Slot receivers -- Wes Welker isn't walking through that door
(“Today’s Crazy Fantasy Stat” is an occasional offseason offering from PFF that highlights something that catches our eye and aids in our preparation for the 2017 fantasy season.)
By just about any measure, Wes Welker was the top slot weapon in the league in a long time. In the last decade, Welker had the top five individual player-seasons in receptions out of the slot, and only Bobby Engram in 2007 came within seven of Welker’s worst season of the five. With the Patriots, Welker just planted himself in the slot and caught everything Tom Brady thought to throw.
But Welker’s out of the league now, and an interesting stat about him isn’t going to offer much in the way of fantasy advice. So, let’s talk some things through.
Slot performers, by and large, are big-catch guys, and as such, they help more in PPR leagues than in standard. For example, the top 100 player-seasons in slot receptions in the last 10 years averaged a 32nd-place finish in standard WR scoring, but 28th in PPR. Of the 100, 78 ranked better in PPR than standard, while another eight held steady. That means only 15 of the 100 had a worse ranking in PPR leagues than standard.
Historically, then, that’s made part of drafting strategy for PPR leagues. Upgrade the obvious slot guys. Welker, of course, but also Hines Ward, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Austin Collie. They’re fine receivers, but add in an extra point on each reception and they’d become that much more helpful.
Well, if 2016 is any indication, there’s a problem: the slot guys are doing less slot work. No matter how you look at it. In the last decade:
- Of the top 20 player-seasons in slot receptions, only one (Jarvis Landry) came in 2016, and it ranked 15th.
- Of the top 20 in slot yards, only one (Landry again) was in 2016, at 12th.
- Two 2016 seasons appear in the top 20 in targets — Jeremy Kerley (13th) and Sterling Shepard (19th).
- Four 2016 players appear in the top 20 in raw total of routes run out of the slot (Shepard, Anquan Boldin, Kerley, and Doug Baldwin), but they plummet down the list when it’s percent of routes run out of the slot. By that measure, Kerley (19th) is the only 2016 appearance in the top 20.
Now, it’s true that a single year having one or two representatives out of a 10-year sample isn’t crazy — two per year would be expected. But it isn’t just the lack of appearances for 2016, it’s the low ranking of the season’s leader every year. By the majority of metrics, there just isn’t a 2016 player inside the top 10 of slot performers.
And here’s the interesting part: By total of all receivers, or by total of the top 15 slot performers, 2016 ranks first or second in the last 10 years in routes, targets, yards, and receptions out of the slot, only showing worse when it’s in target percentage out of the slot.
What does this mean? Well, two things. First, as the game gets more and more pass-happy, and teams run more and more three-wide sets, raw totals might look competitive, but by rate, slot numbers are down. And second, slot guys are in total producing as much as ever, but individually, the Welker-esque dominators just aren’t there.
So, the takeaways. Landry, Kerley, Baldwin, Shepard, and a few others stay in the slot a lot, and as such, they’re still likely to offer a bit of a boost in PPR formats. But absent another Welker, Ward, or Houshmandzadeh, we have to be careful about giving perceived slot guys too much of a boost. In 2012, for example, some preseason rankings had Welker as about the No. 7 receiver, but in PPR he was more like the second. There just isn’t anyone who deserves that bump in 2017. Tread carefully.