With the passing play percentage on a near steady rise every season, there is more volume to go around at the wide receiver position than ever. One group that we've witnessed grow in both quantity and quality over the last decade as a result is the slot receiver. A number of the best offenses in the NFL feature a receiver who lines up inside frequently and takes advantages of mismatches with quickness and precise route-running.
While they don't possess the same traits or approach the position in the same fashion as the NFL's No. 1 wideouts, they often fill valuable roles to their team. Many of these players are some of the better technicians in the league today. Here we will look at the Top-10 slot receivers in separating from the defenders covering them. Of course, they don't see the same tight outside coverage from top-tier cornerbacks that their peers do, but that just means there are different skills and methods a slot receiver must use to get open.
Notes: Only receivers who saw at least 50 percent of their targets in the slot and registered at least 84 targets overall were considered for the Top-10, other players of note will be in the bonus section. Air yards per target were included to provide further context as to where exactly these receivers are being targeted on the field.
1) Jamison Crowder, Washington Redskins (3.6 separation at target)
Slot separation: 3.48 (74.7 percent of targets)
Out wide separation: 3.88 (23.2 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 8.7
It was something of a surprise season for Jamison Crowder, who was mostly an afterthought in the national media after Washington drafted Josh Doctson in the first round. Forgetting the second-year receiver who caught 59 passes as a rookie turned out to be a mistake. Doctson ended up on injured reserve, but Crowder was a factor from the jump. He finished third on the team in targets with 99 and rather surprisingly, led Washington with seven touchdowns. Crowder averaged 3.48 yards in the slot, right in line with Cole Beasley for the best among the 15 slot receivers sampled here. Perhaps even more impressive, he led all of those receivers with 3.88 yards of separation when lined up outside, where he saw 23.2 percent of his total targets. With both Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson set to see their contracts expire at the dawn of the new league year in March, Crowder looks to be a large figure in Washington's offensive future. As a strong route-runner with better speed than you may think, don't be surprised if Crowder has a true breakout season in 2017.
2) Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers (3.42 separation at target)
Slot separation: 3.36 (73.8 percent of targets)
Out wide separation: 3.53 (15.5 percent of targets)
Air yards per target:7.9
It was far from a banner year for Randall Cobb, as the Packers' slot receiver doubled-down after a slow statistical campaign in 2015. Cobb played in just 13 contests overall, but still averaged just 4.6 catches and 46.9 yards per game, both the lowest totals since his rookie year. However, Cobb did suffer a hamstring injury at the midway point of the season and was perhaps never healthy again. If anything, his separation scores may at least lend some credence to the thought that Cobb still has some effectiveness left to offer, something he showed with both a three-touchdown and a seven-catch game so far in the playoffs.
Cobb has a $12.8 million cap hit in 2017 and it will be worth monitoring what Green Bay does with that. His production the last two years doesn't justify that price tag, but his 3.36 average yards of separation at target indicates he can still be a solid piece of any offense as a slot receiver.
3) Cole Beasley, Dallas Cowboys (3.41 separation at target)
Slot separation:3.48 (74.7 percent of targets)
Out wide separation:3.15 (18.4 percent of targets)
Air yards per target:6.9
It was a career year for Cowboys slot receiver Cole Beasley with 75 catches for 833 yards, both of which led the team. Beasley led all 15 slot receivers in this sample with 3.48 yards of separation on his targets from the slot. There were times this year, especially in the early going, where Dak Prescott seemed to favor Beasley over all other receivers. The Dallas slot receiver only averaged 6.9 air yards per target, making him a reliable option in the short-to-intermediate passing game for the rookie quarterback. Prescott didn't truly begin to connect with Dez Bryant until later in the season after the receiver was further away from his injury absence. Nevertheless, Beasley looks like a solid offensive building block for the Cowboys offense over the next few seasons.
4) Jeremy Kerley, San Francisco 49ers (3.15 separation at target)
Slot separation: 3.13 (94 percent of targets)
Out wide separation: 3.47 (six percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 9.6 (from Gabbert and Kaepernick)
Considering that the 49ers plucked Jeremy Kerley from the crowded Lions in a preseason trade after they lost offseason standout Bruce Ellington to injured reserve, they got a nice return on investment.Kerley led the team with 115 targets and 667 yards, reminding us once again just how much volume Chip Kelly funnels to the interior members of his passing game. The veteran slot receiver was more productive with the more traditional approach of Blaine Gabbert, averaging 19.2 fewer yards per game with Colin Kaepnerick under center. Among all the players on this list, Kerley is the most limited in terms of his usage, as he took 91 percent of his snaps from the slot and saw just seven targets overall on the outside. He did prove to be a useful player in a wide receiver rotation however, averaging 3.13 yards of separation on his slot targets with a rather high, for a receiver with his role, 9.6 air yards per target. Kerley is set to be a free agent this offseason and the talent-deprived 49ers should consider offering him an extension.
5) Willie Snead, New Orleans Saints (3.12 separation at target)
Slot separation:3.39 (71.2 percent of targets)
Out wide separation: 2.0 (22.1 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 7.3
While rookie Michael Thomas established himself as the alpha of the receiver group in New Orleans early on, Willie Snead slid into the role of slot receiver. It was a spot he was well-suited for, averaging 3.39 yards of separation on his targets in the slot versus just 2.0 on the outside. The Saints constantly seem to unearth contributing receivers from out of the woodwork, and with Snead posting 1,879 yards and 141 catches over the last two seasons it is clear they have another one in the 2014 undrafted free agent. There will never be a big enough slice of the pie for one player in the well-distributed New Orleans offense to absorb an outrageous amount of targets. It's more often than not always been that way in the Drew Brees era. However, if Snead were ever to experience a change of scenery and go to a team that pumps more volume to the slot receiver, he would be one of the most productive interior receivers in the NFL. Don't sleep on how skilled he is.
6) Doug Baldwin, Seattle Seahawks (3.05 separation at target)
Slot separation: 3.27 (70.2 percent of targets)
Out wide separation: 2.41 (28.2 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 9.8
The notion that Doug Baldwin's 2015 season was a fluke and not a true career progression was flatly disproven this year. His 14 touchdowns were always going to come down, but Baldwin caught 94 passes and posted a career-high 1,128 yards in 2016. For my money, he's the best slot receiver in the NFL today, mixing technical precision with a knack for big plays. Baldwin averaged 3.27 yards of separation on his slot targets, where he obviously sees the majority of his looks. However, he's also an effective outside receiver, averaging 2.41 yards of separation on his 35 targets lined up wide. He gets open all over the field. Additionally, Baldwin is one of the best receivers operating in traffic, boasting a 50 percent catch rate when he had less than a yard of separation (40.5 is the league average). There's no longer any reason to cast doubt on where Baldwin ranks among the NFL's pantheon of receivers.
7) Jarvis Landry, Miami Dolphins (2.87 separation at target)
Slot separation: 2.87 (70 percent of targets)
Out wide separation: 3.41 (30 percent of targets)
Air yards per target:6.6
After catching 288 passes in his first three years, Jarvis Landry is well-established as one of the better slot receivers in the NFL. Landry wasn't pummeled with targets this season like in 2015 as he saw 35 fewer in 2016. Much of that was due to a true feature back in Jay Ajayi emerging and no longer needing Landry's short drag routes to be an extension of the running game, of sorts. However, you could argue that this was Landry's best season, overall. He averaged 2.87 yards of separation in the slot, where he sees most of his targets. Yet, even more impressive was his 3.41 separation score when lined up out wide, something he did more often this year than in 2015. While his air yards per targets figure was low, he still averaged a career high 12.5 yards per reception, showing he was much better after the catch this year than in seasons prior.
Set to enter his contract year in 2017, Landry's negotiations with the Dolphins will likely prove to be one of the more fascinating ones. Few receivers have been more productive than him in their first three seasons, but he's still a player with a limited role right now. Nevertheless, his upward trend is one that will make it hard for Miami to think about letting their 2014 second-round hit walk.
8) Jordan Matthews, Philadelphia Eagles (2.84 separation at target)
Slot separation: 3.12 (71.8 percent of targets)
Out wide separation:2.11 (28.2 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 10.8
The 2016 season was a difficult one for Jordan Matthews. Not only did injuries seem to follow him throughout, he also recorded a career-low in yards per reception (11.0) and touchdowns (three) while playing with a rookie quarterback. The Eagles coaching staff initially wanted to experiment with Matthews as more of an outside receiver than Chip Kelly's team did, and he did indeed see 28.2 percent of his targets out wide after just six total in 2015. Matthews is a strong receiver in traffic, catching 47.1 percent of the passes that came his way when he had less than a yard of separation, but he still averaged a full yard of separation more when he lined up inside. We can clearly see he is not a prototypical No. 1, and the Eagles desperately need to add to their outside receiving corps, but Matthews should remain a part of their future as a strong interior pass-catcher.
9) Stefon Diggs, Minnesota Vikings (2.78 separation at target)
Slot separation:2.78 (50 percent of targets)
Out wide separation: 2.73 (49.1 percent of targets)
Air yards per target:8.8
Stefon Diggs became a slot receiver in the latter half of the season mostly out of necessity. In the early going of the year, he was seeing more of a 65-35 percent wide-to-slot lineup split. When Pat Shurmur took over the offense mid-season he put more of an emphasis on getting the ball out of Sam Bradford's hands quickly due to Minnesota's crumbling pass protection. He dialed Diggs' route tree back in closer to the line of scrimmage and placed him inside on more than half of his snaps. Diggs was essentially just as proficient in the slot as he was outside, averaging 2.73 yards of separation when lined up out wide. He also popped up with the fifth-highest catch rate in tight coverage among receivers with more than 15 targets with less than a yard of separation. The Next Gen Stats continue to show that Diggs is a future star receiver in the NFL, as long as the Vikings offense can get right around him.
10) Sterling Shepard, New York Giants (2.74 separation at target)
Slot separation: 2.89 (88.6 percent of targets)
Out wide separation:1.44 (10.5 percent of targets)
Air yards per target: 9.4
The Giants offense was mostly a mess outside of Odell Beckham, but Sterling Shepard proved to be a bright spot among the rubble. The rookie receiver grabbed an early role in OTAs and never let go, playing 95 percent of the snaps and garnering 105 targets. He was also the only Giants pass-catcher other than Beckham to score more than twice, finding the end zone eight times. Shepard lined up in the slot on 801 plays this year, more than any other receiver in the NFL. The disparity in Shepard's separation scores show that in his first year it was wise to limit what the team put on his plate.
While he was mostly limited to the slot, don't discount how good Shepard is in contested situations. He saw 21 targets when he had less than a yard of separation and hauled in 47.6 percent of them. That was the third-best catch rate of the slot receivers in this Top 10, trailing only Diggs and Baldwin. Shepard has a bright future in the NFL, that much is for sure.
Four bonus notes
Julian Edelman just missed the Top-10 with 2.66 yards of separation on his targets, placing him 11th. The Patriots receiver saw a rather high 43.6 percent of his targets out wide but averaged 2.33 yards of separation there compared to 2.99 on the interior. It was an odd season with Edelman having to carry a higher load of the offense than usual with Rob Gronkowski hurt. Edelman also saw 30 targets when he had less than a yard of separation, which was tied with Anquan Boldin. His 26.7 catch rate on those contested catches pales in comparison to Boldin's 56.7 percent.
Cameron Meredith averaged 2.40 yards of separation on his targets overall, ranking 15th of the 15 receivers on this list. However, he averaged 2.89 on his targets in the slot compared to 1.93 out wide. Much like Stefon Diggs he made the move inside later in the season and excelled there. Meredith is a player we should keep a close eye on after several big flashes this season, as Alshon Jeffery likely moves on from Chicago in free agency.
Tyler Boyd missed this list with just 81 targets overall, but averaged 2.75 yards of separation. The rookie struggled with separation from outside coverage (1.97 yards of separation) and is inconsistent in traffic with a 33.3 catch rate on contested passes. He's a limited player but he found a nice role early with the Bengals and should see his targets grow next year. Kendall Wright also missed the qualifications for the Top 10 with just 42 targets but he averaged 2.91 yards of separation on his targets. There might still be something for another team to mine out of the second act of his career.
T.Y. Hilton played more slot receiver than ever before this season but still didn't qualify for this list with just 49.6 percent of his targets coming inside. He's been a tough player to classify in these rankings because of his versatile role in 2016, as he didn't see enough targets out-wide (100 or more) to fit in with the No. 1's, which felt like a crime. There's no doubting his quality of play though, as he averaged 2.6 yards of separation and won 48.5 percent of his contested passes.