by Scott Spratt
This article kicks off our now-annual tradition of examining splits from the slot and out wide for wide receivers, quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, and defenses, made possible by Sports Info Solutions’ charting efforts. Their charters note where each player who was targeted on every play had lined up — either out wide, in the slot, in the backfield, or in the standard tight end position — when the ball was snapped.
This is the third year we’ve looked at these splits, and the league DVOA on slot passes has been a bit better than the league DVOA on wide passes each season. The league does seem to be catching up to that trend. After throwing passes to wide receivers in the slot 51.8 and 51.3 percent of the time in 2016 and 2017, the league threw 55.2 percent of passes to wide receivers in the slot last year. The results suggest the league is still not at equilibrium, but the DVOA difference between slot and wide passes did cut in half from 6.7% to 3.4%.
The following table shows wide receiver target and performance splits in the slot and out wide in 2018. Those charting labels come from players’ locations on the field regardless of the positioning of their teammates. A receiver on one side of the formation who was a few feet away from the offensive line was considered to be in the slot even if he was the widest receiver on that side. Receivers in motion were charted based on their original location, which tends to be in the slot on jet motions. I have grouped targets from the traditional tight end spot in with slot targets because of their similarity, but only a few wide receivers have a handful of those plays.
The table only includes the 83 wide receivers who saw 50 or more slot and wide targets. The table is sorted by slot rate, from highest to lowest.
Three Torches Passed
You could probably accurately guess most of the receivers who landed in the top 20 of DVOA both from the slot and out wide. DeAndre Hopkins, Brandin Cooks, Adam Thielen, Julio Jones, Michael Thomas, Mike Evans, and T.Y. Hilton are stars at the position. But unless you live on the west coast or are an avid Football Outsiders reader, you may not have realized that Tyler Lockett had become a member of that exclusive club. Lockett set an all-time record for DVOA in 2018, and he was deadly from everywhere — his 82.4% DVOA out wide was the best in the league, and his 54.8% DVOA from the slot was second-best at the position. Lockett’s defining trait is his speed, but he isn’t new to the slot. He saw more than half his targets there from 2016 to 2017, and he actually enjoyed bigger gains out wide in 2018, jumping from -19.5% to 82.4% DVOA. Lockett almost assuredly will not be able to maintain his ridiculous efficiency on deep passes in future years. He was 14-for-19 for 526 yards and six touchdowns on passes thrown 20 or more yards in the air in 2018, and he also drew six defensive pass interference penalties for 182 yards on throws of that distance. But his diversity of success suggests he can sustain his rise to No. 1 receiver status, a welcome truth for a Seahawks team that lost one of the game’s best slot receivers in Doug Baldwin to retirement.
A.J. Green will hopefully return from an ankle injury that may knock him out until October and have several more productive years. However, even on the field, Green has shown some signs that his play is slipping. He finished with negative DVOA out wide in both 2017 and 2018, and likely for that reason saw his slot rate nearly double to 46.8 percent. He had been at almost exactly 25 percent the two previous seasons. That transition certainly worked for Larry Fitzgerald, who may have lost a step or two in the back half of his career but continued to run crisp routes and outmaneuver corners to get open.
Green’s teammate Tyler Boyd carries a label of slot receiver and earned it in 2018 with an 83.8 percent slot rate. But at 6-foot-2 and 203 pounds, Boyd is more in the mold of Green or Fitzgerald than of 5-foot-11, 195-pound, slot-only option Adam Humphries. And Boyd was also massively successful with a 63.1% DVOA in limited opportunities out wide, all while maintaineing his great efficiency over a big increase in targets from the slot. Boyd landed a new contract with $17.3 million in practical guarantees — in line with Humphries’ total of $19 million — but he can do more. Look for him to pick up some slack if Green misses time at the start of the season.
The Seahawks and Bengals are stuck reacting to the losses of their older star receivers. The Steelers made a choice to move Antonio Brown to the Raiders, and third-year receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster undoubtedly made them comfortable to do so. Smith-Schuster enjoyed an easier start to his career because of the attention Brown received and because he worked fairly heavily out of the slot, but Smith-Schuster has also always had success out wide. He actually had better efficiency out wide in 2018 than from the slot, and better efficiency out wide than his former teammate Brown.
|Brown and Smith-Schuster Slot/Tight vs. Wide, 2017-18|
|Player||Season||Slot%||Slot Tgt||Slot DVOA||Wide Tgt||Wide DVOA|
The Steelers will likely push more of Smith-Schuster’s targets out wide next year and rely on a less versatile slot target in either Ryan Switzer or Eli Rogers. Both players finished north of an 85 percent slot rate in 2017 and 2018, but neither hit 40 slot targets for the Steelers either season. Expect that to change in 2019.
Slot Risers and Fallers
Dede Westbrook had a -57.1% DVOA from the slot in 2017, so he was the natural choice to lead all receivers in slot rate increase in 2018, jumping from 39.2 percent to 92.1 percent. Clearly, the Jaguars saw something in Westbrook that wasn’t evident from the results of his 20 rookie slot targets because he caught 12 percent more targets for 3.1 more yards per target from the slot in his second season. His -6.9% DVOA from the slot was a bit below average by NFL standards, but it stood out on a team with a -24.3% passing DVOA, third-worst in football. Keelan Cole was the other Jaguars receiver who saw more than half of his targets from the slot, and he had a -34.3% DVOA on his slot targets.
Brandin Cooks had lined up out wide on more than 70 percent of his targets with the Patriots in 2017. In contrast, the Rams used him the way the Saints did two years ago, with about 70 percent of his targets coming from the slot. Cooks has excelled both in the slot and out wide each of the last three seasons, so neither strategy is inherently better than the other. But it is interesting to see that all four of the Rams’ featured receivers — Cooks, Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, and Josh Reynolds — finished over that 70-percent slot benchmark. That’s far from what one would expect from a team that relies almost exclusively on three-receiver sets, but Sean McVay creates variety in 11 personnel with motion such that the Rams receivers are frequently somewhere other than where they started when the ball is snapped. Cooks starts in the slot on most of his jet-motion “receptions,” like the the first play clip in this Robert Mays article, and the Rams use more jet motion than any other NFL team. That approach may explain why Woods and Kupp were two of only three total receivers (Boyd was the other) in the top 20 in DVOA from the slot with over 75-percent slot rates.
The Titans have yet to find the full returns they expected from Corey Davis, the No. 5 pick of the 2017 draft, but they look to be on the right track after increasing his slot rate from 27.7 to 62.1 percent. Davis really struggled as a rookie out wide, finishing with -103 DYAR and with a -41.5% DVOA. With fewer outside targets in 2018, he flipped the script to 72 DYAR and an 8.7% DVOA. Meanwhile, his increased slot usage did not take away from his success there; he continued to average 10 yards per catch from the slot. It is the same formula that many other big receivers like Michael Thomas (58.7 percent slot rate, 19.8% slot DVOA) and Keenan Allen (63.5 percent, 28.1%) follow to great success these days.
The Browns’ trade for Jarvis Landry foreshadowed Rashard Higgins’ decline in slot rate from 94.0 percent to 56.6 percent, the biggest drop in the league. The irony is that Landry finished with a -27.9% DVOA from the slot in 2018, which was nearly identical to Higgins’ -26.2% total from 2017. Meanwhile, Higgins thrived in his new role with 33.6% DVOA out wide and 13.4% DVOA in the slot; he should have a similar role in 2019 after returning to the team on a one-year deal. Landry may be the biggest loser of the incumbent Browns because of the team’s trade for Odell Beckham. Beckham saw a few more targets out wide than in the slot last year, but he performed much better in the slot with a 14.6% DVOA versus -8.0% out wide.
Beckham may not have exceled to his typical standard out wide in 2018, but that doesn’t leave the Giants any better off in his absence. Sterling Shepard was one of the biggest decliners in slot rate from 2017 to 2018 and justified that decision with efficiency splits that favored wide targets (14.1% DVOA) over slot targets (-5.8%). Still, Shepard saw more than 70 percent of his targets from the slot in 2018, and Golden Tate was even higher at 87.3 percent. The Giants already lean heavily on short-field targets with their passing reliance on running back Saquon Barkley and tight end Evan Engram. Unless Shepard can skew radically further toward the outside or the team gets unexpected first-year production from fifth-round field-stretcher Darius Slayton, the Giants will make it easy on defenses in 2019.