Fantasy Football Take-Shopping: Nico Collins leads an elite Texans WR trio — but is that puzzle unsolvable?

C.J. Stroud #7 of the Houston Texans
C.J. Stroud is the rising fantasy football tide that lifts all boats — but will he do it for ALL the Texans receivers in 2024? (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

It’s June. No one has nor does anyone need “the answers to the test” yet — to use a silly analogy that somehow makes the very unserious pursuit of understanding and projecting NFL teams and players seem like some profound quest.

We’re writing thoughts in pencil and merely take-shopping, for now.

That makes for a perfect backdrop to discuss one of the most difficult puzzles to solve with the current, limited offseason information we have: How will the production of the Texans' wide receiver trio sort itself out?

The Texans threw a massive wrench into this room by trading for Stefon Diggs, an elite wide receiver in talent and production during his stretch with the Bills. That trade took a room with a clear-cut ascending duo of homegrown talents and created a crowded trio.

With the deserved high-level hype surrounding C.J. Stroud coming off a dynamic rookie season, people will want to get this Texans receiver room right. As always, the key will be to isolate player talent and specific roles.

The first step in properly sorting through the Texans' wide receiver room is to understand how good Nico Collins is right now.

Forget your preconceived notions about who Collins was before 2023; they probably weren’t correct, anyway. Most people label Collins as an unproductive “face-planter” receiver or a simple non-needle-mover when listing off Stroud’s weapons coming into last season. Those who did so just obsess over results and stats, never laying eyes on a single second of Collins’ game film. When you actually watched him in isolation, you could see plenty of reps featuring a quality, smooth separator against man and press coverage in Year 1 and Year 2 as a starting-caliber X-receiver. Wide receivers can’t just magic themselves the ball in dysfunctional offenses with bad quarterbacks like Collins dealt with to start his career.

He wasn’t just a Stroud creation, and the Texans put that idea to rest by giving Collins a contract extension this offseason. Individually, Collins took his game to a new level last season.

The efficiency metrics against man coverage were backed up on film when I charted him for Reception Perception. Simply put, Collins performed like one of the best receivers in the league at getting open against man and press coverage. He dominated on in-breaking routes on base concepts in the Houston offense. Unlike most vertical X-receivers, Collins was a YAC machine, averaging 7.0 yards after the catch per reception, fifth-most among pass-catchers with at least 75 targets.

It’s one year of film but that one year was about as dominant of a showing a wideout can offer in an effort to be crowned a superstar receiver.

The fact that Collins was that good as an X-receiver is critical to his 2024 projection. As the primary outside and on-the-line player, Collins is rarely going to leave the field. He’s not a candidate to lose work or need to be bumped inside for favorable matchups. He can go out there and win on the perimeter against top coverage.

Based on recent film and career trajectory, Nico Collins is the best wide receiver on the Texans roster. He should be considered the odds-on favorite to be the most productive and is correctly drafted first among the three in early fantasy best-ball contests.

Not to be entirely overshadowed by Collins, Tank Dell also enjoyed some moments of high-level dynamism in 2023. As a mere rookie before his Week 13 injury, Dell was one of the best receivers in the league at creating separation and making big plays on downfield out-breaking routes.

He’s not quite as good as Collins working over the middle, but Bobby Slowik implemented some pristine route concepts to work those two off each other.

Dell has breathtaking play speed and can overwhelm corners in off-man coverage. He’s a deceptive route runner who has great pacing and technique. It’s easy to see why Stroud has such an affinity for Dell’s game because he has the confidence to rip those vertical out-breakers with precise accuracy. Their on-field connection is a treat to watch.

Dell doesn’t fit the profile of a traditional No. 1 receiver, but there is some Tyreek Hill in his game. Hill didn’t fill a traditional wideout role in his rookie season but beat man coverage at a very similar rate to Dell in Year 1 and both smaller receivers showed an ability to track the ball and win in tight coverage.

Despite that lack of size, Dell only ran 29.1% of his snaps from the slot as a rookie. Perhaps the addition of Diggs pushes Dell inside, but I think that would lead to him being in physical situations that could lead to injuries like the one the slender receiver suffered last season.

You get the best out of Dell as a slashing vertical outside receiver.

Since Dell is coming off a severe injury, I see that as the justifiable tie-breaker when ranking these guys in fantasy football. Yes, he’s fully participating in the offseason but don’t forget that Tony Pollard suffered a similar injury heading into last season. Pollard told me he didn’t feel like himself until Week 11. Dell may heat up as the year wears on and he gets further away from the injury. When healthy, Dell is a strong complement to Collins, even if his vertical skill set may lend itself to some production-based volatility.

Anyone who knows of my work with wide receivers knows my affinity for Stefon Diggs since the beginning of his NFL career. I thought Diggs was already performing at an elite level in isolation during his Vikings career, and his arrival in Buffalo with an ascending Josh Allen made it obvious to the world.

That said, Diggs was different last season. And you can throw out the first-half/second-half split nonsense; from the first game of the season, Diggs didn’t have the exact ability to separate on downfield routes we’ve seen over the years. On film, he was still a quality route runner and overall separator, especially on quick-hitting routes from multiple alignments; the vertical juice just wasn’t the same.

Diggs can still be a quality and extremely productive receiver as he ages with that skill set. That transition usually comes with a change in deployment. The fact that the Texans previously tried to trade for Keenan Allen sent up an instant signal after the Diggs move that they might want a receiver for the exact role the veteran may need to operate in at this stage:

The Texans' passing offense was a revelation last year, but quietly, there were issues. Houston only ranked 20th in dropback success rate on third and fourth down and 21st in EPA per dropback. Some of the designer, early-down and play-action concepts were excellent but the true dropback plays on critical late-down situations were lacking. This is where I think Diggs comes into play.

Having a guy who can still beat man and press coverage at no longer an elite but a very high rate, especially on routes like slants and curls, can be critical in moving the chains on these concepts. I can see Diggs being Stroud’s third-down answer in single coverage.

Of course, I’m speculating about that role for Diggs but typically, a player of that archetype needs a ton of volume to be a fantasy WR1, no matter how valuable they are to their NFL offense. That’s going to be the issue for all these players in Houston: There just won’t be enough volume to go around to feed any one particular wideout every week.

The fact that there is some level of “everyone else” makes this Houston situation that much more difficult to understand. Robert Woods is still on this roster and Noah Brown was brought back after making some big plays for this team. Young recent draft picks like John Metchie III and Xavier Hutchinson round out the room. That’s not to mention utility man Ben Skowronek, who the team sent a draft pick to the Rams to acquire, and starting tight end Dalton Schultz, who was retained on a three-year deal.

Schultz likely won’t match and certainly will not exceed his 15.7% target share from last year, but he factors this into the equation. The real question is those depth receivers. If we start to see the Woods/Brown tier of the receiver room start to carve out significant route participation, much less target totals on this team, it will really eat into the floor and ceiling projections for the top trio.

My instinct is that Houston knows it's on the precipice of something special with the uniquely accurate and efficient Stroud at the helm of a dynamic three-receiver room. Those three players will see the vast majority of the looks on this team. It’s just worth considering other scenarios, however unlikely and frightening they may appear.