Rising stars: Unlocking the next chapter in Houston Texans' air attack

Rising stars: Unlocking the next chapter in Houston Texans' air attack
Nico Collins will be leaned on heavily with Tank Dell injured. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.

Nobody wants to see a player get hurt. It's heightened when it's a player on the team you root for. Fellow players share this sentiment. It hits their teammates and coaches differently. Especially when a hard working teammate who beats the odds and naysayers to prove himself worthy of the position he's in. That's how it was when Tank Dell went down with a fractured fibula in the team's win over the Broncos.

To see how emotional C.J. Stroud got about Dell being injured says a lot. First, about Stroud. He's proven to be a leader on and off the field. No surprise it hit him hard. Perhaps a little extra since those guys have grown close. Second, it lets you know what kind of teammate Dell is that his guys are this hurt. It also speaks to the closeness of this team. DeMeco Ryans is building something special here.

Likely out for the season is the team's most dynamic playmaker on the outside, and Stroud's favorite target. A void will need to be filled. This team is just on the outside looking into the AFC playoff picture. Sitting in the eighth spot, they have the same record as the Steelers (fifth), Browns (sixth), and Colts (seventh). A division tiebreaker is why the Texans aren't in. They beat the Steelers already and play the Browns on Christmas Eve. The Colts are their last game of the season. It's not only possible, it's very probable.

In order to achieve the success they seem destined to have, guys will need to step up. Nico Collins has stepped up his game. He has 59 catches for 991 yards and six touchdowns this season. That's more yards and touchdowns than his previous two seasons combined. By season's end, he will have more catches than the previous two seasons combined as well. He's shown that he and Stroud have good chemistry. Collins has had six games with five or more catches this season. Stroud has looked for him in key situations, and in a variety of routes/levels on the field. I have no doubt Collins will continue to produce and try to prove he's WR1 on this team.

When looking at the rest of the receiver room, there are several other guys I believe will step up. John Metchie III comes to mind. Stroud missed him on a deep ball in the Broncos game. It was an overthrow and seemed as if there may have been a miscommunication. Metchie hasn't played much since being activated after recovering from cancer treatment. That along with a crowded receiver room has made it difficult. Dell was playing the position people thought Metchie would be playing. Dell proved he's better in the slot, and outside. Now it's time for Metchie to prove why he was drafted in the second round last year.

Xavier Hutchinson and Noah Brown are interesting candidates as well. Hutchinson was one of the team's sixth round draft picks this past draft. He's got a similar build/frame to Collins. Big targets are always a quarterback's best friend. Brown was a free agent who signed a one-year deal. He has 14 catches for 325 yards and a touchdown in the previous two games, but had no catches on two targets against the Broncos. One of these two guys will have a breakout down the stretch. Brown has had a couple big games already, but Hutchinson could be the one to benefit from more playing time the most. These two are the ones nobody is really looking at to do anything significant. Which is why Brown's previous two games seemed so out of left field, and even more of a reason why if either guy, especially Hutchinson, does anything down the stretch, it'll be seen as extraordinary.

Honorable mention goes to Steven Sims. He's been on/off the 53-man roster this season. They've primarily used him in the return game. That's where I expect to see him get the most playing time with Dell out. If he gets a chance to showcase his shiftiness and speed catching passes, he could earn more playing time. If you're wondering why I didn't mention the tight ends or Robert Woods, it was on purpose. Woods is an older vet who may not be long for this team. The tight ends don't split out in this offense and rarely line up in the slot.

This team will be just fine without Dell. While his presence will be sorely missed, there's enough in that receiver room to get the job done. Please don't forget who's the trigger man. Stroud is like a world-class marksman. Hand him any weapon, and he's guaranteed to hit his target.

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