Answering A Complex Question: Can They Play On The Outside?

Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

"Yeah, but can they play on the outside?"

It’s a question commonly associated with LSU wide receiver Justin Jefferson and it's a justifiable one. Jefferson was primarily the slot receiver in LSU's high-octane passing attack, but in the NFL he may not play with the same space, talent discrepancy or target volume.

If a team is going to draft Jefferson in the first round, will he be able to play on the outside?

While the question may sound easy, it has several layers and peeling back those layers helps us dive deeper into the theory and practice of receiver prospect evaluations. 

When we ask, "Can they play on the outside?," what are we really asking?

How Are They Different?

The biggest difference between slot and outside alignments isn't route distribution; too many teams run too many routes from various alignments to comfortably say slot receivers run short routes and outside receivers run deep routes.

The difference is space.

A receiver in a true outside alignment, at the numbers or wider, does not have much space to run out-breaking routes. They can break outside on curl routes or deep comebacks and always have the back-shoulder fade in their toolkit, but generally, if they are going to run a breaking route, it's going to break to the inside.

Contrast that with a slot alignment which is inside the numbers and even tight against the formation. In the middle of the field, a slot receiver has a two-way go. They can run routes that break both inside and outside. They also have the freedom to run vertical routes but are capped by deep safeties who often line up to the middle of the field to influence the greatest range. This is not true for outside receivers, who are aligned away from safeties and have more room in the deep areas of the field

This supports the belief that slot receivers run short routes and outside receivers run deep routes. It's not entirely wrong; it's just a secondary consequence of the true difference that they play in different spaces.

Who Should Play Where?

Slot receivers get two-way go’s, outside receivers don't. When it comes to deciding who should play where we have to operate from the condition of who maximizes the two-way go and who doesn't?

The answer predictably falls into the typical molds of each position. Slot receivers have small and quick feet, a short catch radius, explosiveness and are elusive. The players who are quicker than fast, the savvy route runners and separators play in the slot and maximize the two-way go. From the slot, they see off coverage, linebackers and safeties in zones and those cover defenders are forced into reactive defensive positions. The quicker a slot receiver can break, turn their head and get into space, the more separation they’ll generate; and if they have head fakes and release moves, all the better. They’ll move defenders more easily, create more separation and catch easier balls.

Players with such skills can survive and thrive on the outside. Good route-runners separate everywhere; quick is quick. But they won't be maximized because defenses know they can't cut to the outside. They'll play cornerbacks with inside leverage to take away in-breaking routes and throw safeties over the top to prevent deep separation from becoming explosive plays.

Conversely, linear players with long strides, height and high-cut frames with a big catch radius and physical leaping ability do not maximize the two-way go. Receivers that don't have separation ability as route runners will play through contact regardless, so why bother putting them in the mess between zone defenders and single-high safeties when a team can guarantee isolated coverage down the field from outside alignments?

Who Is More Valuable?

This question could, and perhaps should, be put another way: "Whose job is harder?" or even, "Which position can fewer prospects fill?" All three questions are impossible to answer, from the general, league-wide sense. The prototypical X-receiver — an outside player who deals with press coverage — is anecdotally the rarest breed to find and accordingly gets valued the highest. It’s an appropriate valuation; a player that elite press corners cannot consistently beat one-on-one forces defenses to skew extra resources to covering said receiver which makes life easier on everyone else.

To get off of press coverage, there needs to be a marriage of technique and traits. A receiver can get off it with strength and length, which is the Mike Evans mold, but they must understand the technical aspect of working their feet at the line of scrimmage to create space and possess enough burst to push even with the cornerback's hip and threaten downfield. A receiver can also get off it with foot speed and release moves but would still need to understand how to technically withstand a corner's punch and break their strength.

If a team has a player who can win against press coverage on the outside, it's likely they can do everything else at every other alignment. They can be put wherever they are most valuable.

So Who Can Play Where?

Now we can attack, if not answer, the difficult question: Who in this class can play on the outside?

We'll start with Jefferson. 

In the NFL, just as in college, Jefferson will be most valuable in the slot. His best trait is his hand strength, which allows him to win in contested catches in the intermediate areas while getting accosted by safeties and linebackers. Beyond that, his quicks, various gears and instincts as a route-runner all translate best to maximizing the two-way go afforded by the slot.

But is he completely versatile? Can he play out wide? At this point, Jefferson likely can't be trusted to get off of press coverage in Year 1. He was an inconsistent player in 2018 off of press, and in 2019, continued to show high peaks and low valleys when challenged on the line of scrimmage. A team shouldn't ask him to play an X-receiver role early.

The funny thing about this is how concerned it makes people about Jefferson when Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy has similar concerns.

Jeudy's concerns are similar in character but aren't as severe as Jefferson's. Jeudy played more often on the outside in 2018 than he did in 2019 and has shown more success in working off of press when he's seen it. Jeudy was protected by slot alignments on a talented receiving corps in 2019 — just like Jefferson — and his skillset as a route-runner and athlete both maximize the two-way go. They translate to slot play.

We can consider the polar opposite player: Notre Dame's Chase Claypool, who some want to move from X-receiver to a big slot role or a flex-Y role. Can he do so? Yes, Claypool is a good separation player because he has a quality understanding of leverage, a huge frame and sufficient footwork to get into quick-breaking routes. But wouldn't he be more valuable as an X-receiver?

Yes, if he could get off of press coverage. He struggles to do so and fails to key in on the technical aspect of the X-receiver position off of his current film. He has all of the physical tools — like Jefferson and Jeudy — but would be an inconsistent option on the outside in Year 1; accordingly, a move to slot play could be in his future. Claypool won't be as high-value there as Jefferson or Jeudy, but he could still make a home.

Receiver evaluation really does begin with reps against press coverage. If a pass-catcher can get off press, they can play anywhere. If they can't, their ceiling is dictated by how well you can win. That's where Jeudy and Jefferson get their first-round projections. They are going to be wicked effective in the slot and have great (Jeudy) and decent (Jefferson) projections as outside receivers with development assumed.