Offensive player rankings, Week 4: Todd Gurley takes No. 1 spot

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A new offensive trend is sweeping through the NFL, and you've probably noticed if you have Julio Jones, A.J. Green or Adam Thielen on your fantasy teams.

Through three weeks of the 2018 NFL season, production out of the slot is up year over year in numerous categories, including targets (11 percent), catches (17 percent), receiving yards (16 percent) and touchdowns (27 percent), per Next Gen Stats. Meanwhile, interceptions have decreased 15 percent, resulting in a 101.2 passer rating when quarterbacks target pass catchers out of the slot (up from 92.1).

Current production out of the slot is on pace to eclipse marks from previous season averages, as well, as both yards per target (8.1 in 2018; 7.6 in 2017; 7.3 in 2016) and yards per route run (1.51 in 2018; 1.4 in both 2016 and 2017) have increased over the past three campaigns.

So, what's driving this uptick in output from the slot, and how do guys like Jones and Green fit in? Three things immediately stand out:

1) Perimeter receivers spending more time in slot. This season, several notable wideouts who traditionally line up on the perimeter have seen an increase in the percentage of their targets from the slot, including Michael Thomas, Adam Thielen, Keenan Allen, Emmanuel Sanders and Julio Jones. My colleague Bucky Brooks recently wrote about the Saints' usage of Thomas in the slot, and to further support that argument: Thomas' target percentage from the slot has increased from 10.7 in 2016 to 33.6 in 2017 to 45.0 through three weeks of 2018, per Next Gen Stats. That's a 321 percent increase since 2016! Take a look at other players who are seeing more action out of this alignment:

Thielen: 32.6 in 2016, 49.3 in 2017, 75.0 in 2018.
Allen: 14.3 in 2016, 38.4 in 2017, 48.3 in 2018.
Sanders: 19.7 in 2016, 22.8 in 2017, 34.8 in 2018.
Jones: 20.9 in 2016, 21.6 in 2017, 26.5 in 2018.

Of the group, Thielen's numbers are probably the least surprising because he lined up in the slot nearly 40 percent of the time last year. But Thomas and Allen? Not a chance! To hit home even further, Green had more receiving touchdowns from the slot through the first two weeks of 2018 (4) than he did all of 2016 and '17 combined (3).

2) Identifying coverages amplifies mismatches for bigger pass catchers. Moving players in and out of the slot provides a huge advantage from the quarterback's standpoint. Depending on how defenders adjust their alignment to motioning receivers, signal-callers can identify the defensive coverage and create a pre-snap plan of where to go with the ball. Generally, the quarterback has a play ready for man coverage and one for zone coverage.

If a wide receiver moves into the slot and the cornerback follows, or a tight end goes outside to the perimeter and the linebacker follows, the quarterback knows the defense is in man coverage. On the other hand, if the cornerback or linebacker doesn't follow the offensive player, the quarterback knows the defense is more likely in zone coverage. After watching how the defense reacts to players moving in and out of the slot position, the quarterback can audible at the line of scrimmage to the most advantageous play, putting his team in the best position to succeed.

Aligning a WR1 or WR2 in the slot, especially one who's tall (with the exception of Sanders, all the receivers mentioned thus far are 6-foot-2 or taller) and has great burst, offers offenses a tremendous mismatch advantage over the average nickel corner, safety or linebacker. If pre-snap motion reveals a linebacker is covering the WR1 in the slot, expect quarterbacks to throw that way each and every time. As much as Willie McGinest, former NFL linebacker (and my colleague here at NFL Network), thinks he can (or could) cover a guy like Michael Thomas, he can't. (Sorry, Willie.) This provides a huge advantage for the offense because most non-CB1s can't keep up.

Although the percentage of routes and targets from the slot have increased, the air yards per target have decreased since 2016, from 9.3 to 8.5. Because the mismatch is most stark within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, quarterbacks are getting the ball out more quickly and preventing safeties from helping overmatched linebackers and CB3s down the field.

3) Rule changes enable receivers to cross the middle. The league has emphasized protecting defenseless receivers running across the middle or up the seam, most recently with the implementation of the targeting rule. Ten or 15 years ago, coaches never put their best (or most expensive) players in the slot because they'd get popped crossing the middle. Honestly, even if they did want their high-valued perimeter receivers to play out of the slot, the receivers wouldn't do it. Who could blame them? Thus, it's not surprising to see the Saints run Thomas on crossers out of the slot, allowing the big-bodied receiver to make a play in front of a safety or linebacker. Sure, he's going to get hit, but he's unlikely to take the kind of punishment he would've years ago.

Each week in the 2018 NFL season, former No. 1 overall pick and NFL Network analyst David Carr will look at all offensive players and rank his top 15. For the first quarter of the season, the rankings are based on a combination of:

1) Player accomplishments prior to the 2018 season.
2) Weekly performances, while considering strength of opponent.

Following Week 4, rankings will solely be judged on this season's efforts. With Week 3 already in the books, Carr's list is below.

NOTE: Arrows reflect changes from last week's rankings.

1
Todd Gurley
RB
Rams
1

As a former quarterback, it was hard to see the day when two running backs would lead my rankings, yet here we are. It's impossible to deny Gurley the top spot, given what he's done early on. His production will continue to increase and I won't be surprised if he's in the MVP conversation again at season's end.

2
Alvin Kamara
RB
Saints
1

The second-year back is proving by the week that he can handle the load as the primary player in the backfield. His absurdly-high-usage outing against the Falcons (16 carries for 66 yards and 15 receptions for 124 yards) makes me wonder how things will change when Mark Ingram returns in Week 5. Kamara gives the Saints an edge with his dynamic play ability, and the team wouldn't win these close games without him.

3
Patrick Mahomes
QB
Chiefs
4

Heading into Week 3, I hoped Mahomes would extend plays with his legs, and he certainly did that, specifically on one play in the second quarter. On third-and-goal at the 4-yard line, Mahomes scrambled left then right -- running a total of 35.7 yards before making the throw, per Next Gen Stats -- and fired an absolute dart to Chris Conley in the back of the end zone. He did this sort of thing all the time at Texas Tech, and it's so fun to watch. If I'm a defensive coordinator with the Chiefs on my schedule, I'm nervous.

4
Aaron Rodgers
QB
Packers
3

Rodgers isn't the consensus No. 1 or 2 because his injury has affected his play. He's enjoyed great success in the past by extending plays, so much so that he has actually changed the outcome of games with his mobility and arm strength. He can't do that without his mobility -- and he won't have that until his knee gets better.

5
Tom Brady
QB
Patriots
1

He had a bad night. There's no debating that. With teams double-teaming Gronk with a linebacker and safety, Chris Hogan is facing CB1s. Hogan is a good second and third option at receiver, but isn't good enough to be WR1 on any team. That said, Brady was pressing a little bit against the Lions and trying to buy time before getting sacked. This is not a recipe for success.

6
Antonio Brown
WR
Steelers
1

Brown made some good plays in a much-needed win for the Steelers, including this 27-yard, catch-and-run touchdown. The All-Pro receiver was targeted less in Week 3 with nine targets than he had been in Weeks 1 and 2 (16.5 average), but lessening Browns' targets allowed both JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald to have 100-yard receiving days on Monday night.

7
Michael Thomas
WR
Saints
4

The rate at which Thomas is hauling in catches is unbelievable. In fact, he has the most catches (38) through the first three games of a season in NFL history, beating Julio Jones' previous mark of 34.

8
Drew Brees
QB
Saints
6

What a day for the vet! After completing 39 of 49 passes against the Falcons, Brees is now the NFL's all-time leader in completions (6,326), surpassing Brett Favre's mark of 6,300. Even more impressive is the fact that he had two rushing touchdowns -- yes, you read that correctly -- thanks, in part, to the spin move. In all seriousness, Brees' BIG day (396 passing yards, five total TDs, 120.7 passer rating) merits a climb in the rankings.

9
DeAndre Hopkins
WR
Texans
1

Hopkins has been a silver lining for the struggling Texans offense in past years, and it's no different in 2018. The 26-year-old, who had six catches for 86 yards in the loss, can only do so much as a receiver. For Houston to get out of the cellar, Hopkins needs some help from his young quarterback, run game and the defense.

10
Odell Beckham Jr.
WR
Giants
1

Beckham's 21st career game with at least 100 receiving yards (nine receptions for 109 yards) helped the Giants earn their first win of the season. A much better performance by the offensive line allowed Big Blue to excel in both the run and pass games against the Texans.

11
Travis Kelce
TE
Chiefs
NR

The 49ers' defense had no answer for Kelce, as he hauled in eight receptions for 114 yards on 10 targets. Back-to-back great performances moved him into the top 15.

12
Tyreek Hill
WR
Chiefs
6

The 49ers lost Richard Sherman to a calf strain, but not before he made a big play on Hill in the end zone. That play aside -- one in which Mahomes' pass was slightly off -- Hill hasn't been the same player statistically that we saw in Week 1.

13
Julio Jones
WR
Falcons

Finishing with five catches for 96 receiving yards, Julio played a bigger role than what's on his stat sheet, as the attention he demands allowed rookie Calvin Ridley to get three touchdowns. Still waiting for him to get in the end zone, though ...

14
Jared Goff
QB
Rams
NR

Many thought Goff's production would dip after a great 2017 campaign. He continues to prove those people wrong, posting a career-high completion percentage (78.6) in the battle of Los Angeles. At the moment, he's blowing past previous production in completion percentage (70.3), pass yards per game (313.7) and passer rating (111.0).

15
Stefon Diggs
WR
Vikings
5

Clinging on to the last spot, Diggs had his worst game of 2018 against the Bills (just like the rest of the team). Diggs had four catches for just 17 yards on 10 targets (the fewest rec. yards in any career game with 10-plus targets). Minnesota's offense needs a massive turnaround this week, but it won't be easy against the Rams' vaunted defense, even if without Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters.

Dropped out: Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots (previously No. 12); Philip Rivers, QB, Los Angeles Chargers (No. 15).

JUST OUTSIDE THE TOP 15

Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks: Wilson's 109.8 passer rating was his best since Week 13 of 2017 and led his team -- with the help of solid defensive play -- to its first win.

Philip Rivers, QB, Los Angeles Chargers: Rivers' fine outing was overshadowed by Goff's performance. But the veteran had himself a day with two touchdowns and a 105.7 passer rating against a really good Rams defense.

A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals: Already down Joe Mixon to injury, Andy Dalton and the Bengals were also without Green for a majority of the second half. Before exiting with a groin injury, Green had five catches for 58 yards -- his 10th straight game with fewer than 100 receiving yards (the longest streak of his career).

Adam Thielen, WR, Minnesota Vikings: Thielen had a career-high in targets (19) and receptions (14) and finished with 105 receiving yards in the loss. It seems that Thielen and Diggs trade off big weeks, which is what makes this duo so hard to defend.

Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots: Over the last two games, both losses for the Patriots, Gronk has had just six catches for 66 yards. With a lack of weapons on the perimeter, Tom Brady has to get his tight end going.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Fitzpatrick's first- and second-half performances were night and day. In the first half, he completed 52 percent of his passes for 184 yards, one TD, three INTs and a 58.5 passer rating. FitzMagic came to life in the second half, when he completed 65.5 percent of passes for 227 yards, two TDs, zero INTs and a 112.3 passer rating.

Follow David Carr on Twitter @DCarr8.

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