NEED FOR SPEED

How Texans' electrifying addition is raising expectations on offense

How Texans' electrifying addition is raising expectations on offense
The Texans haven't had a burner like this in a while. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images.

The Houston Texans added an element to their offense they have been missing for the past few seasons when they selected Nathaniel “Tank” Dell in the third round of the 2023 draft. That element is explosiveness.

Dell starred for the Houston Cougars less than seven miles away from NRG Stadium for a bulk of his collegiate year. He caught 211 passes for 2,904 yards and 28 receiving touchdowns in his three seasons with UH.

In each one of those seasons, Dell had at least one play that went 54 yards or longer. During the 2022 season, Dell led the entire country in reception touchdowns with 17, and he also led the nation with 1,398 receiving yards.

While Dell’s 40-yard dash time at the NFL Combine was 4.49 seconds, there is no questioning how he can impact any game with his speed. Dell excelled for UH when he was in the slot. It is a big reason why he played 388 snaps at slot for the Cougars during the 2022 season, according to Pro Football Focus.

With the Texans having outside receivers like Nico Collins and the expected return of John Metchie as well as the addition of Robert Woods and others, including rookie Xavier Hutchinson, Houston’s new-look receiving corps could be an underrated group.

If the Texans are able to establish the ground game with second-year back Dameon Pierce and supplement it with Devin Singletary, Dare Ogunbowale and the other running backs on the roster, Houston’s play actions with the threat of Dell taking the top off opposing defenses suddenly opens up the field for rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud.

The Texans have not had a legitimate threat at receiver that can take the top off defenses since Will Fuller during the 2020 season. While Brandin Cooks certainly had big play ability, his speed was not as much of a weapon as it will be for Dell, which makes the offense always capable of producing a big play.

Dell is excited about that possibility as well.

“Explosive plays. I feel like that should be my nickname cause all I know is explosive plays,” Dell told media reporters on a Zoom call Friday night when he was drafted.

Not only can Dell impact games on offense, but on special teams as well. Dell returned nine punts in his final season with Houston, and he scored one touchdown in those nine attempts. He also had two punt returns called back due to penalties in 2022.

While the UH standout’s size and occasional drops (21 over the last two seasons) likely kept him from being a higher prospect, the potential for Dell is sky-high.

It also helps that Stroud and Dell already seem to be building a strong quarterback-receiver relationship. When the team's top quarterback says he wants a specific player at receiver, it tends to bode well for the connection between the two.

While Dell and Stroud have not played together at the collegiate level, the next few weeks will likely be a crash course between the two as they get familiar with each other's game.

The one thing both had in common with their pressers after arriving was that they both have the desire to turn the franchise around from the rebuild. The Stroud-to-Dell duo could be an electric one in the fall and, just maybe, for years to come.

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One presumes the Chicken Littles have stopped clucking about the Astros’ season being a goner, or if not gone, on life support. It wasn’t when they were 7-19. It wasn’t when they were 12-24. It certainly isn’t now that they’ve won six straight games and eight of their last nine. Another three or four weeks of inept play could have doomed them, but the worm has turned. A 20-25 record is no cause for celebration, but it has the Astros within four games of first place. Yes, getting to play the A’s four times this week helped. And?

I detailed the schedule issue on our Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast this week. The Astros were flat lousy for the season’s first six weeks. But… Starting the week the Astros had played a whopping 32 of their 40 games against teams with a winning record as of Monday. The Seattle Mariners had played 23 such games, the Texas Rangers only 16. The Philadelphia Phillies have been sensational so far and are fully legit. But… The Phillies entered the weekend having played three games vs. teams now sporting a winning record. Three! Out of 45 games. Going into this weekend's series only the Blue Jays, White Sox, and Angels had played more games against winning teams than had the Astros. It’s not mere coincidence that the Blue Jays, White Sox, and Angels are the three last place teams in the American League. The Astros were not up to the challenge of their first quarter schedule, but by no means did it render them dead, particularly in the thus far Mild, Mild, American League West.

A good Brewers team visits Minute Maid Park for three games this weekend. The Astros beat their best starter Friday night. Next the Astros get the pathetic Angels here for three before a three-game series at Oakland. Meanwhile the West leading Mariners start a ten-game road trip this weekend: three at the excellent Orioles, four at the excellent Yankees, three at the respectable Nationals. The Astros stand a good chance of overtaking the M’s by the end of this month if they can win the four-game series they open Memorial Day in Seattle.

Meanwhile, the Texas Rangers snapped a five game losing streak Wednesday to eke back over .500 at 23-22. The reigning World Series champs hope to get somewhat well vs. the Angels in Arlington this weekend but dropped the series opener to drop back to .500. For their sake they better because the Rangers then hit the road for Philadelphia and Minnesota.

Naturally, many Astros fans are upset with Ronel Blanco serving a 10 game suspension for illegally using whatever substance on his glove and non-pitching hand. The suspension is basically automatic. The suspension is also not a big problem. Blanco has been fantastic since getting a starting rotation spot only because of Justin Verlander’s delayed start to his season. It’s said that all life owes us is opportunity. Man, did Blanco seize his. With just seven big league starts to his name before entering this season as a 30-year old, Blanco has made eight this season with a sparkling 2.09 earned run average. So, what’s that about the suspension is not a big problem?

Blanco will miss one start and have another pushed back a day or two. That’s just not a big deal. In fact it may be helpful in the bigger picture. With last year being the first time in his professional career that Blanco topped 100 innings pitched (125 1/3), the Astros need to be wary of Blanco’s workload which is on pace to blow past last year’s career-high innings total. J.P. France probably pitched over his head for a while last year, but went well past his prior career-high innings total and faded badly. Cristian Javier was tremendous in 2022 while pitching more than in any previous year, but he pitched even more in 2023 and faded badly.

Alex Bregman lives! After being nearly inconceivably inept through the first quarter of the season, the Alex awakening in the Oakland series was not shocking but most welcomed. Over his first 37 games Bregman had a paltry seven extra base hits. Even with a feeble .201 batting average and .534 OPS, that Bregman had scored just eight runs over those 37 games was hard to believe. Then Monday and Tuesday saw five extra base hits and four runs scored.

In a trade not commanding any headlines, Dana Brown Wednesday sent outfielder Corey Julks to the White Sox for 20-year-old low minor league pitcher Luis Rodriguez. There is now no reason to call it a great Astros trade but Brown made a smart deal. Julks had no future here, hence he would have been released if no deal was struck. Taking a flyer on a young arm can’t hurt. Frankly, the White Sox are dumb to trade a young arm of any promise whatsoever for a 28-year-old outfielder with limited value. Julks was a nice story for parts of last season. The Clear Brook High School grad and UH product had a couple windows of production, highlighted by a sizzling nine game 17 for 34 stretch straddling June and July. Alas, not two weeks later Julks began what would become an 0 for 36 nightmare. He was sent to the minors for good in late-August.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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