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A little guy with big play ability
In life you never how things are going to turn out. Nathaniel Dell was a kid who played football starting when he was 6 years old. When he left high school he had a recruiting grade from Mainland High School in Daytona Beach of NR (no rating) which means he wasn’t even worth a rating by recruiters. It wasn’t like he was a terrible player. He was just small, like 5’ 8” 150 lbs type small. None of the big schools gave him a look.
The only school that gave him a chance was Alabama A&M which is a HBCU in Huntsville Alabama. He started there in 2018 as a receiver; it didn’t start off well. “I got hurt [hip pointer] like the first game of the season. I was looking at everybody else out there playing and I was in a new environment and I couldn’t do what I loved to do. I played three games my first season. … I already felt like I needed to be bigger and God wanted me in a bigger spot. … I did good in the games I did play. I think I had like six touchdowns.” He said. Dell didn’t feel like he would get noticed by larger universities at A&M. He had bigger plans as a player so he transferred to a JUCO school (Independence Community College) in Kansas known from it’d Netflix series as “Last Chance U.”
“At first it was a difficult decision. My mom was like, ‘You already got what you was working for. You’re going to school for free.’ That was a blessing for her. But then we sat down and talked about me going to Juco and I told her I felt like it could be a stepping stone for me to help get me where I want to go, which is the NFL. If I go to Juco, I can get my name out there and go to a bigger university.”
The change was an eye opener for Dell as Independence is a small farming town with about 9,000 residents and a coaching staff that was rather rough in the ways they treated the players. “When I got there I was like, ‘Dang. I’m really by myself now. I didn’t have nobody, but a good three months later I started to get to know some of the guys and Richard Kamara was there. He played at Mainland with me. So we said we could get through it together.” Dell said.
“Going from Daytona to Huntsville [Ala.] there’s stuff you can do there, but going to Indy, there’s like nothing to do there. It is its own little town and it’s only got like three or four food spots … McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Sonic and maybe Dairy Queen. … Yeah that’s about it.” Dell recalled.
The coaches would routinely curse at the players profusely when they did something; anything that displeased them. “At the practices, like how they talk to you and all that … that’s the truth right there. But as an athlete you got to learn to take that and learn from it, “ Dell said.
It was an eye opening but also a learning experience for Dell. “At first, I ain’t gonna lie, and I know junior college is like cut-throat, every man for themselves, and I was like, ‘OK, I gotta get everything straight. I gotta get myself out of here. But after I started hanging out with some of them boys, I realized [they were] trying to win. … So it’s like they were trying to accomplish something and I gotta help these boys out. We gotta win. I love them boys. I was fixing to be selfish and worry about myself. … They pulled me out of my selfish ways.” Dell stated. Then Dell began to flourish on his new team. In 10 games he had 52 receptions for 766 yards and 8 TDs. He graduated in 2019 and accepted a scholarship to the University of Houston.
In his first season in Houston he was only about 5 lbs heavier than when he graduated high school. Again he had to earn his snaps. He played in 8 games in 2020 with 29 receptions for 428 yards and 3 TDs. After that season he and Clayton Tune (QB) got on the same page; Dell exploded for 90 receptions for 1,329 yards with 12 TDs in 2021. He then followed that up by catching 109 passes for 1,398 yards and 17 TDs in 2022.
Dell is explosive in many ways. It’s not just speed. He has learned to run routes, get off press coverage (as an outside receiver), and even work in the return game at times.
Let’s go to the video tape (as a famous man once said).
Bell is a an impossible cover for any defender. He is only 5’ 8 3/8” 163 lbs (as per the senior Bowl’s web site) but has great speed and quickness. He doesn’t have elite speed. I would think he has 4.42-4.45/40 speed, but we will find out at the Combine. He has insanely quick feet with the ability to stop and go on a dime. He can shake any coverage no matter where he lines up. Here he is outside in man coverage against SMU.
This is called stealing. Watch as Dell is split out short right. Then Houston sends the receiver outside him in motion back across the formation with his defender following him. This gives the QB (Clayton Tune) the information that the defense is in man coverage. If you look all 11 defenders are in the picture before the snap. This means the defense is in zero coverage (no safeties deep) so Dell is in man coverage with no help over the top at all.
This allows Dell to fire off the line then press out to his defender’s outside shoulder (like he is attempting to flow to the corner of the end zone). Then he crosses his defender’s face toward the center of the field. He can do this because he has elite quickness. Once he gets his defender to flip his hips to run to the corner all Dell has to do is plant his foot then cross his face with a clean shot down the center of the field. If you look you can see that Tune doesn’t even bother to look at any other receiver. He just drops back then waits a couple seconds until the easy TD toss can be made. Stealing.
Like I said earlier Dell is not a pure speedster. He has quick feet with very good hands. With the quick feet he can avoid press coverage so if the defender tries to disturb his route and doesn’t he is already beaten. Here Dell avoids that by being in the slot. He gives the defender a solid jab step inside which allows him to escape outside.
Now the defender hangs tough to shadow Dell down the field. Yet Dell knows where he wants to be as you can see the outside receiver (the receiver to Dell’s right) press then hold his ground. This is done on purpose so Dell has the entire outside of the field to work. What goes unnoticed is how Dell doesn’t just try to race down the sideline. No, he beats his man to the outside but stays running down just along the numbers.
By doing so he gives his QB a huge area to throw the ball outside to his right. Tune does this, and Dell is able to keep his defender away from the ball then make the catch. Dell has small but solid hands as he had 9 drops in 2022 on 152 targets with 109 receptions.
Dell didn’t participate on special teams a lot at Houston. In fact he had no kick off returns in 2022, but he did have 9 punt returns. This is one of those 9 returns.
On this return Dell gives you a front row seat on his quickness with the ability to swiftly change direction at full speed without slowing down. This is quickness personified. He makes 4 cuts. No player gets a finger on him. Dell then outruns the coverage to the end zone.
Houston set Dell up in certain plays knowing he would beat the coverage thrown at him. Here you have a super quick Dell in the slot with another receiver outside of him. Now you saw earlier that Houston motioned that receiver back across the formation to allow Dell a free side to work on his opponent.
This time they show no motion but at the snap the outside receiver runs a lazy 3 yard dig route which keeps his defender glued to his side. Dell meanwhile works on a 6’ 2” 210 lbs safety named LJ Wallace who has zero chance of staying with him. He was playing straight up over Dell instead of being entrenched outside his left shoulder. If he had done that then he would have pushed Dell inside where he had safety help from his partner Bryson Powers.
It’s not like Dell is used as only a deep threat. He is a receiver who will do what it takes to keep his offense moving. Here he is set up as a slot receiver to the right side with another receiver on his outside shoulder. Being that it is 2nd and 3, Dell sees his defender in retreat mode before the snap.
The pass is only about a yard or two, but since Dell came over the middle the defense cleared out the right side. This leads Dell to go back. He ended up moving the ball 25 yards into enemy territory which set the offense up for great things. The thing to watch here is the quick acceleration after the catch. Once Dell gets the ball he is surrounded by defenders but is able to escape to the left because he is able to so quickly get up to top speed. Dell is fast but not blazing fast. It’s his ability to turn on the jets instantly that allows him to escape the closing defenders around him.
Dell has the skill to beat any type of single coverage because of his quick feet, rapid acceleration, and the knowledge of how to beat his man on any given play. It’s like reading a map. You find the most advantageous route, make your defender believe you are taking an alternate route, and take the most desirable path.
This next play is again just like stealing. The defense is all massed inside to guard against the run on a third and goal from the one. The lone receiver (Dell) is set up to the right in man coverage all by himself. The play design is brilliant because you have your TE set up on the line of scrimmage to block. This means that Dell is actually in a slot position at the snap. This makes it near impossible for the defender to try and play press coverage.
As Dell comes off the ball at the snap he reads the defender who is playing slightly off his right shoulder to protect against the corner fade route. All it takes is a quick jab step to the outside which gets the corner to slide further outside. this leaves the middle wide open. The play fake on the run by QB Clayton Tune is meant to hold the linebackers but also give Dell time to make his move (which is real quick) to get clear. You can see that Tune has to hurry after the fake to get the ball there on time because of the quickness and acceleration of Dell. This is just an unstoppable play.
There is not a single defender in the NFL who could guard Dell in one on one coverage on this play. A NFL DB would probably overplay to the inside shoulder of Dell to force him to make his move to the outside on a corner fade route. He still would leave Dell wide open because he could never make it out there in time, but it is a more difficult throw for the QB so it forces the offense to make a play instead of an easy slant toss he can make in his sleep.
I have mentioned before that Dell doesn’t have blazing speed. By that I believe that Dell isn’t going to run 4.25/40 at the Combine. He is, however, fast by normal standards. Here Houston lines up three receivers to the same side with Dell in the middle. This is a tough cover no matter if it’s man or zone.
The outside and inside receivers cut their routes off which leaves Dell to split the middle with his impressive speed. All it takes is one slight hesitation which gives Dell the ability to run right by him into the clear. These plays are few and far between because of a lot of two deep coverage in the NFL. Also many times Dell will feign a deep route then cut if off with a razor sharp break into the clear for a sizeable gain. DBs will think to jump these shorter routes which sets up the deep play like here.
I often talk about the ability or inability of the Jets receivers to gain separation in their routes. A QB doesn’t want to throw into stiff coverage so it’s the WRs job to get free of his man coverage. If you watch some coaches video you will see many times the Jets QB get sacked or run for his life because of poor up front blocking but also the fact that no WR is open. The ability to break man coverage is pivotal to a sound passing attack. Many of these plays consist of timing routes that the require the WR to break man coverage.
Fortunately at this time of year we have the Senior Bowl where receivers and defenders show off their skills. I have assembled a few of Tank Dell’s one on one sessions from the first two days in Mobile, Alabama. These are mostly simple routes so they shows the traits of each player on the field without tricks. This first play is just a simple stop or come back route.
Dell comes off the snap here slowly as he feigns a break inside. He then turns on the speed and accelerates outside like he is running a go or “9” route down the sideline. He is leaving his man in the dust but slams on the breaks to finish the come back. Nicely done.
This next route is another comeback route, but this time the defender is playing in off coverage instead of press man coverage. Different coverage means a different release to combat the coverage.
This time you can plainly see the quick acceleration which backs the defender off. If this was an option route Dell would have continued right by the squatting defender and down the field for a splash play, but it’s simply another comeback route. Look at the ability to go from a pure sprint to a stop and back to the ball. Those are super quick feet. Watch the coach in the background give a fist punch to the air in response to the technique of Dell. This is as open anyone would get on a 5 yard come back. The defender isn’t even in the picture until after Dell catches the ball.
Okay we have seen two different coverages on 5 yard comeback routes. The defenders have probably noticed everyone is throwing stop or comeback routes. Many are squatting on routes so other than Dell none of the other receivers are getting separation. So for Dell to get as open as he has is impressive.
This next route is another come back route this time a 10 to 12 yard stop route. This is straight man to man coverage with the defender playing slightly off the inside shoulder of Dell which pushes him outside down the sideline.
This is taking what the defense gives you. They give you a free release outside then you make the best of it. Again you can see the acceleration so if Dell were to continue down the sideline he would be wide open, but he stays with the play called. This is very nice technique on the route; none of this is an accident.
Dell takes the outside and accelerates which makes the defender flip his hips to the outside so he can run with Dell. Now Dell pushes up 17 yards then stops. Then he comes back but not in the previous path he took to get there. He comes back towards the QB but also moves from outside the numbers to inside the numbers. It lessens the distance for the throw and cuts off the defender from the pass. The defender would have to run through the receiver (if he was close enough) to intercept the ball instead of just undercutting him.
This is a near textbook way to run this route. You also notice the solid hands catch above the head of the receiver as comfortable as can be. Dell is not some body catcher. He is a natural hands catcher which allows him to catch balls easily outside the frame of his body.
Here is another 12-15 yard come back route against a different defender which shows the same technique against a more physical type defender.
You see the same push upfield with a slight hesitation thrown in to give the defender something to think about. Again you see the quick brakes with the defender slightly holding Dell coming out of his break. The movement back from far outside the numbers, towards the QB keeps his defender on his back and shortens the throw. Then you get the nice athletic jump to snag the ball well above his head then head upfield. The catch above the head can be tricky for some players as he is racing back towards the ball. Then the ball is above the head which can be difficult because the helmet obscures the player’s vision.
Okay now let’s progress further down the field with some deeper throws; this is a 15 to 20 yard dig route with the defender looking to push Dell outside as he is shading him to his inside shoulder before the snap. Yet Dell wants to go inside.
Dell comes off the ball slow while reading his coverage. He also moves slightly to his left which gets the defender to move slightly to his right. This is just what Dell wanted. As Dell speeds up the field he is able to stick his foot in the ground then race across the middle without slowing down. This leaves the defender in the dust. You can see the defender immediately get depth so as to not allow the huge play (which probably would have happened anyway) as Dell has at least 5 yards of separation and growing when he catches the ball. Dell also gives his QB as large a target as he can. Then he makes a nice hands catch above his head, brings the ball in quickly, and heads upfield.
This is as open as you can get on a dig route especially when nearly all the other receivers in Mobile were struggling to get a yard of separation on their coverages. This includes some highly thought of receivers like Xavier Hutchinson and Rashee Rice. The only other receiver to have some success in getting separation was Jayden Reed out of Michigan State.
This next play is a 20 yard out run from the near slot which would be just outside where the TE lines up. This is against press coverage which is tough to execute when a receiver lines up in the slot. It becomes a much more difficult when the receiver has very quick feet like Dell.
The problem with press coverage is that when you miss in you leave yourself flat footed in coverage. Watch as the defender Hellams misses Dell. His feet stop as Dell races by inside of him. Now he is in catchup mode so when Dells cuts to the outside (at full speed) he leaves his opponent far behind who then eventually slips down.
The pass is badly overthrown, but it doesn’t take away from the expertise Dell shows on the route. He makes the defender look like a linebacker in coverage because of his superior quickness and ability to cut at full speed.
This last clip is of Dell against the same defender on a straight go route. The defender Hellams again tries to press Dell off the snap, but Dell is able to swipe his hands away in a single move then get behind him quickly.
Dell seems to slow slightly after getting by his opponent as it looks as if Hellams reaches out and pulls on his jersey. This appears to throw the timing of on the pass since Dell’s acceleration was thwarted by the tug but it did save a TD catch with the ball just out of the reach. Still the separation was clear and if the ball had a little more air under it the result would have been different.
Coming into the year Nathaniel “Tank” Dell was one of my Draft sleepers who I had hoped would be a player the Jets could find in later rounds to give them an explosive player in their offense. His exploits this year made him a lot more noticeable. The Pro Football Network had Dell listed as their 275th ranked player which would have made him a UDFA this year. That ain’t happening.
Dell led the nation in 2022 in receiving yards (1,398). Receiving TDs (17) and was second in receptions by a single catch (109). He’s not a sleeper any more.
The Senior Bowl is a good tool, but it is not the end all in scouting; it’s just another tool on the workbench that can help you. I like individual drills like this to show you some specific traits players either have or don’t have. “Tape don’t lie,” as players say.
Dell is not a finished product by any means. He can still learn to drop his hips coming into some cuts and explode out of them. His current method works in some routes but not others. He gives you nearly zero as a blocker in the run game, and his stature means that QBs are going to have to be near spot on with their accuracy with a player with such a small catch radius. His stellar athleticism helps, but he is a WR3 not a WR1.
He can be a highly targeted, specialty receiver who can run a wide variety of routes. He can be a receiver who can get open and get open quick. The Jets could sure use that. Dell has solid character. He was a team leader, always well liked and a team captain. He will be a fan favorite and a player beloved in the locker room. Everyone loves the little guy who plays big. He has skills the Jets could use and need badly.
He is not a sleeper anymore, but I still like him.
What do you think?
Originally posted on Gang Green Nation – All Posts