a smaller wide receiver, his routes are explosive and textbook in terms of fundamentals at creating separation.
Signed to a four-year, $5.719 million contract that includes a $1.159 million signing bonus, Dell was drafted with the 69th overall pick after the Texans traded up to acquire him.
Dell caught 90 passes for 1,329 yards and 212 touchdowns in 2021.
A two-time all-conference selection, Dell caught 109 passes for a nation-high 1,398 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. He finished second in the nation in catches.
Texans rookie starting quarterback C.J. Stroud encouraged general manager Nick Caserio to draft Dell after bonding with him at the NFL scouting combine. Caserio was already sold on Dell, though.
“I’m super proud to see the fruits of his labor pay off and he’s going to continue to do great things,” Stroud said. “He’s definitely a superstar in this league. He’s going to continue to show that. I’m really proud of that dude. He works his tail off every day.”
Stroud and Dell have formed a strong friendship that began at the combine and has grown and grown. They spend a lot of time together off the field and frequently talk about football on the nuances of the game.
“I think it just kind of happened naturally,” Stroud said. “I think that’s how real friendships work. You don’t force it. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. So, we just had a lot of similarities and differences, and we were just cool.
“It isn’t really anything crazy. I don’t think we try to do make it work or anything, we were just cool. It’s been cool to just have a good friend to lean on, not only on the field, but off as well. So, yeah, that’s my brother.”
Dell credits his coaches, including Slowik, DeMeco Ryans and Ben McDaniels for putting himself in position to succeed.
And they’ve seen how he has overcome any obstacles, perceived or real, to excel in the NFL.
“He’s found his own way of being able to navigate fighting through contact, being able to navigate press,” Slowik said. “How can I make sure that when guys are trying to be physical with me, I can limit that and still get to an edge and find a way to separate the top of the route. I’m not going to spill any of his tricks, but he’s got his own little ways that he’s figured out to do that and get that done, and obviously a route tree and stuff like that can help offset some of that. He’s made the size issue almost a non-factor.
“The first thing you notice with Tank is speed. And I’d say the second thing that really is incredible for a guy that moves as fast as he does, he can change directions faster than really anyone I’ve ever been around or seen. Like, how fast he gets out of breaks without really losing much speed at all I think is different than most guys in the NFL, to the point where I’d say it’s elite. Once you meet Tank, you’re sold. He’s about as good of a man as we have on the team. He’s really fun to be around. I don’t know many people that, when he’s mentioned, they don’t immediately smile.”
Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.