The Slot Receiver: The Most Interesting Position in Sports

The Slot Receiver can be defined as, “The player who lines up between the last offensive lineman on either side of the center and the wide receiver on that same side.”  That area is referred to as the “slot.” This may seem decently self explanatory and shallow at first sight. Nothing too special to it. But, if you dig a little deeper, the slot receiver is so much more than meets the eye.  It’s more than just the “Common Man’s Position.” It’s more than someone with heart over height. It’s more than a PPR goldmine. The area between the Offensive Tackle and the Split End Receiver is the home of much revelation, rebirth, and revolt in the football community.

Before we can understand the intricacies of the position, we need a little history lesson.  We need to understand the origins of the Slot Receiver, how it started, and what it once was.  The creation of the Slot Receiver is commonly attributed to Al Davis who, at the time, was an assistant coach for the Oakland Raiders.  This was in the 1960’s, but it wasn’t until the early 1980’s that a Slot Receiver was ever a team’s primary target. This was Charlie Joiner, a member of the San Diego Chargers.  He flourished in that role, putting together a career that would end with him in the Hall of Fame. At the time of his retirement, he was the all time leader in career receptions, yards, and games played for all wide receivers.  That’s pretty good. Move along a few years to 1995 and Wayne Chrebet of the New York Jets was the next big Slot Receiving superstar. When I say big, I mean that metaphorically of course. Chrebet stood at a whopping 5’10 and weighed a staggering 188 lbs in his playing days.  But, that’s part of his persona that made him the physical embodiment of what the Slot Receiver was. Chrebet was shorter than everyone else. Lighter than everyone else. Slower than everyone else. Went to a Division 1-AA school. Got cut from a team in the Canadian Football League after a single day.  And finally, he was a walk on to the Jets. That being said, he had heart, and did his job well. Nicknamed “Mr. Third Down,” much of what Chrebet was asked to do was run little slant or option routes 3-5 yards down the field in order to simply move the chains. That’s exactly what he did. Simple, yet effective.  He was the common man’s NFL player, a relatable figure to the non super athletes of the world, and he really pushed along the popularity of the traditional Slot Receiver. But, undoubtedly so, the most prolific Slot Receiver to ever touch the field is Wes Welker. Similar to Chrebet, clocking in at 5’9 and 185 lbs, Welker was one of those guys who was always “too small to make it.”  Also similar to Chrebet, his career got off to a somewhat rocky start. He too went undrafted and then he too was cut by his first professional franchise, in this case the San Diego Chargers, after just one game. He then spent a few seasons in Miami playing for the Dolphins and finally ended up in his home, New England. There, Welker came out of his shell, and turned into one of the best receivers the NFL has ever seen.  He led the NFL in receptions in 2007, 2009, and 2011. He is the first receiver in NFL history with three 110 reception seasons, as well as the first with five 100 reception seasons. He was selected to the Pro Bowl every year he was a Patriot and owns numerous franchise records including most receptions and yards in a single game, longest reception, and career receptions. For a franchise featuring the likes of Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski, that’s quite the impressive feat.  

While Welker was the last truly great traditional Slot Receiver up to now, they haven’t gone extinct.  Sticking with the Patriots organization, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola (now a Dolphin) have been integral parts of their recent success, no better represented than by each of them making unbelievably difficult yet crucial catches en route to their improbable comeback against the Falcons to win the superbowl.  Moving to a lesser known player, Cole Beasley has been a huge factor in Dak Prescott’s early career success. In 2016, Dak’s rookie season, he led the Cowboys to a 13-3 regular season. Many people attribute much of that success to Jason Witten being the “safety net” of sorts and Dez Bryant being the “home run threat.”  That being said, the 5’8, 180 lb redhead that is Cole Beasley had better seasons than 11x Pro Bowler, two time All Pro, and future Hall of Famer Jason Witten as well as the three time Pro Bowler and one time All Pro Dez Bryant. In 2016, Cole Beasley had more targets, touches, catches, and yards than both Witten and Bryant, not to mention a higher catch percentage and less fumbles.  He flew very under the radar, but was the best receiving threat on the best team in the NFC, and is doing a great job at keeping the traditional Slot Receiver alive.

 

Revelation:

The Stretch Big.  The Sweeper Keeper.  The Read Option QB. The Point Forward.  

In recent years, the sporting world has strayed more and more from molds of traditional positions.  Positions in sports have become much less uniform, combining various skill sets to form hybrids of what once were different positions specializing in niche roles on the field.  The evolution of athletics has called upon the players to change, grow, and adapt to new found roles, often requiring them to do more than was ever asked of them before. The Slot Receiver is the newest position to go through an on field transformation, and one of the most impactful at that.  Sometime in recent years, football minds came to an epiphany along the lines of, “What if we take this position, one that has had so much success with short slow people, and, get this, put NOT slow short people there!” That’s exactly what has happened. Receivers who would traditionally be “Split Ends” or deep ball threats on the outside are beginning to move into the slot.  It’s been working like a charm. Doug Baldwin started his career as a prototypical receiver, lining up on the outside and looking for the deep ball down field. But, the problem was, he was always a tweener. He is 5’11 which is bigger than most slot receivers but not big enough to be on the outside, and ran a 4.48 40 which is pretty quick, but not breakaway blazing speed. But, in 2015, he moved into the slot and his career took off.  After having 15 touchdowns combined in his first four seasons, never having more than five in a single campaign, he had and NFL leading 14 in 2015. 12 of those came from the slot, as did 80% of his snaps. Another example would be T.Y. Hilton. He’s got the prototype size for a slot receiver, with measurements of 5’9 and 183 lbs, but has downfield threat speed. He ran a 4.34 40 yard dash and began his career as almost purely a deep ball threat, running streak after streak hoping Andrew Luck would eventually connect for a big play.  T.Y leads the league in Yards per Route run from the slot, meaning he isn’t simply running the five yard option routes of Wayne Chrebet. In fact, it’s just the opposite. T.Y. led the league with 28 plays of 20 yards or more in 2016, making him the NFL’s greatest big play threat, and he did so mostly from the slot. They are putting their playmaker into open space, giving him the most room to work with, which seems to make logical sense. And, it’s paid off. In 2016, Hilton had the most receiving yards in all of professional football.  But, the biggest outlier from the typical slot mold is Jarvis Landry, who is widely considered the best slot receiver of today. He stands at 6’0 and weighs 203 lbs. He is a lot bigger than the Wes Welkers or Charlie Joiners of the world. So, people would immediately think that Jarvis Landry would line up on the outside and make Odell Beckham (who also has had great success in the slot by the way) like one handed catches down field. Nope. Jarvis’ issue is that he doesn’t have the breakaway speed of a prototypical receiver of his size.  He ran a 4.77 40. So, the Dolphins decided to move him inside. Even though he doesn’t have the pure speed, he makes up for it with sound route running and sure hands. So, they put the big guy in space and let him go to work. And, go to work he has. He made the Pro Bowl in three out of his four seasons with the Dolphins, rewriting the history books along the way. He led all of the NFL in receptions in 2017, racking in 112 balls. But, most impressively, he had 400 career receptions in his first four seasons. That’s more than anyone else has, ever.  

 

Rebirth:

 The slot has become an MLS of sorts, a fountain of youth, if you will.  It’s a place where stars of the past can go to rejuvenate their careers, save their legs, and bring back some of the success of the good old days.  Players who don’t have the knees they once did or no longer have the speed of a deep threat have been able to adjust and move into the slot, and have given new life to their careers in the process.  An example of this would be Anquan Boldin. He has had an unbelievable NFL career, getting selected to multiple pro bowls, holding numerous NFL records, scoring a touchdown in Super Bowl XLVII en route to an eventual victory, and even winning the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.  As a young buck, Boldin was a traditional red zone threat. He has good size, standing at 6’1 and weighing in at 220 lbs. He used this size to great advantage. He was great at catching back shoulder fades, using his large frame to create space and out jump the smaller defenders. He was always one to catch a lot of passes, but they weren’t what you’d think of coming out of the slot.  He frequently lined up on the outside, and made plays using his size and strength. But, nobody can beat father time. After failing to reach 1000 yards just once in full seasons of work between the years of 2003 and 2009, Boldin failed to reach 1000 yards once in the three seasons between 2010 and 2012. These three seasons he totaled 64, 57, and 65 catches respectively. Then, in 2013, Boldin went to the 49ers, but more importantly went to the slot, and that made a world of a difference.  In 2013 and 2014 he tallied 85 receptions, then 83, and had over 1000 yards in both campaigns. At the ripe age of 33 and 34, he was able to bring his career back to life. He didn’t fit the mold, but it didn’t matter. The slot saved Anquan Boldin’s career. Another example would be Larry Fitzgerald. He has had an unbelievable career, and is one of the best to ever put on a helmet and pads. Most everyone would agree that Fitz is a sure fire first ballot hall of famer. 11 time pro bowler, top three all time in both receptions and receiving yards, top ten in touchdowns… You name it, he’s done it.  Very similar to Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald started his career off with a bang. He is a physical specimen, towering over most defensive backs at 6’3 with the ability to physically overpower them utilizing his 218 lb frame. In his first eight seasons, he had under 900 yards just once, and had above 1400 yards four times out of the eight. He was unbelievable, racking in yards, catches, and touchdowns at historic rates. Then, in 2012, his career went into a bit of a tailspin. The only time he had less yardage was his rookie season, and he caught the fewest touchdowns of his illustrious career. Then, in 2013, a change was made that would totally change the trajectory of Fitzgerald’s career. Bruce Arians was hired as head coach of the Cardinals, and decided that it would be best for Larry’s career to move him into the slot. He had coached other aging receivers in the past, and watched them put up great numbers and elongate their careers after moving to the slot. Under his guidance, Reggie Wayne went from catching 75 balls one year to 106 the next after moving to the slot. It took awhile for Fitzgerald to adapt. Two seasons to be exact. He continued to put up mediocre numbers in 2013 and 2014, which makes sense. He was doing the same thing, and doing it better than most ever, for about ten seasons. It’s tough to adapt to something new. But, when 2015 rolled along, at the age of 31 and in his 12th season in the league, Larry became a top tier receiver once more.  After tallying 63 receptions in 2014, and not having 100 or more receptions since the year 2007, he had over 100 in 2015. And 2016. And 2017. He has also tallied over 1000 receiving yards in all three of those seasons after not doing so since 2011. He had the three highest catch percentages of his career and, perhaps most importantly, was able to play all 16 games every year in his 12th, 13th, and 14th seasons in the league. It is amazing what moving to the slot was able to do for this all time great.

 

Revolt:

While the Slot Receiver has evolved and developed in recent years leading to a positive impact on the field, there have been two major forms of off field controversy surrounding the position.  There’s always some sort of trouble in paradise. The first has to do with money. While target, reception, yardage, and touchdown numbers coming out of the slot tend to reflect the ever flourishing role of a solid Slot Receiver, their paychecks still don’t.  As I previously mentioned, Cole Beasley is one of the few prototypical Slot Receivers left in today’s game. That being said, he and his agent don’t want him to be known as a Slot Receiver. It’s not because they are embarrassed. It’s not because they are ashamed.  It’s because, according to Beasley’s agent, the title alone could take about $1.5 million off of Beasley’s next contract. Another example is the also aforementioned Julian Edelman. His most recent deal was for two years and $11 million. Last season, Edelman had 98 receptions for just over 1100 yards.  He was rewarded with a deal that gave him $5.5 million annually. AJ Green, a “traditional” receiver for the Bengals had 75 receptions for just under 1100 yards last season. He’s making $15 million annually. It doesn’t make sense. Edelman and others are putting up comparable, if not better, numbers than these other players but due to an outdated stigma about their position aren’t being fairly compensated.  This leads players who are undoubtedly Slot Receivers denying their true role on the team.

The second and more pressing issue with regards to the slot is one that seems to be a common one in the NFL: injury.  And, more specifically, injuries to the head. I previously mentioned numerous similarities in the careers of Wes Welker and Wayne Chrebet, but there was one more that I left out.  Both of them had to end their careers due to crippling head injuries. Each sustained multiple concussions throughout their careers and each of them still feel the aftermath to this day and, sadly, probably will for life.  While nobody has a number on Wayne Chrebet’s injury history, he was known to sustain multiple serious blows to the head, get chronic migraines, and was once knocked unconscious on the field. Welker does in fact have a number attached to his name.  Six. Welker was officially recorded with six different concussions in his NFL career, and that’s just what a doctor found. The likelihood of there being even more is extremely high. Unfortunately, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. When there is a small person running full speed across the field at bigger people (typically a middle linebacker or strong safety who are known to be the hardest hitters on the field) the bigger people are going to win that fight more times than not.  It’s great that Slot Receivers have “heart” but physics will beat heart more times than not. The object with more mass will overpower the object with less, and the latter will feel the consequences. David doesn’t always beat Goliath.

All of that on a position that tends to be an afterthought.  Next time you watch football, look out for who is in the slot, because, there’s more to it than meets the eye.  It truly is the most interesting position in sports.

   

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