Could the NFL's next great slot receiver be drafted tonight?
In the offseason prior to the 2007 Patriots’ infamous 18-1 season, the team traded a second and seventh-round draft pick to the Miami Dolphins for Wes Welker, giving him a five-year, $18.1 million contract. At the time, many did not think Welker was worth such a ransom, but we know now that he was probably worth that and much more. As an undrafted free agent out of Texas Tech, Welker was either first or second in receptions from the slot in every season from 2006 to 2013. He provided prolific production from the slot, and popularized a role that has produced some of the league’s most productive receivers since.
Top slot receiving options of today come in many sizes and shapes, including players such as Jarvis Landry, Doug Baldwin, Julian Edelman, and Larry Fitzgerald, among others. The 2017 receiver draft class is a talented one, with an intriguing amount of players who possess some combination of traits needed to be potential slot fits. So, let’s take a look at the 2017 prospects who may have the best chance to become the next great slot receiver in the NFL, a role made fashionable by Wes Welker.
Taywan Taylor only ran routes out of the slot 16.1 percent of the time in 2016, but his best fit in the NFL may be the slot. He can read and react to defenses, adjusting his route on the fly to find the soft spots in coverage, a common trait among successful slot receivers. While he is more of a body catcher and lacks the physicality to win at the catch point, his extreme quickness and shifty route running will help him get open in the NFL. At the combine he ran the fastest 3-cone drill of any receiver at 6.57 seconds. Taylor could bring another dimension to the role as his 948 deep receiving yards led the class, and he is also dynamic after the catch with the ball in his hands.
Cooper Kupp is slightly taller than the typical slot receiver, built more in the Eric Decker mold than Wes Welker. Another highly intelligent player, Kupp excelled when asked to read the defense and adjust his routes to find open space in the defense. While Kupp may lack explosive acceleration and has the size to potentially play outside, he could be a natural fit as a big slot, as he lined up there 85.6 percent of the time in 2016. He is skilled at using his size to make contested catches, posting a 76.9 percent catch rate over his college career, and was very effective at running the routes he was asked to run.
Trent Taylor was easily the most productive slot receiver in 2016. While running 95.0 percent of his routes out of the slot, his 131 receptions and 1,734 receiving yards led the FBS by wide margins. With the sheer amount of volume shoveled Taylor’s way, it’s hard to ignore the efficiency he displayed by posting an impressive 3.28 yards per route run out of the slot, ranked second in the nation, on an FBS-most 163 slot targets. Taylor is undersized even for a slot receiver, but is unafraid to go over the middle and take big hits. He will catch nearly everything gets his hands on, as evidenced by his 80.1 percent catch rate. Taylor may be the most Welker-like of all the 2017 prospects, and his best fit in the NFL will be with a precision-based passing system.
Austin Carr was a high-volume option for his quarterback in 2016, being targeted 129 times while running 97.7 percent of his routes from the slot. A skilled route runner of high intelligence with excellent acceleration and vision after the catch, Carr was PFF’s highest-graded receiver in 2016 at 89.5 overall. While he tends to let the ball into his body too often, he had just four drops in 2016 and showed the ability to take big hits and hang onto the ball, and has the potential to develop into a QB’s security blanket in the NFL.
Mitch Trubisky’s favorite target, ultra quick Ryan Switzer, also possesses excellent lateral agility and was a dangerous special team returner in college. He reads defenses well to adjust his routes out of the slot efficiently. Switzer displayed excellent hands in 2016 posting a drop rate when in the slot of just 2.33 percent, the best of any WR in the 2017 class with over 100 targets. Over the 2015-2016 seasons, his quarterbacks were rewarded with a 116.6 rating when targeting him. Switzer displays the necessary skills and intellect to be a highly effective slot receiver at the next level.
Jordan Westerkamp’s 2016 season was cut short due to injury, but when he was on the field, his ability was easy to see. His quarterbacks had a 125.3 NFL QB rating when throwing the ball his way in 2016, which ranked fourth-best among Big Ten receivers. He is excellent at performing routes from the slot which ask him to separate quickly as he can change direction very easily and stop on a dime. Westerkamp is not fast enough in a straight line to be much of a deep threat consistently, but he is dangerous with the ball in his hands, forcing 11 missed tackles in 2016 on just 38 catches while averaging 7.0 yards after the catch. He is not big or physical but displayed great hands in 2016, dropping zero catchable balls while showing no fear of going over the middle and taking big hits.
Thomas Sperbeck is a fun player to watch, as he is a dangerous returner and explosive after the catch. While Sperbeck is a hands-catcher of the ball, he had a high drop rate in 2016 of 12.09 percent, which ranked 108th. He is raw as a route-runner as much of his production came on gimmicky-type plays designed to get him open such as screens, quick hitches, and jet sweeps, though his 6.71 3-cone time at the Boise State pro day suggests he has the quickness and footwork to potentially develop this skill at the next level. His ideal NFL team will use him as a returner on special teams while letting him learn the offense and improve his technical skills.