Inside wide receivers’ jobs are so important in today’s NFL, they’ve become their own position group.
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.
Hurns caught 64 passes for 1,031 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015, becoming a consistent threat in Jacksonville’s increasingly vertical passing game. Twenty-nine of those catches came in the slot and went for a total of 511 yards and seven touchdowns. At 6' 3" and 195 pounds, Hurns gives Blake Bortles a great red-zone target with his size, elusiveness and toughness. He’s one to watch as Jacksonville’s passing game continues to expand.
Beckham may be the game’s most explosive outside receiver, but let’s not overlook what he can do in the slot for the Giants in the second year of Ben McAdoo’s offense. Last season, he grabbed 32 catches in the slot for 467 yards and two touchdowns. He’s at least as much of a threat to defenses there as he is outside, and since the slot gives him even more space to operate and turn defensive backs on their heels, it might be his ideal assignment.
The Chiefs’ passing game is largely reluctant to take deep shots, which puts more pressure on its receivers to run precisely timed routes in the short and intermediate areas and to stretch the field horizontally. Maclin, who worked with head coach Andy Reid in Philadelphia from 2009 through ’12, rejoined Reid in Kansas City in ’15 to provide Alex Smith with a legitimate No. 1 receiver, posting a career-high 87 catches on 128 targets for 1,088 yards. Twenty-seven of those receptions and six of his eight touchdowns came from the slot. Maclin is great inside because he understands the specifics of advanced route concepts and he’s tough over the middle.
Decker has been a very prolific receiver over the last four seasons, and in his second season with the Jets, he helped quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick immeasurably as one of the game’s better slot targets. At 6' 3" and 206 pounds, he fits the modern model of the bigger slot target, and he’s got the strength and speed to outmaneuver inside defenders, especially against smaller guys who try to press him. Decker is especially expert at turning outside to the boundary and creating quick openings for short passes, but he can also accelerate downfield for the deep seam catch. Seven of his 12 touchdowns came from the slot last season, on everything from deep stutter-go routes to flare patterns in which Decker would lull his cornerback to sleep and then turn on the gas at the last second.
In his prime, Fitzgerald was the most feared receiver in the league, with a rare combination of quickness, downfield speed, toughness and intelligence. He enjoyed a renaissance season in 2015 with 109 catches for 1,215 yards and nine touchdowns, in part because over the last few seasons he has developed into a great escape hatch for quarterbacks in the Cardinals’ offense as a slot receiver. Last season, he caught 52 of 64 targets from the slot for 606 yards and three touchdowns. When coach Bruce Arians calls vertical routes to one side and timing routes to the other—a common construct for the Cardinals—Fitzgerald will often be asked to run a slant or drag route over the middle to give his quarterback yet another option. His 75-yard catch and run in overtime against the Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs, perhaps the greatest play of his career, came after he motioned from right outside to the slot, ran a crossing route and slipped past three Green Bay defenders on the run. It is this versatility and determination that has allowed Fitzgerald to excel in the slot as he always has outside.
Over the last few years, Edelman has replaced Wes Welker as the best option route runner in the NFL, making him a perfect fit on the Patriots, who have more option routes in their playbook than any other team. No receiver is better at reading coverages and adjusting his routes based on opponent tendencies, a mandatory skill for earning trust with Tom Brady in the New England offense. Edelman is tough, he’s quick and he understands how to sneak in and out of various coverage concepts. Perhaps it’s his appearance, but people tend to think of Edelman as more of a slot receiver than he really is: He ran just 51.2% of his routes in the slot last season, catching 32 passes on 42 targets for 362 yards and five touchdowns. At this point, he’s a true multi-position receiver who can get things done from anywhere on the field within the Patriots’ unique offense.
No receiver has been more prolific in the slot over the last two years than Matthews, who was handed that role from Day 1 of his 2014 rookie season by then-coach Chip Kelly. He caught a league-leading 81 passes from the slot on 114 targets for 972 yards and eight touchdowns in 2015. It remains to be seen what the post-Kelly regime will do with him, though early returns indicate that head coach Doug Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich see Matthews as an inside guy in more of a West Coast offense prototype. Matthews is smooth on the run, but not terribly quick, and he does tend to tackle too easily—an issue that goes back to his college days. But he will beat the occasional cornerback over the top, and he's got a nice sense for timing on the kinds of routes that bedevil linebackers and box safeties in the middle of the field. Most likely, he's going to be a leader in slot categories for a number of years, and in today's game, that's not a bad thing at all.
Cobb was forced more outside in 2015 as a result of the torn ACL that cost Jordy Nelson his entire 2015 season. He showed impressive aplomb, but the Packers are in their best shape when Cobb can manipulate coverage over the middle and down the seams as a speed slot weapon with an ever-increasing route awareness. Cobb's speed is his primary skill—he can foot-fake a cornerback into stopping at the first coverage point, and then blow right by him in embarrassing fashion. Even with a depleted receiver corps and some really questionable offensive playcalling last season, Cobb still caught 66 passes from the slot on 109 targets for 704 yards and six touchdowns. Not quite the transcendent slot season he had in 2014, but quite respectable under the circumstances. With Nelson back as his outside foil (and perhaps a few more route concepts stuck in Mike McCarthy's playbook), Cobb could work his way to the top of this list, especially if he gets over the focus drops that plagued him at times in 2015.
Only Jordan Matthews had more slot targets than Landry's 102, and Landry caught 71 of those targets for 784 yards and two touchdowns. The second-round pick in 2014 was an explosive player in an offense that was anything but last season—Landry caught the fourth-most passes in the NFL in 2015 (110 on 166 targets), but only eight of those passes went over 20 yards, and he scored just four touchdowns. New head coach and offensive shot-caller Adam Gase has already said that he wants Landry to get more big-play opportunities both inside and outside, and Landry is certainly equal to the task. He's got a great sense for how to find and exploit openings in coverage, and he's got the downfield speed to excel outside, and threaten deep coverage on vertical seam and over routes. Those in the know have been aware of Landry's potential for a while; don't be surprised if he joins the league's upper echelon in everyone's mind in 2016.
When the Seahawks signed Baldwin to a four-year, $46 million extension with $24.5 million guaranteed on June 28, they did so knowing their top receiver might be a relative bargain in the long run. The undrafted star out of Stanford had a breakout season in 2015, leading the league with 14 touchdown catches. Twelve of those came from the slot, where Baldwin ran nearly 80% of his routes last season. Baldwin can do great things outside, but his skill set and mental approach lean perfectly to the slot position, where he can improvise openings with the best in the business. Baldwin’s greatest asset is his implicit understanding of the little things that separate good from great at the position. Watch him slow-play his route past coverage and then accelerate to the throw, or foot-fake a press defender into oblivion, or sell the wrong angle to take a cornerback out of the play, and you’ll understand why he’s so important to his team. He’s become a team leader, displaying toughness on and off the field, and he is absolutely fearless in traffic. Baldwin didn’t come into the NFL with any fanfare, but he’s doing his level best to make up for that now.