The Texans' Secret Weapon
When a team brings in a new coaching staff; that coaching staff tends to overhaul the former roster with “their guys”. The first draft for a new regime is usually the most important draft. It is a tone-setter; an opportunity to find cornerstone players that fit the culture that the staff is trying to create. In Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch’s first year, the 49ers drafted George Kittle in the fifth round. In Andy Reid’s first year with the Chiefs, they drafted Travis Kelce in the second round. While neither of these picks were necessarily as high as CJ Stroud or Will Anderson for the Texans, they were players who if all else fails, fit the energy and culture that Coach Shanahan and Coach Reid were trying to bring to their teams.
While it is easy to see how Stroud and Anderson fit the SWARM mindset that Coach Demeco Ryans is bringing to Houston, I believe a player who was not as coveted in this year’s draft will nascent the culture that Ryans hopes to build. That player is third round pick, Tank Dell, a wide receiver from the University of Houston. Dell, a 5’8 slot receiver, inherently plays bigger than his size. The combination of competitiveness and savviness drives Dell to consistently be searching for an advantage and find ways to stay one step ahead of the opposition (both figuratively and literally). It is that same desire for greatness and grandiose presence that is going to set an example for how every other player needs to carry themself under Ryans’ operation.
It is undeniable that the overall team is going to radiate the energy that Ryans brings as a head coach, but the offense will be led by coordinator Bobby Slowik. Slowik is a Kyle Shanahan disciple which means running the football is engrained in him, but he majored in the pass game for the 49ers’ offense the past two seasons. While Tank Dell does not have the physical prowess that makes Deebo Samuel dynamic after the catch or the length and athleticism of Brandon Aiyuk; I believe Tank Dell has the talent that will make him the next great offensive weapon in the Shanahan scheme.
Like I mentioned earlier, Dell has physical limitations due to his shorter stature and limited reach. While I do not believe these constraints will prevent him from being an elite player in the NFL, it is going to be hard to be overly productive on the outside due to the size and speed combination modern-day corner backs. With that being said, I believe Dell has the skillset to be a threat for opposing defenses in the slot and coming out of the backfield.
In the more recent years, the 49ers’ have favored bigger slot receivers like Jauan Jennings (6’3) and Kendrick Bourne (6’1) to provide more of a presence as blockers in the run game. Even Mike McDaniel, the most recent Shanahan disciple to get a head coaching job, showed a preference to a bigger slot receiver with Cedrick Wilson (6’2). While bigger receivers intrinsically have an advantage as run blockers due to their frame and length, the most important trait needed to be a good blocker is willingness. For Dell, that willingness is my biggest question regarding his game. He has shown that “want” before (as seen in the video below), but not consistently. While Dell is undoubtedly competitive, his effort as a run blocker brings that competitive nature into question. Current wide receivers coach, Ben McDaniels, is the younger brother of former long-time Patriots offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels. If he is anything like his older brother, he is going to make receivers block and slot receivers a focal point of the offense.
My favorite part of scouting is figuring out what a player can be; building off his strengths and creating capabilities. Dell’s three greatest strengths are his foot quickness, short-area burst, and ability to change directions. There are only a few players who are capable of doing Davante Adams’ “hop release”, and I believe Dell is one of those few players. Adams’ patented release is exactly what it sounds like. Coming off the line of scrimmage, he hops forward and gets squared up with the defensive back in press coverage. The reason many players are incapable of doing this release is because when a receiver is squared up with a defensive back in press coverage, he leaves his chest open which allows the defensive back to jam him at the line of scrimmage. What allows both Adams and Dell to do the hop release is their foot quickness. Both players are capable of placing and planting their feet faster than the typical defensive back can react and throw their hands.
Dell’s foot quickness pairs very well with his short area burst and ability to change directions. He is an efficient mover that turns upfield immediately after his the catch. His ability to plant one foot in the ground and place the other in the opposite direction is going to give him an opportunity to thrive in space. In the passing game, the Slowik’s offense is going to be built upon getting his playmakers the ball in space and gain yards after the catch. While Dell is not as powerful as Deebo Samuel, Dell’s quickness is going to flourish as a ball carrier.
There is a rare meticulousness that Dell runs his routes with. He creates two-way goes at the top of his routes and his short-area burst lets him capitalize off of slower processing defensive backs. Whether it is at the line of scrimmage or at the top of his route, as soon Dell is squared up with the defensive back he is able to gain separation by exploding off of two feet similar to an edge rusher getting off of the ball. While Dell may not have the best long speed in the draft, his short area burst is up there with the best.
The best receivers in the NFL all have phenomenal spacial awareness that allows them to attack open zones in defense and manipulate defenders in man coverage. Dell does a tremendous job at finding the blind spots of defensive backs in man coverage and getting behind middle of the field defenders in zone coverage. The best slot receivers also tend to be the smartest ones, and Dell’s football IQ is apparent when watching him play. If we are using car references, Dell puts pressure on defenders’ blind spots and has phenomenal acceleration. He is able to change his speed and turn on another gear which makes life extremely difficult for defensive backs especially when they are moving backwards. On second and third level concepts, Dell has demonstrated the ability to use the “throw-by” technique. That type of speed perception is difficult to put into words, but Dell’s feel for the game is going to put him in positions where he is wide open in the middle of the field.
Dell knows how to get open, it is as simple as that. His ability to match what he sees in his head and put it on the field reminds me of Cooper Kupp. Kupp is the best slot receiver in the NFL and it is not because he is bigger, faster, or stronger than the opposition, but it is because he is smarter and quicker than the opposition. While Dell’s hands are not as reliable as Kupp’s, I believe Dell is possesses similar traits that could develop in a similar fashion to Kupp’s.
In Coach Slowik’s offense, I believe he is going to be heavily featured on option routes where Dell can run his route based off of the defensive back’s leverage. While the two play different positions, I believe Dell will have a similar route tree to George Kittle for the Texans offense. Kittle is heavily used over the middle of the field at the first and second level. Kittle has a certain level of freedom when running routes due to his instinctual way of gaining separation against man coverage, and I believe Dell has a similar enigmatic approach.
While Dell’s lack of size may prevent him from ever being a consistent threat on the outside, he has the chance to be CJ Stroud’s go-to guy in the slot and Coach Slowik will find ways to isolate him one on one. I could even Slowik putting a package together where Dell is running option routes out of the backfield to get him the ball in space. One of the most promising aspects of Dell’s game is his consistent improvement. Dell spent over four years in college, and got better every single year. In his final two collegiate seasons, Dell caught 27 touchdowns and had over 2,700 receiving yards. If Dell continues at this pace and keeps adding to his game, he could very well end up not only being Houston’s secret weapon, but most lethal one too.