The need to diversify the passing game to combat Tampa 2 coverage has made the slot receiver a valuable weapon for offensive coordinators around the NFL. Astute play callers frequently align their top receiver in the slot to take advantage of favorable matchups against linebackers and sub-defenders, creating opportunities for quarterbacks to make high-percentage throws over the middle of the field.
For years, slot men were type-cast as diminutive playmakers who had exceptional quickness and ball skills but lacked the traits of a classic No. 1 receiver. Their value was further diminished by the fact that coaches would often only deploy three-receiver sets on third downs. However, the gradual transformation of the NFL into a passing league has resulted in more teams using open formations, with three or more receivers on the field on most downs. As a result, the slot receiver has become a key player in most offensive game plans.
The Denver Broncos' Wes Welker is the quintessential slot receiver, with a dynamic game built on quickness, toughness and guile. The former undrafted free agent has led the NFL in receptions three times, topping the 100-catch mark in five of the past six seasons. Welker has 672 receptions since 2007 -- the most in the NFL in that span. His rise to prominence with the New England Patriots simultaneously boosted the profile of his position, sparking several teams to look for their own slot man.
The New York Giants discovered their ideal slot receiver in another former undrafted free agent: Victor Cruz. As Eli Manning's top target, the Pro Bowler has quickly become one of the most productive playmakers in the NFL. Cruz is the only player in Giants' history with at least 80 receptions, 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns in a season. Remarkably, he reached those benchmarks in back-to-back seasons, in the process establishing himself as one of the league's best slot receivers.
I thought this would be a great time to study both Welker and Cruz, in an attempt to determine which player is the standard-bearer at the position, so I popped in a few game tapes. Here's how I think they compare in several key areas:
While the art of route running is paramount to the success of all receivers, it is particularly so for slot receivers, who must utilize a wide array of stems and releases to create separation from defenders at the line. They also need to use a variety of stutter-steps and hesitation fakes at the tops of their routes to get open between the hashes.
Welker is a skillful route runner with a knack for getting open against tight coverage. He uses a series of hesitation moves, head fakes and jump cuts to freeze defenders at the tops of routes before bursting out of the break. Welker's craftiness is unrivaled in the game; few defenders can lock him up in isolated matchups.
In the video clip above, Welker sets up his defender by slowly jogging off the line before bursting quickly to the sideline on a quick out. Welker's deceptive tactics -- with an assist from a clever play fake by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the backfield -- lead to an 8-yard score for New England.
Cruz is an exceptional route runner, with the speed, quickness and agility to defeat defenders with finesse moves. He frequently uses a deadly stop-start move early in his routes to blow past coverage on slants and seam routes between the hashes.
In the video clip to the right, Cruz uses his hesitation move to freeze the New Orleans Saints defender before slipping past him for a 10-yard touchdown. That's the kind of move that has made Cruz nearly impossible to defend in the slot, which helps explain why Manning has started to depend on him as his No. 1 red-zone option.
Offensive coordinators value dependable pass catchers in the slot, as there are challenges that come with trying to snatch the ball in traffic. Receivers venturing over the middle must be able to concentrate and focus under duress; they also must be able to rack and adjust to balls thrown slightly off target.
Welker's productivity stems largely from his ability to catch the ball in a crowd. Not only is he courageous when working between the hashes, but Welker excels at making contested grabs on out-breaking routes with a defender hanging on his shoulder. With Brady capable of squeezing the ball into tight windows, Welker's strong hands helped him rack up gaudy totals as the Patriots' designated playmaker. Of course, some critics will point to Welker's high number of drops as a concern -- Welker led the NFL with 15 dropped passes in 2012 -- but the fact that he routinely ranks as one of the most targeted receivers in football lessens the impact of his flubs.
Cruz is an exceptional pass catcher with strong hands and top-notch receiving skills. He plucks the ball from the air effortlessly in traffic, displaying the combination of courage and toughness offensive coordinators covet in prototypical slot receivers. Those traits have made Cruz a dominant playmaker who can deliver game-changing moments -- even while opposing defenses concentrate their efforts on him.
In the video clip to the right, Cruz displays outstanding focus and concentration while hauling in a 30-yard pass against the Washington Redskins, showcasing his superior ball skills and crafty route-running abilities between the hashes. Given Manning's pinpoint accuracy on timing-based routes, it's easy to see why Cruz has emerged as his top target.
The rise of the quick-rhythm passing game has made it imperative that slot receivers possess stellar running skills. Coordinators often count on receivers to produce massive yards after the catch to keep their offenses on schedule.
Although he is certainly not considered a blazer, Welker is one of the best in the business with the ball in his hands. As a former punt returner, he excels at making guys miss in space and is rarely taken down by the first defender. Welker led the NFL in yards after the catch (YAC) in four of his six seasons in New England, including last year, when he amassed 702.
Cruz is regarded as a standout runner in his own right. He uses exceptional stop-start quickness to avoid defenders in space, while also displaying the strength and power to run through arm tackles. Cruz's combination of physicality and finesse makes him one of the most difficult runners to bring down in the open field, leading to several big gains for the Giants on simple catch-and-run plays over the middle.
Most offensive coordinators in the NFL design passing plays to produce first downs, touchdowns or explosive plays (categorized as pass plays that generate gains of 20 yards or more). Elite slot receivers, therefore, must be able to consistently deliver game-changing plays, despite playing in traffic on most downs.
Welker certainly fits the bill as a dynamic possession receiver with a polished overall game. While his numbers reflect his tendency to work within the 5-to-10-yard range (Welker has averaged just 11.2 yards per catch in his 10-year career), he occasionally surprises defenders with a crafty double move to produce a big gain -- as he does with the wheel route in the video clip above. While his lack of speed means he relies on a clever play designer to create opportunities for him, his veteran savvy as a route runner allows him to routinely produce explosive plays.
The versatile Cruz, meanwhile, can break for big gains on catch-and-run plays or vertical routes from the slot. In two full seasons, Cruz has totaled 37 receptions of 20-plus yards, including seven touchdowns of at least 70 yards. Most of his big plays have resulted from the Giants taking advantage of his speed, quickness and burst on a variety of "switch" routes down the boundary.
The video clip to the right illustrates how the Giants position Cruz in the slot alongside Hakeem Nicks, using a natural pick to create a big play down the sideline. While the tight alignment of the receivers is problematic for the defense, Cruz's precision on the rail route is what produces the big gain.
Receivers typically are measured by their ability to deliver on third down and in the red zone, and Welker has been the premier third-down receiver for years. He continued to shine in that area in 2012, tallying the fourth-most third-down receptions (30) in the NFL. Remarkably, Welker produced 21 first downs, despite ranking just 10th in targets. Those numbers are consistent with what I witnessed on film, with Welker routinely defeating bracket or double coverage to net a critical reception. Welker's ability to shine on the money down was critical to New England's success during his time there.
Cruz has been equally important to the Giants, as he is a tough matchup for defenders in all situations, particularly in the red zone. Cruz's superior quickness and route-running skills overwhelm opponents forced to defend the end zone in tight man coverage. He uses an assortment of stems and stutter moves to threaten the defender's leverage before planting hard with his outside foot to win on a slant or seam route. Cruz repeatedly wears out defenders with this simple move, which is highlighted in the video clip to the right, and he remains an unstoppable force in the red zone. Of Cruz's 19 career touchdowns, 11 -- including six in 2012 -- have been red-zone scores. Considering his effectiveness as a third-down specialist, it's hard to find a more productive clutch player.
Wes Welker is undoubtedly responsible for the heightened profile of slot receivers across the league. He has put together a remarkable six-season run of unrivaled productivity as a pass catcher while revolutionizing how offensive coordinators utilize slot receivers in the passing game.
However, Victor Cruz has surpassed Welker as the premier slot receiver in the NFL, with a combination of skills that makes him indefensible between the hashes. From his precise route-running skills to his explosive big-play ability, Cruz is a serious threat to deliver game-changing plays from any spot on the field. Factor in his ability to step up on third down and in the red zone, and there is no question that Cruz is the best slot receiver in the NFL.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks