In the 2015 season, NFL teams put five or more defensive backs on the field on 65% of snaps. Offenses also put three or more receivers on the field on 60% of snaps—up 10% from five years ago on both sides of the ball. That, as you might guess, is not a coincidence. Just as nickel is the NFL’s new base defense, the three-receiver set is the norm for even some of the league’s most notoriously conservative play-callers, and there are teams who go with empty backfields far more as a secondary concept than the gimmicky desperation set it used to be.
With these schematic changes comes the need for specialists at new positions, making the slot receiver the most obvious beneficiary of this paradigm shift—if not the slot cornerback or safety defending him. That’s why we’ve put both slot receivers and slot defenders in their own classes in our 2016 position previews.
Note: Slot tight ends were not considered for this list, since there’s a separate list for tight ends and playing in the slot is a mandatory requirement of the position at this point. The rankings below highlight the wide receivers who do underrated work closer in to the formation.
Just missed the cut
Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints: Cooks struggled with injuries in his rookie campaign but came back strong in 2015, and he’s got the speed and route-running skills to be a major player all over the field in Sean Payton’s offense.
Next big thing
John Brown, Arizona Cardinals: Bruce Arians always loves to have a speed slot receiver in his offense, and Brown fits the bill. He caught 22 slot passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns last season.