Rookie Scouting Portfolio contributor Dwain McFarland examines the rise of the slot receiver and the attributes that his Film and Data study point to success at the position.
As you know, the NFL is a passing league.
In 2018 the league totaled 18,952 plays that were either a pass attempt or sack. Passing plays accounted for 59% of all plays. In 2008, the league totaled 17,562 such plays, good for 55% of all plays.
That is an increase of 1,390 pass plays which represents 8% growth. The ratio of pass to run has increased 4% – not an equal match since teams are running more plays overall.
No position has seen a more dramatic increase in utilization during this period than the slot wide receiver. Pro Football Focus has tracked slot route data back to 2006. Using this data, we can see sustained growth of slot routes over time.
From 2006 to 2018, the NFL has nurtured a growth of 7,110 slot routes – a total growth of 51% and an annual average growth of 3.9%.
This is great news for players who can live up to the demands of being an NFL slot receiver.
Up until recently, the life of an NFL slot receiver read like a Sturgill Simpson lyric, “Won’t hear my song on the radio cause that new sound’s all the rage. But you can always find me in a smoky bar with bad sound and a dim lit stage.” Despite their importance to teams, they often took a back seat to their outside counterparts when time to be recognized or paid.
Fortunately, for slot receivers and Simpson, those days are gone. General managers are placing more value on the position lately. Here are recent contract details per sportrac.com for receivers who operate out of the slot more than 50% of their routes.
Slot receivers are now getting paid more like full-time players because as we saw above – they are. Especially telling are the contracts for Adam Humphries, Cole Beasley, and Jamison Crowder. Unlike Golden Tate, Robert Woods, and Mohamed Sanu, they are strictly slot receivers. Woods, Tate, and Mohamed Sanu all operate from the slot over 50% of snaps but kick outside on two-receiver sets to play the “Z” position.
General managers are also showing more willingness to spend earlier picks in the draft on slot receivers.
Since 2014 the league has invested 17 picks within the first four rounds of the draft on slot receivers. That is up from 10 during the previous four drafts.
What are the key attributes teams are looking for in slot prospects? In order to answer this question, we are going to study successful slot receivers drafted since 2004.
The ingredients to a slot receivers’ game are laid out in detail within the RSP. Acceleration, change of direction, and guile are some of the key elements noted. When you think about what slot receivers are asked to do, those skills make sense.
Studying average depth of target (ADOT) data from Pro Football Focus paints a telling story regarding the job of a slot receiver opposed to receivers who work primarily outside.
The first chart provides ADOT distribution for receivers that ran at least 50% of their routes and had at least 20 slot targets since 2009. Each qualifying player season is slotted into an ADOT range. The second chart provides ADOT distribution for receivers that ran less than 40% of routes from the slot and had at least 40 total targets.
Comparing the two charts, we can see that the slot receiver’s sweet spot is working 7.5 to 10 yards downfield. Non-slot receivers, on the other hand, work mostly between 10 and 15 yards downfield.
Slot receivers attack vertical elements of the route tree (go, post, corner, etc.) less, thus it makes sense that acceleration and change of direction be deemed critical ingredients. When operating in the underneath and intermediate passing game, receivers must be able to create separation via quick breaks despite their defender often anticipating an underneath route and having help over the top.
In order to test the notion above regarding acceleration and change of direction one thing we can do is look at the athletic profile using NFL combine data for successful slot receivers. But what does success look like? Below is a distribution chart bucketing every slot receiver (at least 50% of routes from the slot) season by reception totals from 2006 to 2018.
The typical slot receiver falls into the 20 to 49 reception range – this represents approximately 70% of the population. The top 30% resides between 50 and 99 receptions.
Below is the NFL Combine or pro day data for every receiver to make at least 50 receptions from the slot since Pro Football Focus began charting in 2006. Players are broken into tiers based on the number of times they accomplished the feat.
For all data points except draft round: Green = Exceeds; Yellow = Meets; Red = Fails; Italics = pro day data; Grey = data limitations
Each attribute is graded as fails, meets, or exceeds based on NFL criteria for all wide receivers. Essentially, this uses the NFL average for players drafted as the starting point. If a player performs within the average range, they meet the criteria. Above or below the average range renders an exceed or fail grade. Here is a zoom-out view of the same data.
This provides some interesting directional insights on which attributes matter more than others.
Most Important: Exceeding is preferable; failing is not
Important: Exceeding is not critical; meeting is preferable
Nice to Have: Exceeding is nice; meeting and failing don’t matter
Not that Important: Can be part of a case-by-case evaluation, but not critical
It is important to note that this data set is limited. If we were creating hard and fast rules, we would miss some heavy hitting outliers – Wes Welker, Jarvis Landry, and Anquan Boldin.
Overall the data does support the notion that change of direction and acceleration are important. The three-cone drill is a quickness and agility test designed to measure a player’s change of direction ability.
When considering the increased opportunity for contested catches operating underneath, the hand size importance makes sense in theory. The need to meet the weight threshold also makes sense given the type of contact slot receivers often take from larger bodied defenders.
While the forty-yard dash and vertical remain important, they aren’t as critical to a slot receivers’ game as they are for outside targets. This also makes sense given the ADOT distribution chart for slot receivers – these elements can still be maximized depending on scheme, but they are less broadly utilized.
Interestingly two of the three big outliers, Boldin and Landry, were drafted in the second round – meaning NFL scouts either knew something we didn’t about their combine and pro day times or saw something in their game that translates to the field not captured in this data. Remember my mentioning guile above as one of the key criteria for slot receivers in the RSP? It isn’t something that is going to show up in a combine drill.
Break Out Candidates
Pairing the RSP grades from 2017 to 2019 along with the directional insights gathered above here are some slot receivers that could produce if given the right opportunity.
2019 Draft Class
I wish we had more three cone data, but this class has great slot receiver potential.
A.J. Brown ranked in the top slot tier for the RSP and graded out as exceeds in the two categories where historically it has mattered most – hand size and three-cone. He also graded out well in the categories you want to at least meet the thresholds on – weight, forty-yard dash, and vertical.
Stanley Morgan, Jr performed as well as A.J. Brown in the measurables department and garnered a second-tier ranking in the RSP.
Marquise Brown is missing key data points, but by all accounts, can fly. He landed in the second tier of RSP slot receivers but has some red flags based on his weight and small hands.
Hunter Renfrow performed very well in the three-cone drill, but hand size and weight didn’t fare as well.
2018 Draft Class
D.J. Moore worked outside more last season, but his route tree was more like that of a slot receiver working underneath. His arrow is pointing up regardless of where he lines up.
Christian Kirk, KeKe Coutee, and Anthony Miller all found their way onto the field already as slot receivers. Kirk is now paired with former Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury who knows how to utilize that position as well as anyone.
DaeSean Hamilton performed well down the stretch for Denver in 2018. After the departure of Demaryius Thomas, it was he that performed most admirably instead of the more heralded teammate Courtland Sutton. Hamilton could emerge as the number two target on the team depending on Sutton’s development and this season’s draft.
Dylan Cantrell is currently buried on the Chargers depth chart but received high grades across the board and could contribute if an injury strikes or if he finds his way onto another roster.
Trey Quinn filled in well for Jamison Crowder before getting injured himself. Currently, he is in line to contribute more this season.
With Cole Beasley departing Cedrick Wilson Jr. could be a nice insurance policy to the newly acquired Randall Cobb for the Cowboys.
2017 Draft Class
Chris Godwin operated out of the slot on 27% of his routes last season, which is likely to grow by leaps and bounds this season. With the arrival of Bruce Arians, who has tabbed Godwin as his slot, Godwin is likely in line for 115 to 130 targets in one of the premier big slot schemes in the NFL.
DeDe Westbrook led the Jags in slot routes and production last season and figures to see higher quality targets with the arrival of Nick Foles. Foles’ underneath accuracy is superior to what Westbrook saw with Blake Bortles the previous two seasons. DeDe is the most recent three-cone outlier, but the RSP still graded him high based on his film grades.
Cooper Kupp’s season was cut short due to injury but was operating out of the slot 69% of the time. He placed fifth in yards per route ran at 2.42 yards (Pro Football Focus). You can’t help but get the feeling his season to lead the Rams in targets is coming soon if healthy.
Zay Jones led the Bills in slot routes last season but will likely move back outside to the “Z” position with the arrival of Cole Beasley.
Ryan Switzer could see extra work if JuJu Smith-Schuster plays outside more with the departure of Antonio Brown.
Dwain McFarland has an extensive background leading data and analytics teams in the healthcare market. Most recently, he served as an Associate Vice President for one of the largest healthcare performance improvement companies in the United States.
Dwain has a passion for understanding key performance drivers to success, which he will be bringing with him to the RSP. His understanding of football context is always at the core of his analysis. Dwain brings a rich understanding of coaching schemes and player utilization tendencies that are key contributing factors to player success and development.
A native Texan, Dwain is married and they have three kids, one named Landry, in honor of the legendary Cowboys head coach. You can follow him on Twitter @dwainmcfarland.
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