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Offenses run through slot WRs mean fantasy trouble?

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Throughout the season, the NFL Fantasy Stronghold often found itself saying, "It's hard to run an offense through a slot receiver." On the surface, there appeared to be several examples of teams struggling to play consistently well on the offensive side of the ball which also happened to have a slot receiver as their primary pass catcher. Of course, it's one thing to just anecdotally say something, it's another to see if there is any evidence to the claim.

For a refresher: a slot receiver is a player who lines up inside the formation, between the offensive line and another pass-catcher aligned out wide to the left or right. These players often face less tight coverage with nickel cornerbacks unable to use the boundary to their advantage. Slot receivers are valuable players to an offense, but teams ask different responsibilities of them than what is typical for an outside wide receiver.

As you'll see, not all slot receivers profile the same. Typically, we think of the position along the Wes Welker archetype; smaller players who win with quickness. However, in recent years, teams seem more willing to experiment with big receivers on the interior. Marques Colston made a living as the big slot player for the New Orleans Saints in the prime years of his career. Some offenses employ a speed receiver in the slot in order to maximize a vertical threat's ability to take the top off a defense without battling much press coverage. Markus Wheaton averaged 17 yards per reception this year and took 68.2 percent of his snaps in the slot while playing that role in Pittsburgh.

The "it's hard to run an offense through a slot receiver" theory is not meant to disparage the position. Slot receivers generally get undersold for the work they do in NFL offenses. Required to operate with quickness and the ability to execute route concepts with pristine discipline, just because they don't do what outside receivers do doesn't mean they aren't valuable.

Teams task their slot receiver with sorting through the traffic of the middle of the field, finding the soft spots in areas inhabited by hard-hitting linebackers and disciplined safeties. From an X's and O's standpoint, the trouble occurs when that traffic gets just a bit more crowded, which the lack of a primary threat outside or at tight end precipitates. When the gaps in the zone defense gets smaller, and the coverage tighter, the slot receiver often finds their task at an increased degree of difficulty. If the team must rely on them as the primary engine of their passing offense, whether by attrition or their own choice in construction, one would naturally assume the overall functionality of the scoring unit goes down.

For the purposes of this, we'll look to see if there was any correlation between reliance on a slot receiver and offensive inefficiency in the 2015 NFL season. Using Next Gen Stats, we'll examine the wide receivers who accumulated more than 50 percent of their yards from the slot, and also had at least 80 targets. The qualifications net us eight case studies:

Qualifying slot receivers in 2015
Qualifying slot receivers in 2015 (NFL.com)

Jordan Matthews shows up at the top as the wide receiver who accumulated most of his yardage from the slot with 96.3 percent. At 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, Matthews spent the first two years of his career essentially playing the same game for Chip Kelly that Colston did for the Saints. He had a year that checked in under expectations, but still led the Eagles in all relevant receiving categories.

Doug Baldwin emerged to have the best season of his five-year NFL career. He topped 1,000 receiving yards for the first time, and tied for the league lead in touchdowns. Had Jimmy Graham not gone down for the season, he likely would have led the team in targets, but instead it was Baldwin who held that honor with 103. Baldwin was long one of the more solid slot receivers in the game, but stepped up in a major way when asked to shoulder more of a workload.

Randall Cobb had to step up in the absence of Jordy Nelson, but fell well short of expectations with what may well have been his worst season as a pro. Cobb was the primary target, leading the team in passing targets. However, he fell short of James Jones' yardage and touchdown totals. The slot receiver extraordinaire did not look capable of being the team's figurehead of the passing game.

Danny Amendola played a bigger role for the Patriots than many expected, starting seven games with Julian Edelman on the sideline. When the two were healthy, it was Amendola who primarily played the slot position. Edelman fell just short of our study's threshold with only 49.4 percent of his yards coming from the slot. He played more flanker than slot receiver this year. As for Amendola, even with his expanded role, he finished third on the team in passing targets.

Eric Decker had a tremendous season in 2015, besting his already stellar career touchdown rate of 8.2 with a 9.1 mark. However, he was the No. 2 receiver for the Jets, as Brandon Marshall led the team in all relevant receiving categories.

Jarvis Landry certainly made sense to find his way on the list. In fact, it's rather surprising that he didn't finish higher, as 67.1 percent of his yards accumulated from the slot feels low for what many regard as a limited player. Perhaps there is more to his game than many casually assume. Landry averaged 11.1 yards per catch on the outside and 11.2 when in the slot. He was clearly the team's leading receiver. Landry had 166 targets this season, which was more than double the total of the next highest Dolphins player (Jordan Cameron with 70).

Golden Tate is another no-brainer name to find on the list. He plays his fair share of flanker, but for the most part, Tate does most of his damage as a short-area slot receiver. Tate has by far the lowest average depth of target (9.0) among receivers with 80-plus targets this year, per Pro Football Focus. He played a sizable role, especially when the change in offensive coordinator took place, but still finished well behind Calvin Johnson for the team's leading receiver title.

Every game, all season

Anquan Boldin suffered through a plain and poor season in the 49ers' destitute offense. He led the team in targets, catches and yards, but that did not amount to much. As is typical with older receivers, Boldin played mostly in the slot this season, and just made it over our slot yardage threshold.

All eight receivers fit both the qualifications for slot production and involvement in their offense. Only Danny Amendola was not among the top two passing options for his team, while Randall Cobb, Jordan Matthews, Anquan Boldin, Doug Baldwin and Jarvis Landry were the No. 1 receiver for their offenses. Now we'll measure how effective those offensive attacks were by examining how they ranked in terms of:
» Points scored
» Passing yards gained
» Plays run
» Net Yards per Attempt (NY/A)
» Drives ending in a score (Scr%)
» Football Outsiders' DVOA metric

Statistical finishes of slot receiver dependent offenses
Statistical finishes of slot receiver dependent offenses (NFL.com)

The Eagles took a sizable leap backwards, falling outside of the top five in terms of yards gained for the first time in the Chip Kelly era. In 2015, not coincidently Kelly's last year as the coach, they ran as many plays and racked up the yards as ever before, but were woefully inefficient. Sam Bradford conducted a dull, hyper-conservative offense that saw him finish with the fourth-lowest average depth of target (aDOT) among starting quarterbacks. The real killer was how infrequently they scored, finishing 27th in drives that ended with a score.

In 2013 and 2014 respectively, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin were the deep threats that made Kelly's offense hum. Both players carried an aDOT just over 14 yards. Leading receiver in 2015, Jordan Matthews, checked in with just a 9.1-yard average. It was apparent to anyone who watched this team that the lack of a true threat on the outside wrecked any chances Philadelphia had to succeed through the air. Their offense was crippled with a slot receiver as the top threat.

The Seattle Seahawks don't fit in with this theory. Their passing offense surged in 2015, and almost right in line with Doug Baldwin's emergence as their clear No. 1 receiver. They still weren't a particularly robust group, coming in 20th in yards gained, but they were deadly efficient. Russell Wilson went on an historic stretch from Week 11 on, and the Seahawks finished top-five in NY/A and Scr%. This was their fourth year in the top 10 of passing game DVOA, but their highest finish.

Outrageous efficiency and touchdown production from both Wilson and Baldwin elevated this offense. Perhaps there is regression on the way for both in terms of their numbers, but 2015 was a breakthrough season for both players in vaulting their statuses. When arguing for the "it's hard to run an offense through a slot receiver" theory, Seattle provides an easy counterpoint for the other side of the discussion.

On the other hand, there may not be a better example than what happened to the Green Bay Packers this year. When Jordy Nelson went down, the natural assumption was that the Packers would be fine, mostly due to the excellent play of Aaron Rodgers. However, many thought that Randall Cobb, a Pro Bowler fresh off a new big contract, would absorb some of Nelson's numbers and lead the passing game. As we know, the Packers completely fizzled out as an offense, and Cobb had a nightmare of a season, gaining just 6.7 yards per target.

For years, Green Bay was the standard for offensive excellence. The Packers fell into the bottom-20 in NY/A and Scr%, something that is seemingly unheard of in the Aaron Rodgers era. Outside left receiver James Jones had some nice moments, but was often taken away by better corners with proficiency in press man coverage. Davante Adams failed to live up to expectations at the other wideout spot, to put it kindly. The 2015 Packers were the perfect example of a team that fell apart offensively trying to run through a slot receiver.

Opponents of the "it's hard to run an offense through a slot receiver" theory will often spit back with New England as a counterpunch. While the Patriots consistently get great production from their slot receivers, they never actually run the passing game through them. Wes Welker and Julian Edelman, at different points, always benefitted from either Randy Moss or Rob Gronkowski as the hogs of the defense's attention.

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While the player in the slot position is a key factor in the New England offense, there is no denying they are not the core of the engine. That responsibility lies with Gronkowski now, and him alone. We saw at the beginning of 2014, when Gronkowski was still recovering from a litany of offseason injuries, how the Patriots offense suffered. Edelman still produced at an average of 6.5 catches and 70.75 yards per game in the first four weeks of that season, but the football world at large was openly wondering if Tom Brady was finished and the Patriots dynasty all but over. It was not until Gronkowski put up 100 yards and a score in Week 5 to begin a torrid run did the New England offense return to glory, a reality too in line with the rest of our data to be a coincidence.

After many seasons suffering through moribund dysfunctional offense under the Rex Ryan-led teams, the Jets finally found scoring success in Todd Bowles' first year. Eric Decker was a major part of that, and his work from the slot was invaluable for Ryan Fitzpatrick, but he was just another that was not the engine of the offense. Brandon Marshall was the more dangerous player after usurping the No. 1 role in the passing offense that Decker held in 2014. Both are top-level receivers, and Decker's work as a complementary asset from slot helped the Jets become a functional offense, but it was the addition of Marshall that took this team over the hump.

Outside of Philadelphia, the Dolphins were the only other team on this list that intentionally crafted their offense around a slot receiver. Miami was quietly one of the worst passing offenses in the NFL. They ranked 30th in Scr%, frequently seeing their drives fall short of putting points on the board. Football Outsiders' DVOA was not kind to them, either. The more damning stat is the No. 24 ranking in NY/A. Ryan Tannehill's small-ball mentality continues hurting this offense, even if it does help inflate Jarvis Landry's numbers.

Landry is a good football player, don't listen to anyone who intends to tell you otherwise, but he needs other receivers around him for his role to further help the offense flourish. Miami hopes that DeVante Parker breaks out in his second NFL season, and helps open up the entire offense. New head coach Adam Gase once coached a Denver offense that ran through primary receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker in 2013. Gase should hope that Parker becomes his Thomas, while Landry comfortably settles into his role as his Decker.

The Lions offense was a nightmare early in the season, with all major skill players disappointing under Joe Lombardi's watch. Whether a direct cause or not, there was a correlation between the offense turning around and Jim Bob Cooter taking over mid-season. Cooter featured Golden Tate far more in his vision for the offense, particularly in the red zone where Tate owned a 34 percent share of the targets from Week 8 on.

Yet, we would be foolish to call Tate the engine to their offensive improvement. Despite playing a few ticks under his usual level, Calvin Johnson owned a 27 percent share of the total targets from Weeks 8 to 17, the highest on the team. Tate was a fine security blanket, and was a big factor in improving Matthew Stafford's efficiency. However, Johnson was still the chief concern for defenses, and the Lions were still only a league average passing offense on the whole. They finished inside the top-14 in just one of the statistics we looked at for this study, and passing yards are by far the most hollow stat of the six presented.

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The 49ers might not be a fair example for testing this theory as much as the others on this list, as their offense was generally hamstrung all year by poor personnel. Additionally, Anquan Boldin accumulated the fewest yards from the slot among the eight receivers that met our criteria. Nevertheless, the lack of a consistent outside threat to lead the passing game hampering the productivity in San Francisco. The 49ers finished no better than 29th in any of the statistics presented.

Observing the data collected on the offenses of the eight receivers that met our established criteria for this study, there does appear to be some correlation between a lack of offensive functionality and relying on a slot receiver as the primary threat in 2015. The only real exception to the theory was the Seattle Seahawks. Doug Baldwin was the primary catalyst of their new-born receiving game, and still did almost all of his work from the slot. One could argue that Russell Wilson playing at an historic level makes this a hard precedent for other teams to follow. That argument is a strong one, but Baldwin and the Seahawks were a clear outlier result to the original "it's hard to run an offense through a slot receiver" theory. Elite quarterback play is often a trump card in the NFL, and it looks like that applies to our theory here, as well.

However, almost universally the theory holds up among the other teams tested here. Teams like New England, New York and Detroit succeeded on offense by making a slot receiver a high priority figure, but still a complementary piece. Philadelphia, Miami, San Francisco and especially Green Bay saw their offenses take a massive step back with their primary receiving threat as a slot player.

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Of course, we are operating with just one season's worth of a sample of data, but the theory did seem to be quite pronounced across multiple teams in 2015 that were of differing varieties. Normally it's easy to keep one eye raised at such collections, but since these findings match up with what one would expect from an on field, X's and O's schematic sense, it's a little easier to swallow.

For next season, and into the future, it's fair to wonder if passing offenses built around a slot receiver can successfully provide consistent production. The quarterbacks, in particular, might be among those most affected. After all, if the theory claimed even the mighty Aaron Rodgers as a victim, with a sub-4,000 passing yards season and a touchdown rate a full percentage point below his career average, then no one may be safe.


Matt Harmon is an associate fantasy writer/editor for NFL.com, and the creator of #ReceptionPerception, who you can follow on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB.

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