Fantasy: Life in the slot

| April 12, 2011

31,868 – Including the playoffs, how many times an offensive player lined up in the slot in 2010.

If that’s not a solid sample size, I don’t know what is. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been studying this data set and today I’ll be sharing it with you.

Calling the slot ‘home’

In 2010, 427 players handled at least 1 snap in the slot. 106 handled at least 100 and just 6 reached the 500 mark. The duo at the top of board actually reached 600, with Eagles wide receiver Jason Avant pacing the field at 622. Steelers Hines Ward was close behind at 606.

Because most viewers are directing their attention to the center-to-quarterback exchange on a majority of plays, many don’t notice where the wide receivers line up. A common misconception is the game’s elite wideouts are split wide at flanker or split end on just about every snap. This is far from true, as shown by some of the other names near the top of the “slot snap” list.

Consider that of the top 10 wide receivers in slot snaps, 7 would be considered by most to be a #1 or #2 wide receiver on his team. Those players include Ward, Anquan Boldin (566), Danny Amendola (566), Donald Driver (520), Eddie Royal (494), Marques Colston (484), and Wes Welker (472). The three exceptions are Avant, Jordan Shipley (566), and Jerricho Cotchery (455).

In order to eliminate the boost 7 of those 10 players received by participating in the playoffs, we can also look at this a different way in order to determine the true slot receivers. This time, I’ll determine the percentage of a player’s total snaps that were spent in the slot. I’ll also go ahead and remove any players with fewer than 150 total snaps in 2010.

Number one on this list is Bills wide receiver David Nelson, who spent 334 of his 356 snaps (94%) in the slot. Close behind were Shipley (93%), Seahawks WR Brandon Stokley (90%), Colts WR Austin Collie (84%), and Amendola (83%). There isn’t anything overly shocking about the top 20 or so on the list, but there are a few interesting tidbits:

-Both Early Doucet (70%) and Andre Roberts (64%) of the Cardinals sit in the top 16. Assuming Steve Breaston (20%) is not resigned, one of these two will see a major change in 2011.

-If I polled 100 NFL experts and had them pick the league’s top 5 slot receivers, I’d bet good money that Wes Welker would be on at least 90 of those lists. Not that this list has anything to do with his talent or production, but Welker ended up just 21st on this list in 2010 at 59%.

-I mentioned him in a list earlier on, but Marques Colston is worth a mention, as he pops up at #25 on this list at 53%. That’s right: over half of Colston’s 2010 snaps were from the slot. How many of you thought Lance Moore (24%) was the Saints’ slot man? Not the case.

-The top tight end on this list is not Antonio Gates…although Gates does come in at #2. The Titans Jared Cook takes the cake with 48% of his total snaps coming via the slot. Gates sits at 42%. For what it’s worth, Tony Gonzalez led all tight ends in slot snaps with 388.

On the flip side, we can look at those with 150+ total snaps who saw the lowest percentage of their work in the slot.

Leading the wide receivers was Cowboys rookie Dez Bryant, who worked from the slot on just 3% of his 431 snaps. Jerome Simpson (3%), Darrius Heyward-Bey (3%), Chad Ochocinco (3%), and Bryant Johnson (3%) are right there with him.

Looking at elite fantasy wide receivers sitting at or below 5%, we have Derrick Mason, Kenny Britt, Sidney Rice, Hakeem Nicks, and Mike A. Williams (TB).

Category Leaders

Looking over a few statistical categories, we can determine the most productive slot receivers from 2010. (Note: I’ll start off by reviewing some raw data. I don’t do that often because raw data is a flawed way to grade players. I’m doing this simply because you can’t find this information on most other sites and its good data to have. Later in the piece, I’ll focus more on rate stats, which are better indicators of “production”)

-Targets – Danny Amendola dominated the field with 107 targets from the slot. Wes Welker was #2 at 86 with Eddie Royal, Marques Colston, and Donald Driver rounding out the top 5.

-Receptions – Amendola’s 80 slot receptions also paced the field. Welker was second, once again, but was well behind at 64 catches. Colston, Austin Collie and Jason Avant rounded out the top 5.

-Yardage – Colston racked up 696 yards out of the slot to pace the league. Amendola, unsurprisingly, wasn’t far behind at 662. Welker, Driver, and Jordan Shipley were third through fifth, respectively.

-Touchdowns – Austin Collie played less than half the snaps most of the guys in this section played, but he paced the field with 7 touchdowns. Welker, Greg Jennings, Hines Ward, and Dwayne Bowe each had 5.

-Drops – Wes Welker’s 8 drops from the slot were a league high. Dustin Keller wasn’t far behind with 7. Driver, Jerricho Cotchery, Miles Austin, Aaron Hernandez, and Early Doucet each dropped 6.

Moving on to the rate stats, we will remove anyone with fewer than 25 slot targets. This leaves us with a sample size of 59 players.

-Catch Rate – Jordy Nelson hauled in 84% of his 38 slot targets to pace the field. Austin Collie (82%) was just behind. Jacoby Jones, Todd Heap, and Danny Amendola rounded out the top 5. Larry Fitzgerald put up a league-low 39% rate, with Justin Gage, Early Doucet, Terrell Owens, and Dustin Keller also among the worst in the category.

-YPR – DeSean Jackson barely made the cut with just 25 slot targets, but he dominated yards-per-reception at 26.9. The next closest was Louis Murphy at 18.2. Rounding out the top five was Vernon Davis, Calvin Johnson, and Terrell Owens. On the flip side, Andre Johnson was dead last at 7.4. Chansi Stuckey, Amendola, Dante Rosario, and Tony Gonzalez were just behind.

-Avg Depth/Target – Jackson also paced the field in average depth of target at 19.8. Justin Gage was #2 at 14.6 and was followed by Larry Fitzgerald, Terrell Owens, and Vernon Davis. On the other side, Reggie Wayne put up a league low 4.9. Amendola, Welker, Lance Moore, and Stuckey were the next closest.

-YAC/Reception – Louis Murphy’s 9.4 yards-after-catch/reception mark was the league’s finest. He blew away #2 Jackson’s 7.5 mark. Nate Burleson, Miles Austin, and Jacoby Ford were 3 through 5. Fitzgerald’s 0.8 mark was the league’s worst. Brandon Marshall, Steve Smith (NY), Tony Gonzalez, and Andre Johnson were also in the basement.

-TD/Reception – Terrell Owens caught a touchdown on 21% of his slot receptions to pace the league. Greg Jennings was #2 at 17%. Not far behind him were Calvin Johnson, Lance Moore, and Austin Collie. On the other hand, 9 qualified players failed to score on a slot reception, including Steve Johnson, Jared Cook, Chris Cooley, Dustin Keller, and Larry Fitzgerald.

-Drop/Target – Aaron Hernandez dropped 18% of his 34 slot targets, the worst mark in the league. Ben Watson and Dustin Keller were next in line at 16%. Justin Gage and Early Doucet rounded out the top 5. It’s better news for Todd Heap, Louis Murphy, Earl Bennett, Brandon Stokley, and Sam Stroughter – the only qualified players without a drop.

-Target/Snap – Terrell Owens was targeted on 29 of his 106 slot snaps. That 27% rate was a league-high. Larry Fitzgerald (25%) was just behind. Marcedes Lewis, Jared Cook, and DeSean Jackson were also in the top 5.  On the other end, Harry Douglas and Hines Ward were targeted on just 10% of their slot snaps – a league low. At 11%, Louis Murphy, Jason Avant, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, and Anquan Boldin were also not looked at very often when in the slot.

Fantasy Production

Next up is a look at the players who put up the most fantasy production out of the slot.

Using 10 yards = 1 point, 1 touchdown = 6 points, and 1 catch = 1 point as our scoring, we have Danny Amendola as the top fantasy contributor from the slot with 164 points. Wes Welker (153), Marques Colston (147), Austin Collie (143) and Jordan Shipley (124) round out our top 5.

Of course, I’m not a big fan of raw data, so let’s take it a step further and look at fantasy points/slot snaps (again using our minimum 25 target threshold). Our new #1 is DeSean Jackson at 0.57 points-per-slot snap. Terrell Owens (.50) is #2 and is followed by Lance Moore (.42), Austin Collie (.40), and Marcedes Lewis (.40). Interestingly, Anquan Boldin ranks just 55th out of 59 players on the list with a .19 mark.

If we want to take playing time out as a factor, we can look at fantasy points/slot targets. Jackson is still our #1 at 2.5 pts-per-target. Collie (2.3), Calvin Johnson (2.3), Antonio Gates (2.3), and Todd Heap (2.3) round out the top 5. On the other hand, we have Larry Fitzgerald dead last at 0.8.

Relevance

If you just read this entire piece, your brain is probably asking the following question: “Why should I care where these guys line up?”

To answer that, let’s take a look at the league-wide difference between lining up in the slot and lining up out wide.

41% of all targets in 2010 went to wide receivers lined up out wide. 19% of all targets went to slot wide receivers. The chart below shows the difference in production between the 2 locations on the field.

Category Total WR SWR
% of Targets 60% 41% 19%
Rec/Targ 58% 56% 63%
YPR 13.3 14.0 12.0
Depth/Targ 12.4 13.5 9.8
YAC/Rec 4.3 4.1 4.6
TD/Rec 8.3% 8.8% 7.3%
INT/Targ 3.7% 3.9% 3.4%
Drop/Targ 6.1% 6.3% 5.6%

Note the significant differences in several areas. A throw to a slot receiver is 7% more likely to be caught, 0.5% less likely to be intercepted, 0.7% less likely to be dropped, and results in 0.5 additional YAC. Outside receivers see a 2.0 increase in YPR, are targeted almost 4 yards deeper down field, and score on 1.5% more of their receptions.

These are all items to consider when projecting/ranking a player for the upcoming season. Will he work from the slot or our wide? Determining this early on will help you figure out what kind of fantasy production he has to offer.

Conclusion

That was a lot of information. If you haven’t figured it out already, this piece was more about information-sharing that it was fantasy advice. Don’t get me wrong, everything here is of value. Just remember the names you’ve read here today and you’ll have a much better perspective of a player’s role and potential production come draft day.

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