5 small slot receiver prospects that can make an impact in the NFL
How small is too small to play in the NFL? Every year, the league seems to write off great swathes of eligible prospects that produced well in college because they simply aren’t big enough to play at the next level. At most positions it makes sense, but there is a niche available for small guys in the NFL, and we keep seeing them come along and buck the trend.
Darren Sproles is 5-foot-6, Danny Woodhead is 5-foot-8, Andrew Hawkins is 5-foot-7, and the poster-boy for small but effective players, Wes Welker, is just 5-foot-9.
All of these players operate either as matchup wild cards or in the slot, where they can avoid every-down press-coverage and the necessity to run deep down the field, where their size would be a disadvantage.
These slot receivers—or matchup weapons—were once just gimmicks, but are now key players on offense.
As much as nickel defense has become the new base, slot receivers have become starters in a league that is ever more pass-heavy and incorporates more spread concepts into offensive schemes. Welker in his prime was playing 90 percent of the snaps in New England, mostly from the slot. Last season, Randall Cobb ran 549 routes just from the slot. There are full-time starting quarterbacks that recorded fewer dropbacks than that last season.
Slot receivers have become, if not every-down players, then players that are more than simply a sub-package afterthought. Nickel defense was used on 63.4 percent of defensive snaps last season; that’s up exactly 20 percent since 2008, and only moving in one direction. League-wide, teams had a third slot receiver on 68.3 percent of offensive snaps. Teams like the Packers and Giants had a third slot receiver on around 85 percent of their snaps.
There are many different ways of exploiting this slot position in the NFL. The Saints used Marques Colston for years as their primary slot weapon, and he stands at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds. Jimmy Graham was more of a slot receiver than he ever was an in-line TE, and he’s 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds. At the other end of the scale, you have guys like Welker, who is 9 inches shorter and 80 pounds lighter. Both work and do damage to the defense in different ways.
However you want to go about executing it, the slot position is a role that needs to be filled in today’s NFL, and a lot of the guys that excel at it at the college level are players who fall below the NFL’s traditional size cut-offs. This has begun to filter over into the NFL, but the resistance to these smaller guys remains.
Tavon Austin, Cole Beasley, T.Y. Hilton, Steve Smith, Andrew Hawkins, De’Anthony Thomas, and Jeremy Kerley are all under 5-foot-10 in height, and yet have been successful to varying degrees in the NFL. Not one tops 190 pounds in weight. Arizona’s J.J. Nelson is listed at just 156 pounds, and there are multiple productive weapons at 180 or lower.
In the past, the NFL has tended to make size exceptions if the player has exceptional speed, but in the slot role, quickness and savvy is often more important than raw speed. The number of times you need a slot receiver to run away from somebody in a straight line is pretty small over the course of a season. But getting open in short areas through quickness and smarts is an every-down thing.
Several players in this draft fit the bill of being impressive slot weapons, but don’t have the draft profile they should:
1. Daniel Braverman, Western Michigan
There may be no more underrated player in the draft than Western Michigan’s Daniel Braverman. At 5-foot-10 and 177 pounds, Braverman is working against the NFL’s measurables wishlist, but he had the third-highest receiving grade in the nation last season, trailing only Josh Doctson and Sterling Shepard—both of whom could be first-round selections. Braverman caught 78.5 percent of passes thrown his way this past season and forced 24 missed tackles with the ball in his hands. He isn’t just quick, but he’s slippery and difficult to coral both before and after the catch. He is looked down on because he is “just a slot receiver,” but as we have covered, that is probably far more valuable than people are giving it credit for.
2. Demarcus Ayers, Houston
Another undersized player (5-foot-9, 182 pounds), Demarcus Ayers also has the negative of having run a 4.72 40-yard dash time at the combine (4.66 at his pro day) and no impressive workout numbers in other areas. He fits no measurable profile the NFL is looking for, but his tape says he can produce as a slot weapon, even at the next level. He caught 74.4 percent of the passes thrown his way this past season, and had just two drops on 133 targets. Ayers forced 19 missed tackles with the ball in his hands and can turn quick catches into bigger gains with his moves. He has a good set of fakes in his routes and understands where to settle in zones. The former Cougar had the sixth-highest PFF grade in the draft class.
3. Byron Marshall, Oregon
Oregon has a lot of athletes that defy definitions, but are just good football players. Byron Marshall is built more like a running back at 5-foot-9, and was actually a 1,000-yard rusher in 2013 before becoming more of a wideout over the past two seasons. He has good quickness and the ability to play all over, and may be best-used as a genuine matchup problem because defenses don’t have players that can match up with him in every role he can line up. He caught 71.6 percent of the passes thrown his way in 2014, but also showed up big as a blocker, de-cleating people on crack-blocks and making big holes from blocks that most slot players are only superficially interested in.
4. Casey Martin, Southern Mississippi
Casey Martin is the ultimate underdog story. At 5-foot-8 and 178 pounds, he is again smaller than the NFL wants, but 178 pounds at that height is actually pretty solidly put together. He has a higher BMI (body mass index) than Randall Cobb, and benched 225 pounds 24 times at his pro day. That’s the same number as Ronnie Stanley, one of the best OT prospects in the draft and a guy who outweighs him by 124 pounds. Martin has impressive quickness to beat man-coverage and understands his role against zone coverage, always giving his QB a place to go with the ball. He caught 78.4 percent of the passes sent his way in 2015 and would keep drawing your eye on tape when watching a fellow WR prospect, teammate Michael Thomas.
5. Jakeem Grant, Texas Tech
Grant has that exceptional speed that NFL teams seek when they’re overlooking size. One overeager scout reportedly clocked his 40-yard dash at 4.1 seconds at his pro day, and while the official time came in at 4.34, that’s still pretty blazing, and matches the speed you see on tape. Grant led the nation in missed tackles forced by a receiver at 33, and notched 12 touchdowns between rushes and receptions. He has a frustrating habit of dropping the ball (nine in 2015), but despite those, he caught 72.8 percent of the passes thrown his way and averaged 9.6 yards per reception after the catch. He was one of just seven players in the FBS to have a reception of 90+ yards last season, and is a threat to take any quick pass to the house at any time.