The 2023 NFL Draft was full of historical physical outliers. From Bryce Young going No. 1 overall and down through the draft, there was a sequence of virtually unprecedented sizes and shapes from this year’s rookie prospects.
The NFL has physical benchmarks and thresholds that it expects to see from prospects before throwing their tape on, and any player failing to meet those expectations is going to face an uphill battle to be taken seriously or ranked appropriately.
That was the experience of Tank Dell, who despite leading the nation with 17 touchdowns and 1,399 yards last season, slipped to the third round — the 70th overall selection.
Dell’s first NFL action came in the team’s preseason opener against the New England Patriots. He caught five of eight targets for 65 yards and a touchdown coming against a mix of Patriots starters and backups.
His production was impressive, but perhaps more impressive was his tape taken in its totality. Some of his best reps came on plays where he got no reward.
Don’t let the Stroud INT distract you from the fact that Tank Dell put Jack Jones in a blender with the 7-stop pic.twitter.com/D8WE1ATLcI
— Mike Renner (@mikerenner_) August 10, 2023
C.J. Stroud threw an ugly interception that was intended for Dell. The ball never got there, but the tape would show Dell absolutely wrecked cornerback Jack Jones on the route. Jones was a consistent contributor to the New England defense last season and allowed just a 63.1 passer rating into his coverage all year. Dell gave him the slip completely and was wide open if the pass hadn’t been undercut by the roving safety. Later in the game, he was wide open down the sideline on second-and-20 for what would have been a big gain but for an overthrown pass.
At 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds, Dell is wildly undersized — below the 10th percentile in each — but has the skill set to play outside and not be limited to the slot. Against the Patriots, Dell lined up outside on most of his snaps, seeing just four from a slot alignment. His performance at the Senior Bowl at the start of the year showed that his quickness and releases off the line were more than good enough to negate any size and strength disadvantages he has against cornerbacks. They may be able to disrupt him if they can get their hands on him, but Dell’s quickness and foot speed are so elite that they rarely do.
Dell also showed in the preseason contest — on just 19 routes — that he has an unusually wide catch radius. The ball location on some of the passes thrown his way was far from ideal, so we saw direct evidence of his ability to make a variety of different catches. On more than one play, he had to snag an in-breaking route while going to ground. And on another, he had to reach back to bring in a ball thrown behind him.
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This wasn’t a perfect performance from the rookie in his debut; there were a couple of plays where defenders did get their hands on him and it had a noticeable impact on his ability to separate. But it certainly suggested that he can make a bigger immediate impact than his draft status would indicate.
Dell ran a curiously “slow”40-yard dash, clocking in at 4.49 seconds at the NFL Combine, but his 10-yard split was blazing and he consistently showed well in player-tracking data from his college career. Watching just the 19 routes he ran in this game, primarily against a proven NFL-caliber cornerback who ran a very similar official time (4.51), suggests that Dell is appreciably faster than that.
The final factor playing in Dell’s favor is that the Texans don’t have anybody on the depth chart who should keep him off the field. Nico Collins is entering his third year in the league and has generated 1.4 yards per route run over his first two, and Robert Woods looks like a shell of the player who was once one of the best in the game before injuries took their toll.
If Dell can back up the kind of performance we saw in his debut, he will be demanding a bigger role in the offense that Houston has no good reason to deny him, potentially catapulting himself into rookie of the year conversations along with the other top receivers in his class.