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NFL Draft

Ranking NFL’s 5 Best Slot Receivers

  • The Draft Network
  • July 24, 2020
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It’s sort of a silly question to begin with.

“Who are the best slot receivers in the NFL?”

Not too long ago that question was much more straightforward. Teams’ top receivers would play on the outside, and their third or “X-factor” kind of player would play between them and the line of scrimmage when an offense would go to three-wide receiver sets. The slot receiver was more of an add-on than an emphasis. 

But nowadays, if you are a regular on the field at receiver, chances are you are playing in the slot at some point for some percentage of your snaps—not being able to, for today’s game, would be considered limiting as opposed to just not being a bonus.

Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, Odell Beckham Jr. These are all guys who are No. 1s on their respective teams and yet they will rotate in and out of the slot as well as play on the outside. So when creating a ranking or a list of the best slot receivers, would I consider them?

For this exercise, we’ll say no. To keep the spirit and integrity of this topic intact in order to (hopefully) correctly give props to be the best slot receivers in the game, what I did was only take players who had around 50 percent or more of their offensive snaps come from the slot position.

With that criteria, here are my top guys, with many of the stats cited from Player Profiler.

Honorable mentions: Jarvis Landry, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Julian Edelman

5. Cooper Kupp

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTYs2dlwmoI

If you asked someone what the qualifications of a good slot receiver are, they’d probably mention something about quick feet, precise route-running, reliable hands, and the ability to rack up yards after the catch—as slot receivers are afforded more space, naturally, since they aren’t directly at the sideline.

Cooper Kupp has all those things.

In Kupp’s first 1,000-yard season in 2019, he ran 65.5 percent of his routes from the slot. His 134 targets were the 11th most in the NFL, his 16 red zone receptions were third most, his 10 touchdowns were tied for second most, his 91.3 true catch rate was seventh best, and his 524 yards after the catch were fourth most.

Check out the clip above. In that clip, Kupp was matched up with New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Lattimore is one of the top cover corners in the NFL, and Kupp put a move on him that left him in the dust. Kupp has really honed in on his skills to be a consistent separation player, and one of quarterback Jared Goff’s favorite targets.

Kupp has become one of the top reliable options in the slot in all of football. 

4. Adam Thielen

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMKmAwq7Py8

Thielen battled injuries throughout 2019, but when he was on the field, he was still a constant reminder of how good a slot weapon can be when they understand how to manipulate space.

I am sort of cheating on my own rule because Thielen only played in the slot for 29.3 percent of his snaps in 2019. However, taking an excerpt from my article on Thielen’s 2020 outlook, I highlight how Thielen’s best seasons have come when he’s been used more in the slot.

Thielen’s two most successful years of his career have been 2017 and 2018. In 2017, Thielen saw 309 routes from the slot (48.2 percent of his total routes). For the season, Thielen saw 142 targets for 91 catches (a catch percentage of 64.1) with 1,274 receiving yards and four receiving touchdowns.
In 2018, as those slot numbers increased (373 routes from the slot), so did Thielen’s success. That next season, Thielen saw 153 targets for 113 receptions (a catch percentage of 73.9) with 1,373 receiving yards and most importantly nine receiving touchdowns.

The clip at the top of this segment is a good example of why I love Thielen so much as a slot receiver. When you’re in the slot, it is your job to know how to make the most of open space—seeing it and getting to it. Sometimes that comes in unorthodox ways. If you went to draw the exact route Thielen ran in the clip above, it would look like something a kindergartener drew in crayon on a blank piece of paper. But that’s what playing slot receiver sometimes requires.

Some of Thielen’s routes aren’t “pretty”. But the production from them is a thing of beauty. That’s what makes a good slot receiver.

3. Tyler Lockett

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQtpd2ldlWg

To most, Lockett might be a little high on this list. But I have really become a sucker for Lockett’s speed and quickness combined with his unique route-running ability over the years, and 2019 was the best of him yet.

Lockett and quarterback Russell Wilson just have a way of making magic happen. There are so many plays over the last two seasons that these two have no business connecting on that somehow get recorded in the stat sheet as a catch. The first few times I wanted to chalk it up to luck, but I’ve seen it happen now so many times I have to somehow bend my mind to accept that it’s a skill.

Per Brady Kelly of Pro Football Network, when targeted over the last two seasons, Lockett has yielded 180 targets, 139 receptions (77.2 percent), 2,022 yards (11.2 yards per attempt), 18 touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 144.3.

In 2019, Lockett ran 60.1 percent of his snaps from the slot. His target separation average of 1.9 yards was ninth best of the position, and his 17 red zone receptions were second most in the NFL.

2. Keenan Allen

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uvpba5zTU8Q

Though injuries throughout his career have hurt Allen’s athletic ability versus what it once was, Allen’s top attribute has always been his mind—and that is saying something since he’s a damn good athlete in the first place. Allen has been setting defenders up for their family to watch the highlights of them getting burned on SportsCenter for a decade now.

In 2019, Allen ran 45.8 percent of his routes from the slot. Not quite 50 percent, but close enough to appreciate him. He was fifth in the NFL in targets with 150. His 104 receptions were second most in the league for wide receivers, and his 1,199 receiving yards were the fifth most. He was also top 10 in red zone receptions with 14.

The clip above is a good example of how Allen wins with his mind as much as his body. In that clip, Allen was lined up in the slot against the Lions’ best cover cornerback Darius Slay. Right off the snap, Allen got inside on Slay, but if you’ll notice, what made his route a success was how he turned his head to the middle of the field right before he broke the opposite way to the outside. That left Slay a step behind and created the separation for the throw to be made.

That kind of receiver play is Allen in a nutshell.

1. Chris Godwin

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NLUerdz_pQ

After watching all 16 games of Godwin live this past season, I was certainly familiar with his versatility, but I didn’t go into this exercise expecting him to even be on this list, given the slot percentage criteria.

Well, on top of being No. 3 in receiving yards (1,333), No. 3 in receiving touchdowns (9), No. 4 in yards per target (11.2), No. 6 in catch rate (72.3), No. 3 in contested catch rate (64 percent), and No. 1 in yards after the catch (574), Godwin was also a top 10 receiver in percentage of routes run from the slot at 50.5.

I’ve already written how I believe Godwin was the best wide receiver in football in 2019, so I have to stay consistent here with him at the top of this ranking, given more than half his production came from the slot. Godwin isn’t the typical mold of what you would say a slot receiver is, but I suppose revisiting our explanation in the opening paragraphs is a good way to cap off the article.

Godwin is a perfect example of a slot receiver coming in all different shapes and sizes than what we’re used to. In today’s NFL, the slot receiver is the receiver on the depth chart who you believe can benefit your team the most by setting them up to naturally have the most space to work with. It has opened the doors for many different types of wide receivers to have success, and has allowed for offensive coordinators to be more creative than ever.

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