Chase Claypool: Riding The Big Slot Wave

Photo: © Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Y'all remember Allen Lazard? If you don't, watch a Green Bay game one of these Sundays: you'll see No. 13 in green and gold, reeling in a modest four or five receptions for QB Aaron Rodgers, who's been a fan of Lazard's size, route-running, and work ethic since he was signed off the Jaguars' practice squad in 2018.

Lazard was a UDFA in the 2018 NFL Draft class despite a historically productive career at Iowa State; despite solid athletic testing at the NFL Combine -- why? NFL teams thought that he couldn't run routes effectively at the next level, given the agility and explosiveness limitations of his massive frame: 6-foot-5, 227 pounds. Lazard ran the vertical route tree at Iowa State, working the fade and the back-shoulder and winning with that mountainous size against overmatched Big 12 DBs. In the NFL, that wasn't going to be as easy, and a more diverse route tree was necessary for him to stick on a roster.

It got to such a point that some even lobbied the idea of Allen Lazard moving to tight end at the NFL level -- adding more mass, working as a flex Y out of the slot, and getting matchups against those linebackers that he could more successfully shake in space.

Of course, Lazard is listed as a WR for the Packers now. He takes snaps out wide and he takes them from the slot. He runs short, intermediate, and deep routes with success. He always had a nice feel for generating separation and, while he tested faster than he played, still had the juice to stack defensive backs vertically. His tape was good, and it translated to the NFL.

But Lazard's foray into TE waters isn't an isolated story. It's tied directly to the "Big Slot" mold that NFL teams have developed in the past few seasons. We saw Jordan Matthews win at the spot for Chip Kelly at 6-foot-3, 212; Devin Funchess has been effective from an interior alignment at 6-foot-2, 225; Marques Colston and Larry Fitzgerald were two of the first to do it in a big way, at 6-foot-4, 225 and 6-foot-3, 218 respectively.

Matthews, Funchess, Colston, Fitzgerald -- they were never going to put their hand in the dirt, fire off the ball, and block. They were in the slot to use their size and catch radius to win on quick-breaking routes; creating throwing windows not by Wes Welkering the defensive back into next Tuesday, but by being both bigger than him, and between the ball and him.

Which brings us to Evan Engram.

Evan Engram?

Evan Engram. Evan Engram is a Big Slot, and even though you call him a tight end and not a wide receiver, he lines up in the same slot, he rarely puts his hand in the dirt, and he creates throwing windows by being both bigger than the defensive back he's up against, as well as between him and the ball. Slap whatever two letters you want on his roster spot -- TE, WR, FB, CB, PK -- and do a little dance, but he's winning the same game that Marques Colston won for years. He's a Big Slot.

Which brings us to all 6-feet-5-inches and 229 pounds of Chase Claypool, the Notre Dame wideout and Senior Bowl attendee. Claypool is an outside receiver for the Fighting Irish this year -- though last year, with Miles Boykin on the roster, he got more reps from an interior alignment; more in- and out-breaking routes. That's a big deal, because while Claypool wasn't necessarily more productive in 2018 -- there were more mouths to feed -- he did have good film working in the short areas of the field.

You can see that short-area explosiveness and change-of-direction aren't exactly Claypool's strengths -- it takes him a hot second to work through the angle of this pivot route. But from a tight alignment, asked to work a hard-breaking route underneath, Claypool has enough of a straight-line explosiveness profile -- big strides help -- that he can get back to the inside of his cover man, work upfield, and break the tackle to pick up a long 3rd and 12.

This is a route for shiftier men, but we've seen bigger players continue to grab this role and win with it at both the college and NFL level. The more common route understood in this context is the slant: your Keenan Allens and Amari Coopers, with their prototypical size and unbelievable releases, knock DBs socks off and take these to the house; but your Allen Lazards and Chase Claypools get into the route, get upfield, and present a huge target in a tight window.

As I said above, Claypool's become a downfield, outside, back-shoulder this year. With Boykin gone and Chris Finke rostered, the X-receiver role is filled with Claypool, who of course looks quite the part -- but with some of the athletic concerns that surround him, just as they surrounded Lazard, he's likely on a different NFL course: one that sends him to the weird, nameless niche in the league that we call the "Big Slot."

So he'll line up in the slot -- and out wide at times. He'll run nines (as he has all year), slants (as he has all year), seams (that'll be new!) and sit routes (he'll like those a lot). He'll be bigger than the players covering him, and he'll be between them and the ball. The role at the NFL starts there, and ask Allen Lazard: it only keeps growing.