Slot Receivers Are They The Next Generation’s X Receiver?
In recent years the fantasy landscape has been overhauled with the advent of fading expensive running backs in drafts. Loading up on stud receivers became in vogue. However, the tides are again turning with a new wave of workhorse running backs and changing roles of the receiver position.
Now more than ever, wide receivers aren’t 6-5 giants winning half of their 200 targets, most of which came beyond the sticks with a defender on their back. The three greatest seasons in terms of targets (dating back to 1992 – the origin of target data) all came before 2003. In fact, 2015 was the last time a receiver has had enough targets to land on the all-time Top-10 tally.
Alpha receivers are starting to take the form of players like Michael Thomas and Chris Godwin. Athletic players whose teams just want to get them the ball as often and as reliably as possible. In the modern NFL, that means moving them inside and feeding them high-percentage targets.
So how has this affected fantasy’s top receivers?
I have charts.
This is the top-10 receivers in every season since 2016 by slot rate (the percentage of their snaps that came from the slot). There’s a weird blip of red in the middle, lots of tall green bars, and the left side is generally shorter. So, what does any of that mean?
Starting with the best wideouts, the top-3 wide receivers seem almost entirely unaffected by the new generation of slot receivers enjoying success in todays’ NFL. In 2019, Chris Godwin was the WR2 –- based on points per game – and is responsible for the one outlier among top-3 receivers of the past four seasons. Beyond him, no other Top-3 receiver has eclipsed a 21 percent slot rate.
So is playing in the slot bad for a receivers’ ceiling?
Not necessarily. Michael Thomas was the top-scoring receiver in 2019 and only played 20.5 percent of his snaps in the slot. However, 43.8 percent of his targets came from snaps that originated in the slot.
Elite receivers aren’t just created by throwing any random player in the slot. They evolve when an immensely talented receiver earns a swath of targets on an offense that’s at least competent enough to feed him the ball. With the NFL now focusing on moving their best options into the slot more often, we may see more elite seasons coming from slot receivers more often in the future. The confluence of talent, opportunity, and situation still need to fall in line though. At the end of the day, the most talented players in the best situations will end up as the best fantasy wideouts.
The red blip in the middle of the chart is the next group of receivers to look at, although it may be just an anomaly. However, there may just be another explanation – 2017 was a tragic year for receivers as a whole but slot players just didn’t seem to care.
Looking at the above Points per Game chart, notice that the worst season at every spot after WR3 came in 2017. The awful season was caused by numerous quarterback injuries and can be highlighted by the season-ending injuries of Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers.
Who can survive a quarterback injury?
So when the league’s best passers go down it seems like slot receivers rise to the top. ... Or at least the middle of the top. The three tall red lines in the middle of the
Slot Rate chart are Keenan Allen, Jarvis Landry, and Larry Fitzgerald. Two of those three receivers saw their quarterback go down – Ryan Tannehill for Landry and Carson Palmer for Fitzgerald.
Targets out of the slot have high completion rates and as Michael Thomas showed us last year, good slot routes can be impossible to cover. This makes them supremely simple and easy to throw even for backup passers, giving the slot receiver a high floor while not having much impact on a player’s ceiling.
Are slot targets better for fantasy?
In 2019, the average target for an outside receiver generated 0.5 fewer fantasy points than one aimed at a slot receiver. A target with more air yards behind it – Mike Evans’ targets as an example – is going to have more upside because it’s more likely to generate a long touchdown or even just more yards. However, full PPR leagues (which this data is based on) highly value a receiver’s ability to simply secure a catch. Volume will always be the driving factor for a PPR player’s projection and ceiling, but playing in the slot is undoubtedly advantageous.
Which brings us to the low-end WR1s. The 2019 season saw a number of slot receivers creep into the top-10.
The trend line shows the prevalence of slot receivers. Even in a season where Thomas and Godwin finished in the top-3, the bottom end of the WR1 group was skewed more towards the slot than two of the past three seasons.
Targets shifting to the slot hasn’t created an entirely new breed of alpha receiver but it has pushed talented players across the NFL into different and more valuable roles. It has also made slot-heavy receivers more resistant to bad quarterback play and passer injuries.
What do I do with this information?
Find players who command a large number of targets who will also get a “slot bonus” on many of those targets. The trifecta of factors is slot volume, talent, and quarterback play. Slot targets are already good, of course, but they’re better when your passer is Drew Brees. When you add the hands and route-running of Michael Thomas into the picture, slot targets are game breaking.
Adam Thielen was injured for a large portion of 2019 so there’s not much to learn, but in 2018, he and Stefon Diggs played 16 and 15 games respectively. That season, Diggs commanded 149 targets and Thielen saw 153 targets. Now the Vikings are without Diggs’ talents as he forced a trade that sent him to Buffalo in March. They used their 22nd overall pick on Diggs’ replacement by selecting Justin Jefferson. While the LSU product is an athletic player with supreme route-running skills, no rookie in the past 15 years has earned that many targets.
Of course Thielen isn’t going to simply take every single target and air yard that Diggs saw. The Vikings will change their strategy, get their tight ends more involved, and integrate Jefferson as much as possible. Still, no combination of those factors is going to completely make up for what Diggs left behind. Thielen could see a massive boost in targets if he’s capable of earning them.
The closest comparison we can draw is Thielen’s blistering start to the 2018 season. In Minnesota’s first 12 games of the season, Diggs dealt with a rib injury, and Thielen operated as the team’s clear No. 1 receiving option. During this stretch of games, Thielen saw a 37 percent share of the Vikings’ targets and air yards. He posted 1,163 yards and nine scores on 96 receptions. On the season as a whole, Thielen played every single Vikings offensive snap, and 46.7 percent of those snaps came from the slot.
With Diggs gone, the Vikings need a target-monster, and the best way for them to do that is to turn Thielen into the Michael Thomas of the north.
At his current ADP, Cooper Kupp is being drafted as the second-to-last WR1. This is despite him finishing as the seventh-highest scoring receiver in the league last year.
Another twist is how he got there. Kupp was used as more of a role-player last season than most people will remember. He played on 80.5 percent of his team’s snaps (only 46th among receivers) and conceded work to the inefficient Brandin Cooks. The veteran speedster appeared on 72.3 percent of the Rams’ plays, and a quarter of Cooks’ snaps came via the slot, especially when LA used two tight-end sets.
Now, Cooks is out of the picture entirely after being traded to Houston. This means the Rams will be forced to lean on Kupp more in 2020, even when they shift into two-tight end sets. More targets for Kupp is a boon for him but also a plus for the entire offense. Like Thielen, Kupp is the No. 2 target in terms of efficiency for Jared Goff. His 10.0 Air Yards Average when targeted by Goff trails only Sammy Watkins, who got there largely due to fluky touchdown production.
The Rams bottomed out last season after making it to the Super Bowl in the year prior. Goff may not be a franchise passer but he’s at least competent and McVay’s offense has propelled him to great heights before. The 2019 performance for their offense was likely the team’s floor, and that floor still made Kupp a great value. The loss of Cooks and Todd Gurley should insulate Kupp from any decrease in role, even with rookie Van Jefferson joining the team. The upside of moving into his natural slot receiver role and playing more snaps offers ample ceiling for Kupp and his fantasy backers.
Kupp and Thielen have clear paths to WR1 status ahead of them, making both great values in the early to mid-rounds of drafts. Rookie receivers aren’t often set up for success in the same way, but the Eagles may have something to say about that this year: Jalen Reagor, Philadelphia’s first-round selection at wide receiver, hailing from TCU, is in line to be the exception to that rule.
Because slot targets are so QB-friendly, a rookie receiver has a much greater chance of making an impact early in his career by filling that role. Evan Engram (a thick slot receiver disguised as a tight end) and Juju-Smith Schuster have been great examples of how easily slot players can transition to the pro level in recent years.
Reagor has the skillset and athleticism to join them as a breakout rookie. His college coronation happened in his first season at TCU with 33 receptions, 576 yards, and eight touchdowns. His final season was bogged down by the Horned Frog’s abysmal offense, but in his second year, Reagor showed he was capable of carrying a team. His 1,061 yards accounted for 38.9 percent of TCU’s total yards through the air.
At 5-11, 206, Reagor has the stereotypical size of a slot receiver and draws a close comparison to former standout D.J. Moore, who played a quarter of his rookie snaps from the slot. With 4.45 40-yard dash speed and 78th-percentile athleticism, Reagor is built with the same running back style of size and speed as Moore, and the similarities don’t stop there.
Both were used as running backs, kick and punt returners during their college years.
Moore was able to translate his skills into 960 total yards as a rookie while catching 55 passes from a broken Cam Newton. Line those on-field skills up next to Carson Wentz and Reagor is set to vastly outperform his rookie expectations.
By far the least appealing name that can be found in this publication, Danny Amendola is also the best value. That’s because he’s free in most drafts with an average draft position of 271. Amendola’s season-long line of 62 catches for 678 yards and a long score would make him a boring but valuable selection at his ADP. However, his splits with Matthew Stafford under center are tantalizing. He played seven games last season with Stafford, all of which featured Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay. He also played with a chest sprain during a subset of these games. Even so, his per-game numbers with Stafford (prorated to a 16-game season) equal 859 yards on 99 catches and 2.3 scores. This would have easily made him a top-30 receiver and leaves room for more upside if he can improve his touchdown output. Granted a WR2 season from a decrepit, 34-year-old Amendola seems entirely out of reach, but his role on pass-first offense puts that outcome within the realm of plausibility.
With Stafford at the helm, Detroit attempted 36.4 passes per game and posted 312.4 yards per game. Had he remained healthy and able to play 16 games, that mark would have led all teams by more than 10 yards. Last year, Amendola played on roughly two-thirds of the Lions’ offensive snaps, but over 70 percent of his plays came from the slot. And with Stafford, Amendola was much more efficient catching 70 percent of his passes and averaging 8.5 yards per target A full season together for Stafford and Amendola will make the shifty slot receiver an efficient role player with a near-zero cost. The slot receiver bonus does not get any better than with Amendola in 2020.
The Texans chose to tear down a potent offense this offseason when they traded DeAndre Hopkins (after his third consecutive First-Team All-Pro selection) for David Johnson and a second-round pick. This move left their offense without a star receiver and a definite hole at the slot. Because Hopkins played every single Texans snap in 2019, his 23.6 percent slot rate accounted for 217 snaps that created 49 of his 150 total targets.
To replace Hopkins, the Texans acquired Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb via trade and free agency respectively. Neither will completely fill the void left by Hopkins, and really the entire receiving corps in Houston is unlikely to make up for all of his lost production. Even so, Cobb will certainly play a large role in the team’s efforts to replace
Targets don’t just happen, though. They have to be earned. Hopkins’ 150 looks are not just sitting around waiting to be shoveled into Cobb’s stat line. He has to first get on the field, get open, and then ultimately catch the target thrown his way. He won’t do this as well as Hopkins, but he does have a knack for making a name in a crowded receiving room. Last season, Cobb was targeted 83 times while sharing the field with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, one of the league’s best receiving duos. He did so by filling a niche position very well – slot receiver. He played 86.4 percent of his snaps from the slot.
Now he’ll compete with Cooks, Will Fuller, and Kenny Stills. That trio combined for 111 slot snaps in 2019 while Cobb alone ran 121 snaps from the slot in Dallas. Based on his body of work and the apparent lack of competition, Cobb will contend to be Deshaun Watson’s top receiver, playing mostly out of the slot. Cobb isn’t a perfect stand-in for
Hopkins, of course, but he doesn’t have to be. As the 79th-drafted receiver his acumen in the slot, and the opportunity in Houston, make Cobb an excellent fantasy value.
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