Slot Receivers Are Making Big Plays
By Cody Roche
We always hear the same question about wide receiver prospects: Is this player a number-one wide receiver?
The prototypical No. 1 is essentially Calvin Johnson: a 6-foot-5 player who can run a 4.3 40 and has incredible hands. The fact of the matter is that there are only a handful of No. 1 receivers in the league. There just aren’t many humans that big who are that fast and possess elite hand-eye coordination. For every Calvin Johnson, there are a ton of Stephen Hills and Limas Sweeds, huge receivers who can run but can’t put it all together.
The new trend in the NFL is teams investing in the quick slot receivers, prospects who are shorter but also shiftier than the bigger wideouts. The explosion they present creates a mismatch for most teams, and we are seeing a priority placed on adding these players.
Last year, the 5-8 Tavon Austin was selected 8th overall. He was the first wide receiver taken, ahead of DeAndre Hopkins (6-1) and Cordarrelle Patterson (6-2). Ten years ago, you certainly wouldn’t have seen a player as short as Austin drafted eight. Austin, though, offers an electric playmaking ability and can be put anywhere on the field -- whether it be running back, playing in the slot or as a returner on special teams. Austin is following the success of other smaller Swiss army-knife receivers like Percy Harvin, Dexter McCluster and Randall Cobb, who have proved they can be game-changers despite their shorter stature. Using these players in reverses or bubble screens allows them to get momentum and use the open field to pick up a ton of yards.
There are a few reasons why these smaller receivers are effective. One is a counter to the trend of corners being larger to try and match with the taller receivers who have been developed over the past few years. Some of the taller corners can’t move quick enough to keep up with the shiftiness of a Wes Welker, Steve Smith or DeSean Jackson.
A lot of offenses are using three- or four-receiver sets as their base personnel, which force defenses to use three or four cornerbacks. By putting a player like Smith or Jackson in the slot, you are creating a mismatch -- usually, a defense's third-best corner against one of the league's most explosive players. Defenses will sometimes try to put their primary corners in the slot but most of the top corners are used to playing on the outside and having the sideline assist them in their coverage.
This draft, we could see three electric receivers -- Brandin Cooks, Odell Beckham and Marqise Lee -- all taken in the first round. All of these players have the explosion that teams covet and will make instant impact on offense as well as on special teams. Cooks has the same shiftiness as Tavon Austin and is an incredible wideout; he won the Biletnikoff Award last season, which is given to college footballs best receiver.
With more teams playing in a spread offense and trying to follow the formula that the Patriots, Broncos and Packers utilize, I think we will continue to see these smaller shifty receivers be taken early in the first round. I expect Cooks, Beckham and Lee to all have immediate success at the next level and continue to show the success that slot receivers can have.