HOUSTON – The friendship between Texans rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud and wide receiver Tank Dell was launched at the NFL scouting combine.
Their chemistry as teammates began immediately after an NFL draft that included Stroud encouraging Texans general manager Nick Caserio to select the diminutive University of Houston standout.
On Sunday, their connection was on full display as they both adapted on the fly to combine for an explosive 40-yard touchdown pass that represented a key moment in the Texans’ narrow 21-16 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
When Stroud felt pressure up the middle in the second quarter, he modified a drop-back pass and rolled out to his right as he scrambled away from pursuit. As Stroud made his move out of the pocket, he pointed toward the back pylon of the end zone. Although Dell didn’t see the signal from Stroud, he broke off his post route and angled toward the back corner of the end zone after creating separation behind cornerback Marco Wilson
“I didn’t even see 7 point, we just work on that scramble drill at practice,” Dell said. “It’s basically like backyard football. I got out of my route. I saw him getting flushed out of the pocket, so I just turned it up, worked the high part of the field. He threw a great ball and we connected again.”
It wasn’t quite that simple, even if Dell’s athleticism and body control made it seem that way.
Dell twisted his body in the air to get fully into the path of Stroud’s spiral and came down with a touchdown that broke the Texans’ franchise single-season rookie record for most touchdown catches as he surpassed retired Pro Bowl tight end Owen Daniels
“It’s just tracking the ball over my shoulder,” Dell said. “The cornerback wasn’t looking back at the ball. He was just looking at me running, made sure he didn’t play through my hands. C.J. threw a dot, and I grabbed the ball.
“When you got 7 back there, you probably should be scared. He’s a special man. He’s a special football player. Seven is the best player on the field every time he sets foot on the field.”
Dell caught a season-high eight passes for 149 yards on 10 targets.
It wasn’t a surprise to anyone to see Dell, a speedy 5-foot-8, 165-pound third-round draft pick, excel again. He’s been doing that all season and has caught 42 passes for 659 yards and six scores for the 6-4 Texans, a playoff contender.
“As I see C.J. rolling towards our sideline, I look up and I see Tank has a step on the defender,” Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said. “And, when I see those two in a position to make a play, nine times out of 10, Tank is coming down with that ball. To see Tank go up, as soon as it left C.J.’s hand, I knew it was a touchdown.”
With seven games remaining in the regular season for the 6-4 Texans, an emerging AFC South playoff contender, Dell is on pace to finish the season with 71 catches for 1,120 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s averaging 15.7 yards per reception and already has 31 first downs.
“I’m super proud of him,” said Stroud, the leading NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate who’s also an MVP possibility. “He was somebody who I was in contact with right after we both got drafted. We stayed in contact and just were helping each other with the plays and things like that. We got here, and we had just a natural connection. And that’s grown from hard work, being very disciplined and things like that.
“I’m super proud to see the fruits of his labor pay off and he’s going to continue to do great things. 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. I’ve never seen somebody work as hard as him at receiver other than who I went to college with, and you can see on his navigation, his speed. He’s running full speed every day, and that’s hard to do. He’s definitely a great, great talent, a great player and a great person. I’m blessed enough to be teammates with him.”
On the touchdown pass, the Texans’ final points of the game, as they didn’t score after halftime, Stroud managed to improvise to find Dell open in the end zone.
It was just the latest example of the growing connection between Stroud and Dell. And this is just the beginning.
“They got a little pressure, so I was able to get the edge and escape,” Stroud said. “Those are things that we work on in practice, this scramble drill. He made a distinct move and took off to the back pylon and I felt like he had good leverage on the defender. And just trying to give him a shot and throw a good ball. And I don’t know if he’d seen me or not, but I know he caught it, and it was a really great catch.
“I’m really happy that play was able to be made. And I think that we can build, on top of that, as something in this league that you have to be great at is a scramble drill. Sometimes they do good in coverage. They get paid, too. For us to be able to pull out a win and Tank to make plays the way he’s been able to make them, to be able to run the ball, it’s something we’ll continue to build on.”
Dell celebrated his third 100-yard receiving game of the season by executing his stated plan to receivers coach Ben McDaniels to jump into the stands at NRG Stadium.
“They wouldn’t let me up at first,” Dell said. “My leg was stuck at the side, but they scooted over, and I got up there. It was fun.”
Two stalls down from Dell’s locker, offensive guard Shaq Mason was singing his praises.
That includes reasons beyond winning an actual football game. Dell is on Mason’s fantasy team and earned him 28 points.
“That guy makes plays regardless of size, regardless of height, No. 3 is going to make plays,” Mason said. “I told him he got me 28 points on fantasy. I needed that.”
Does Mason need to reciprocate with something for Dell? Perhaps a nice dinner?
“Shaq owes me a lot,” Dell said with a smile.
Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.