Projecting the top 10 slot receivers for the 2019 NFL season

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NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2019" airs daily at 9 p.m. ET over the next two weeks, unveiling a new set of 10 honorees in each installment. In Episode 2, a pair of notable slot receivers -- Julian Edelman and Jarvis Landry -- were revealed at Nos. 90 and 84, respectively. With that in mind, Cynthia Frelund unveils her top projected slot receivers for 2019.

Between film study with coaches, computer-vision tracking and applying the right math to account for game situations and provide context, I calculated the value each player, position group and side of the ball contributes to their team's wins or losses on each snap. And last season, pass-catching win-contribution from the slot reached the highest league total value I've calculated in the 15 seasons included in my model.

Below, you will see my top projected slot receivers in terms of impact for the 2019 season. To model this, I included only receivers who are forecasted to take at least 50 percent of their snaps from the slot and project to be targeted at least 25 times from this alignment.

1
Tyreek Hill
WR
Chiefs


Hill's slot impact in 2018 was the highest not only for the season, but for my entire 15-season model. These three stats help summarize what he added to the Chiefs' offense: 1) nine touchdowns from the slot (most in the NFL in 2018); 2) 14.8 air yards per target (most in the NFL in 2018 out of the slot among those with 50-plus targets, per Next Gen Stats); 3) 7.7 yards after the catch per slot reception (second-most among receivers in 2018). Whether Hill was targeted deep or asked to produce more after the catch, the scheme fit his skill set, and he exceeded expectations. On first down, his 19.9 yards-per-reception mark (most in the NFL) from last season helps to forecast his production and No. 1 rating for this season. My model projects Hill (who will not be suspended after an investigation by the NFL as to whether he violated the league's personal conduct policy) to exceed his 2018 touchdown total with 13 in 2019, with 10 coming from the slot (leading the league again).

2
JuJu Smith-Schuster
WR
Steelers


Well, I think this pretty much gives away which side of the debate my model comes down on regarding Smith-Schuster's impact without Antonio Brown on the field. Last season, Smith-Schuster was one of only six total receivers to see over 400 snaps aligned in the slot. (Pro Football Focus counts 421 total snaps out of the slot, tied for fourth-most in the NFL, which was good for 61.5 percent of his snaps.) My model predicts him to be used on the outside more, but I still project between 56 percent and 60 percent of his snaps will come from the slot, based on his success in 2018. Smith-Schuster undoubtedly benefited from playing with Brown last season, but the seven-time Pro Bowler (who was traded to Oakland this offseason) also benefited from playing with Smith-Schuster, who earned 648 yards after the catch in 2018, most among receivers. Here's some more context: Using computer vision, I tracked how often opposing defenders entered a "halo" 6-feet in diameter around each receiver last season, and Smith-Schuster faced pressure (defenders in his halo) at the seventh-highest rate. In other words, while Smith-Schuster will undoubtedly face an adjustment this season, there are some key indicators that he will continue to have a top-level impact, like his ability to earn tough yards after the catch and withstand an already significant amount of defensive attention, even when Brown was still on his team. Fantasy-wise, Smith-Schuster is my No. 7 projected wideout (in PPR formats).

3
Keenan Allen
WR
Chargers


When I talk about slot impact, I'm also talking about off-ball influence, meaning the receiver's ability to draw No. 1 corners or extra defenders and thus increase his teammates' probability of earning a first down. Not only has Allen had a top-five off-ball rating over the past two seasons, but he's also fourth in the percentage of slot targets in which he had at least three feet of separation at the time the pass arrived. This helps add context to his top-five reception percentage (78.9%) on slot targets over the past two seasons (90 catches on 114 attempts). This season, my model projects Allen will end up in the top five in receiving first downs (approximately 65-70) two seasons after he led the NFL in that category (74 in 2017).

4
Julian Edelman
WR
Patriots


The idea behind my win-contribution metric is to add depth and context to each player's value. No slot receiver had a more balanced profile last season than Edelman. One thing I do when evaluating receiver play is tracking which direction the receiver and defender travel when a defender enters a 6-foot "halo" around the receiver (as mentioned in JuJu Smith-Schuster's blurb). This helps quantify whether or not defenders could successfully impact the receiver's ability to earn positive yards. Edelman changed the direction of his defender, either by pushing the defender out of his halo, initiating first contact or stopping the defender's pursuit, more than any other slot receiver. In other words, the math supports the characterization of his play as tough. For 2019, my model projects Edelman will see the end zone seven times, matching his career high in touchdown catches from 2015.

5
Adam Thielen
WR
Vikings


My impact measurement is centered on production that helps earn the most first downs and touchdowns. Thielen's 69 slot receptions (most in the NFL in 2018) netted 31 first downs and seven touchdowns (second-most from the slot in the league). His on-ball impact ranked second-highest among slot receivers overall last season. My model projects him as the No. 12 fantasy wideout this season (in PPR formats).

6
Cooper Kupp
WR
Rams


In only eight games last season, Kupp caught 40 of his 55 total targets (23 of 33 from the slot) and earned 25 first downs while averaging 10.4 air yards per slot target (per Next Gen Stats) and 7.9 yards after the catch per reception before being sidelined with an ACL injury. Since 2017, Rams quarterback Jared Goff has had a 127 passer rating when targeting Kupp (per PFF). My model projects Kupp will pick up right where he left off upon his return to Sean McVay's scheme this season, topping 1,000 receiving yards (specifically, my model projects 1,005).

7
Tyler Boyd
WR
Bengals


Only one pass catcher earned more first downs on third down than Boyd last season (22, tied for second with DeAndre Hopkins and Michael Thomas), and that was Julio Jones (24). With A.J. Green returning from injury (Green only played nine games last season) and a coaching switch (new head coach Zac Taylor and new offensive coordinator Brian Callahan), my model projects Boyd's strategic use and impact to increase, especially on early downs (he only had 29 receiving first downs on first and second down combined, tied for 24th). Now that opposing defenses have last season's tape, his off-ball impact also projects to increase, due to teams having to account for him. I have Boyd -- who just inked a four-year, $43 million extension -- forecasted to reach the end zone six times in 2019.

8
Larry Fitzgerald
WR
Cardinals


Fitzgerald is basically the prototype of consistently elite on- and off-ball slot play, even if he hasn't always been able to operate under the best circumstances. Fitz appears in every season in my model. Notably, he has three of the top eight single-game win-contribution numbers from the slot over the 15 seasons in the sample. This season projects to be all about pace for the Cardinals' offense under new coach Kliff Kingsbury, and employing this type of tempo, along with the presence of Kingsbury and rookie quarterback Kyler Murray, means they'll likely rely on Fitz. This drives his projected production to look more like his output from 2015 to '17 -- closer to 9.5 targets per game and 1,000 total receiving yards -- after he averaged 7 targets and finished with 734 yards in 2018.

9
Jarvis Landry
WR
Browns


Landry was targeted 94 times in the slot last season (tied for the most, according to Next Gen Stats) and hauled in 49 of those passes. Based on Landry's production when new head coach Freddie Kitchens served as the Browns' offensive play-caller last season (from Week 9 on, Landry averaged four catches for 56 yards per game), as well as Cleveland's personnel changes this offseason, I'm projecting Landry's overall win-contribution to actually drop in 2019. Adding Odell Beckham Jr. increases Landry's forecasted perimeter win-contribution, but changes along the Browns' O-line decreases the line's projected efficiency. Landry's catch rate from the slot (52.1%) also flags as an area of concern and is part of what drives his ranking as my 35th wide receiver in terms of fantasy (PPR). Due to the Browns' wealth of offensive options, Landry's win-contribution is forecasted to decrease, but he's still in the top 10 for slot receivers.

10
Adam Humphries
WR
Titans


The Titans ended up acquiring the 26-year-old free agent this offseason, but I can tell you I spoke with representatives from eight other teams who were extremely interested in his services. With the Buccaneers last season, Humphries was targeted in the slot 82 times (fifth among wide receivers, according to Next Gen Stats) and caught 59 passes (tied for second among wide receivers). Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith is a bit of an unknown play-calling entity, but Humphries' on- and off-ball contributions project to make the transition easier for quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Breakout candidates to watch (Players who were flagged by my model as having big upside): Anthony Miller, Chicago Bears; Dede Westbrook, Jacksonville Jaguars; Jamison Crowder, New York Jets.

Rookies to watch: Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers; Terry McLaurin, Washington Redskins; Parris Campbell, Indianapolis Colts.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.

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