Shaping the Slot

| May 23, 2012

It used to be a knock on a wide receiver. Putting him in the slot was like saying he was not good enough to beat the best cornerbacks in the league. Young receivers are often unprepared to handle the bump coverage associated with playing on the outside and playing in the slot represents a quick way to see the field early in their career.

For veteran receivers, moving to the slot was one step away from retirement as their playing speed dwindled. The slot presented an opportunity for them to hang on while using their experience and savvy to find holes in the defense.

Times have changed in the NFL and the slot has evolved into a premium position.

 


With use of the shotgun formation at an all-time high and 3-WR formations becoming base offenses, the slot receiver is now a mismatch-finder rather than an afterthought. No longer reserved for the “X-Receiver Rejects,” the slot is now home for some of the most productive receivers in the league. Perhaps even more interesting is that there is no set criterion for who gets placed in the slot.

For the last few years, when “slot receiver” is mentioned, Wes Welker of the New England Patriots is often the first player to come to mind. While his shiftiness and quick cuts make him ideal for the position in the Patriots’ system, there’s more than one way to change a game from the slot.

Each team’s scheme has different expectations for their slot receiver, whether it’s Marques Colston out-muscling defensive backs down the seam, or Anquan Boldin using his strength to turn a short pass into a big gain. NFL offenses continue to find ways to get their playmakers more room to operate and are creating mismatches against linebackers, safeties, or lesser cornerbacks. There are some who believe that the “new” NFL is played between the hash marks, and there is no better way to control the middle of the field than with a dominant slot receiver.

Let’s take a look at the various shapes, sizes and skill sets of the NFL’s best slot receivers:

 

Quick, Shifty Guys – the “Welkers”

Examples: Wes Welker, Santana Moss, Danny Amendola, Davone Bess, Eddie Royal, Jordan Shipley

This is the receiver you picture in the slot. The quick, shifty guy is difficult to cover because of the “two-way go” and he is dangerous when he gets the ball in his hands. This prototype excels at ins, outs, drags and spot routes, along with the occasional bubble screen to pick up yards after the catch. Many of these smaller receivers only play in 3-WR formations, though the really good ones find themselves on the field in base packages as well.

We hear so much about timing in the passing game, but it’s very interesting to watch how Welker works with Tom Brady. Very few routes are thrown before Welker makes his break as there are multiple options built into nearly every play. Both Welker and Brady read the leverage of the defenders and the throw is generally made after Welker makes his cut. Beyond Welker’s ability to defeat man coverage with his route-running skills, he’s also exceptional at finding holes in zones, especially after plays break down. Most of his work is done at less than 10 yards and his outstanding ability with the ball in his hands make him one of the most dangerous receivers in the league.

In Washington, Santana Moss is one of the receivers who play in 2-WR packages before moving inside to the slot in multiple-receiver formations. The Redskins use him at the intermediate and deep level fairly often, but when he’s in the slot, he sees a big increase in his short pass targets. At this point in his career, Moss is more quick than fast and he uses that ability to move the chains very often on third downs.

Last season was a disaster for St. Louis Rams QB Sam Bradford, and while the offensive line should assume much of the blame, one can also point to the season-ending injury to Danny Amendola as another reason for Bradford’s struggles. Like Welker, Amendola is proficient in the short passing game and Bradford used him often during his rookie season as he lead the league with 102 slot targets in 2010.

 

Tall, Intermediate/Deep Threats – the “Colstons”

Examples: Marques Colston, Victor Cruz, Nate Washington, Jason Avant, Legedu Naanee, Eric Decker

This is where scheme dictates which receiver plays in the slot. These taller receivers have the ability to run the short, move-the-chains routes, but they are used to stretch the field more often than their quick-and-shifty brethren.

Though he’s suspended for the 2012 season, New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton has helped turn WR Marques Colston from a seventh-round pick to one of the most productive receivers in the league. Colston’s 6’5” frame allows him to take advantage of smaller slot corners and safeties–and he does so in the underneath game fairly often–but it’s the staple seam routes of the Saints offense that got Colston paid this offseason. With Drew Brees’ great accuracy throwing down the field, the Saints love to throw deep passes to the slot.

The New York Giants run deeper routes than most teams and they do so with both outside and slot receivers. Victor Cruz’ rise to prominence has been well documented, as he led the league in our Signature Stat: Yards Per Route Run (YPRR) and even snuck into our Top 101 Players list. Cruz fits the Giants’ offense perfectly, as he runs great routes at the intermediate level and they use him often on deep ins, outs, and wheel routes. Over half of Cruz’ slot targets were 10+ yards down the field, much different than the Welkers. He reminds me of former Jaguars slot receiver Keenan McCardell for his ability to stretch the field with his exceptional route running ability.

In Tennessee, Nate Washington is an interesting case from 2011. He runs a lot of short routes, but he also ranks third in the league in deep-route targets from the slot. So while Washington is used on curls, drags, and outs at the underneath level, he also runs a lot of post and corner routes, particularly during Jake Locker’s limited time under center last season. Some are predicting a breakout season for Locker and Washington could be the beneficiary of his ability to get the ball down the field.

The Denver Broncos’ offense was unique in 2011 as it was based around Tim Tebow’s ability to run the ball. The run-first attack led to more downfield passes and Eric Decker was a target out of the slot on a number of those passes. Things will certainly change with Peyton Manning aboard, but he loves to throw the seam route to the slot so it will be interesting to see if the big-bodied Decker still has a home there.

 

Strong, Possession Guys – the “Boldins”

Examples: Anquan Boldin, Hines Ward, Greg Little, Brandon Marshall (with Denver), Terrell Owens

Here we see almost a hybrid of the first two prototypes. The strong, possession guy is capable of stretching the field, but he excels on short passes where he can break tackles. He is more of a power runner compared to the elusiveness of the Welkers, and also uses his strength and body positioning similar to the Colstons. It’s no mistake that a number of players in this mold have experience playing other positions in high school or college, particularly ones where they have the ball in their hands.

Anquan Boldin has been great in this role for a number of years as he has the ability to get open at every level of the defense. An option quarterback in high school, he is very comfortable carrying the football and has the ability to elude linebackers or run over safeties. Almost every big-bodied receiver with average speed that comes out of college has been compared to Boldin and it’s a testament to how effectively he has worked in the slot throughout his career.

Though he is now tearing up the Arena Football League, Terrell Owens must be mentioned in this group. It can be argued that he should be with the Colstons, but Owens may be most remembered for turning short slants into big gains. He ran his fair share of post and corner routes, and he had deceptive speed, but it’s Owens’ power and route running ability that made him extremely effective as a West Coast Offense slot receiver.

Now-retired Hines Ward has had an outstanding, though not-quite-Hall of Fame, career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Like Boldin, he came into the league as a versatile player who took snaps at QB in college for Georgia, and he was very good at gaining yards after running ins, drags, and quick screens. Ward is generally acknowledged as one of the best run-blocking wide receivers of his era, and he brought that same tenaciousness to catching the ball and moving the chains.

With only his rookie season as evidence, Greg Little could possibly fit the Colston mold, but due to scheme and Colt McCoy’s arm strength limitations, Little was targeted on a lot of short passes in 2011. A former running back in college, Little is a skilled runner after the catch as he led all receivers forcing 17 missed tackles. With the Browns drafting strong-armed Brandon Weeden in the first round, we may see Little used on seam and corner routes a bit more often in 2012. Regardless of use, he must do a better job of catching the ball as he ranked last in the league in Drop Rate among wide receivers, failing to hold onto 14 of the 75 catchable balls thrown his way.

I’ve included Brandon Marshall with this group because of his years with the Broncos. With the Dolphins, he’s been used sparingly in the slot, but with Denver he did a great job as a possession receiver who could pick up yards after the catch. Particularly in 2009 under then Head Coach Josh McDaniels, Marshall was targeted about 65% of the time at less than 10 yards, including a number of quick screens behind the line of scrimmage.

 

The Tight Ends

This is the position that keeps defensive coordinators up at night. The best tight ends represent a combination of the aforementioned slot prototypes, while providing the ability to run block and also line up at a number of positions such as inline tight end, h-back, fullback or wide receiver. We often hear about the NFL being a “copycat league” and the recent success of the Patriots’ tight end combination of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez has teams scrambling to stock up on versatile athletes who fit their mold.

I’m not sure it’s a new NFL trend as much as it was a superior tight end class in the 2010 draft. In addition to Gronkowski and Hernandez, the Saints found a tight end of their own in Jimmy Graham in the third round, and all three players combined with future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez to make up our Top 4 at the position in 2011.

In Gronkowski and Graham, we have a combination of a Colston and a Boldin, as both are capable of stretching the seam while also using their 6’6” frames to turn short passes into long gains. Throw in Gronkowski’s dominant run blocking and you get a Top 10 player in the league. Hernandez is a player who, at 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, looks like a Boldin, but fits into the Welker mold. His 23 Missed Tackles Forced led all tight ends and receivers and he even saw some snaps at running back last year.

As I said, the tight end mismatch is not something new to the NFL. The last 10 years have seen tight ends such as Antonio Gates, Jason Witten, Kellen Winslow, and Dallas Clark play all over the formation and their athleticism allowed them to combine the Colston and Boldin prototypes. All four players have seen extensive time in the slot throughout their careers and it’s that kind of versatility that makes them so difficult to defend.

The defensive coordinator’s dilemma starts as soon as the offense declares their offensive personnel. Who covers the tight end? Do you keep a linebacker in the game just in case they run, but risk having him cover a more athletic tight end? Or do you bring in an extra defensive back that might have a better chance in coverage, but also may get wiped out against the run?

____________________

 

The inspiration for this article was based upon the common analysis that “this receiver should play in the slot.” As we’ve seen, there is not an exact mold as NFL teams use a variety of player types in the slot. They will continue to search for and exploit the mismatches associated with the ever-increasing spread formations, and it’s now up to the defenses to find a way to adjust.

 

 

2011 Slot Target Distribution, Min. 40 Targets

Player
Position
Slot Targets
Behind LOS %
Short %
Intermediate %
Deep %
Wes WelkerWR1468.965.119.26.8
Victor CruzWR1150.049.633.017.4
David NelsonWR872.357.534.55.7
Nate WashingtonWR834.857.816.920.5
Austin CollieWR818.660.525.94.9
Jason AvantWR751.344.042.712.0
Doug BaldwinWR729.736.131.922.2
Early DoucetWR712.864.826.85.6
Rob GronkowskiTE682.948.536.811.8
Nate BurlesonWR6813.260.317.68.8
Percy HarvinWR6723.946.320.99.0
Greg LittleWR653.175.418.53.1
Marques ColstonWR641.645.339.114.1
Jimmy GrahamTE636.352.425.415.9
Davone BessWR633.268.315.912.7
Tony GonzalezTE620.062.927.49.7
Mike ThomasWR6118.036.137.78.2
Aaron HernandezTE5911.971.26.810.2
Preston ParkerWR550.076.420.03.6
Antonio GatesTE540.061.129.69.3
Greg JenningsWR527.755.819.217.3
Ed DicksonTE510.049.033.317.6
Jared CookTE490.061.234.74.1
Santana MossWR484.254.233.38.3
Anquan BoldinWR462.245.741.310.9
Greg OlsenTE462.250.037.010.9
Dustin KellerTE460.063.030.46.5
Legedu NaaneeWR464.345.728.321.7
Dane SanzenbacherWR450.073.324.42.2
Donald DriverWR434.758.132.64.7
Harry DouglasWR4314.048.832.64.7
Andre CaldwellWR4311.667.418.62.3
Eric DeckerWR427.142.919.031.0
Miles AustinWR420.071.416.711.9
*Average, Min. 40 Targets5.356.627.310.3

 

Next Up: Slot Corners: Who matches up with the variety of slot receivers?

 

 

Follow Steve on Twitter: @PFF_Steve and our main feed too: @ProFootbalFocus

  • snowman88

    Can you all make this a table so we can sort certain categories

    • Rick Drummond

      Hey snowman, I originally had it set up to be sortable, but something’s up with it atm and the sorting gets a bit out of whack. I’ll turn it back on, but beware the glitchy sorts.

    • Rick Drummond

      Sorting on this should work now. Had to remove the “%” from the cells to get it going properly.

  • Nathan Jahnke

    Interesting that Doug Baldwin leads the league in behind the line of scrimmage percentage, as well as second on deep percentage.

    • uppercut

      That looks like just a sorting error with the table – 6 players have triple-digit % for behind the LOS

  • ATK87

    Why do your numbers differ from the ones supplied in the Premium Stats section? For example, you have listed Welker as having 146 slot targets, but in the “slot performance” tab of the Premium Stats section, Welker is listed as only having 125 slot targets in 2011. Victor Cruz, 96 to your listed 115. And Jason Avant, 76 to your listed 75.

  • Steve Palazzolo

    The Premium section is defaulted to “regular season only.” These number include the playoffs.

    The Avant number is curious; not sure why it’s off by one.