National Football League
Secret to Texans QB C.J. Stroud’s early success? Houston’s unsung receivers
National Football League

Secret to Texans QB C.J. Stroud’s early success? Houston’s unsung receivers

Published Sep. 28, 2023 7:33 p.m. ET

Expectations were low for the Texans wide receivers entering this season. Some NFL observers pegged them as the worst in the league. 

After all, in the offseason they traded their No. 1 option, Brandin Cooks — and they were underwhelming with him in 2022, ranking near the bottom of most receiving categories. Houston this season returned just one contributor who had more than 400 receiving yards last year (Nico Collins). The only wide receiver on the roster who had more than 600 last year was Robert Woods, who's 31 and just two years removed from a torn ACL. 

On paper, it didn't look like a cast that would give rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud a chance to succeed. 

But new coach DeMeco Ryans believed. He spoke it into the ether during the offseason program. He saw potential that no one else seemed to recognize.


"I'm not concerned with where we are with our wide receivers," Ryans said on Houston's SportsRadio 610 in June. "I like our group. I like where we are. We have a lot of talented guys and have a lot of different qualities."

Turns out he was right. 

Believed to be one of the Texans' most glaring weaknesses entering 2023, the wide receiver group has been one of Houston's biggest strengths — and one of the best units in the league. 

Texans wide receivers are third in the NFL in receptions (52) and fourth in receiving yards (735) entering Week 4, according to Next Gen Stats. Stroud has been terrific to start his career, making their job easier, but they've helped the No. 2 overall pick, too. Houston's wide receivers are tied for sixth in the league in yards of separation at a throw's arrival (3.3) and considered "open" (3-plus yards from nearest defender at pass arrival) at the seventh-highest rate in the league (43.6%), per NGS. Texans wide receivers are also third in yards after the catch (278). 

Leading the charge has been Collins, Houston's top returning receiver. With a start to his career marred by injury, the third-year pro has started to put it together in 2023. He ranks 11th in the league with 260 receiving yards. That includes a seven-catch, 146-yard effort in Week 2 against the Colts, the most receiving yards in a single game by a Texan since 2018. Collins ranks third in the league with 212 receiving yards off in-breaking routes, according to Next Gen Stats. 

Third-round pick Tank Dell has been the NFL's best rookie receiver not named Puka Nacua. Through three games, the former University of Houston star has 15 catches for 251 yards (second among rookies) and two touchdowns. In Sunday's rout of the Jaguars, he had 145 receiving yards, a single-game franchise record for a rookie. 

C.J. Stroud breaks down Houston's win over the Jaguars with Jen Hale

Stroud has a 143.2 passer rating when targeting Dell, the highest among all quarterback-receiver tandems with at least 20 targets, per NGS. 

The Texans are the only team in the league that has three wide receivers with at least 15 receptions (Collins, Dell, Woods), according to FOX Sports Research. It speaks to the high level that Houston's passing game is operating at while spreading the ball around. 

"From the wide receiver group, I saw a group who was dialed in from our first day of OTAs, so it's not surprising to me what those guys are doing," Ryans said Monday. "Their effort, their intent, how they were blocking in OTAs, how they were making plays down the field in OTAs. That showed me the confidence in who those guys were. And they've been consistent. That's the one thing you have to be in this league. If you want to be successful, you have to be consistent. And that's what I've seen from that group. 

"It all starts with the leader of that group, Robert Woods, and what he brings every day and what he's taught the young guys in that group," he continued. "They're mimicking his style, being consistent, being reliable, and it shows up on Sundays." 

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Stroud said the Texans wide receivers have "tenacity."

"Honestly, before I could even give advice or try to help, I think Nico, Rob, Hutch [rookie Xavier Hutchinson], Tank, Metch [John Metchie], those guys already had a great feeling for the game," Stroud said. "Then you add [offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik] to a situation where he comes to a system of being really crisp and precise and intentional with our route depth, our angles coming out of routes. You put that with the knowledge that I kind of present — I don't know everything, but I know some stuff — then you add the tenacity into kind of the fluid of the game, those three combinations. 

"Then the rest of our coaches, their input," he added. "That's all a recipe of success to get everybody better as practice goes on and just building chemistry. I think we definitely have a good feeling for each other going into Week 4. We're just trying to build into that." 

Building into what no one expected. 

Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.


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