The current emphasis on the quick-rhythm passing game in the NFL has made it imperative for elite offenses to feature a dynamic playmaker in the slot. Creative play designers are attacking voids in the middle of the field by abruptly getting the ball into the hands of explosive runners on an assortment of crossers and option routes between the hashes. Thus, it is not a coincidence that most of the top slot receivers in the game were once -- or still are -- electric kick/punt returners.
For this installment of Bucky's Best, I took a long, hard look at the most impactful slot receivers in the game today, and ranked them according to the "fear factor" they create in defensive meeting rooms around the league. After careful consideration, here are my top five slot machines:
5) Andrew Hawkins, Cleveland Browns
Hawkins isn't a household name on the national scene, but he has earned the respect of coaches and players around the NFL with his spectacular skills in the slot. He is a dynamic route runner with the kind of short-area quickness that gives even the most polished slot corners problems between the hashes. In addition, Hawkins is an electric open-field runner with the balance, body control and elusiveness to weave through traffic with the ball in his hands. Browns quarterbacks were unable to take full advantage of Hawkins' skills last year, but he could become a dominant playmaker in the new offense of John DeFilippo, which features more catch-and-run opportunities.
4) Victor Cruz, New York Giants
When healthy, Cruz is nearly impossible to defend, given his electric playmaking ability and superb route-running skills. If he can return to form following a season-ending patellar-tendon tear, Cruz could re-emerge as the No. 1 guy on this list. The Giants take advantage of his explosive skill set by routinely getting him the ball quickly on an assortment of catch-and-run plays. Cruz freezes linebackers and nickelbacks with a crafty stutter-step move at the top of slant routes, allowing him to get into voids over the middle of the field. With Cruz also possessing a variety of hesitation moves on stick routes, defenders are unable to handle his shiftiness in one-on-one matchups.
3) Julian Edelman, New England Patriots
Credit Edelman, a college quarterback, for grasping the nuances of the position and becoming one of the most dangerous slot receivers in the game. The 5-foot-10, 200-pounder is an exceptional route runner with fantastic quickness, balance and body control. Edelman has mastered the art of changing tempo/speeds within routes to create separation from defenders out of the break. Most impressively, he is an explosive runner capable of turning short passes into big gains on the perimeter. Over the past two seasons, Edelman has racked up 197 catches for 2,028 yards and 10 touchdowns. And he played a starring role in New England's Super Bowl XLIX triumph, with nine grabs for 109 yards and what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown.
2) Emmanuel Sanders, Denver Broncos
Some would call Sanders' placement near the top of this list a bit premature, given that he just enjoyed the best season of his career (by far). But this 28-year-old is no one-hit wonder. And yes, while he was out wide a lot last year, Sanders will be spending far more time in the slot in 2015, with second-year man Cody Latimer poised to line up across from Demaryius Thomas on the outside. Sanders also produced as a slot receiver during his time in Pittsburgh; he can combine that experience with his Pro Bowl skill set to torch opponents on an assortment of option, jerk and crossing routes over the middle -- where the Broncos will need a playmaker, given the loss of Julius Thomas in free agency.
1) Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers
It's unfair to list Cobb strictly as a "slot receiver," based on his spectacular versatility, but few guys can wreak havoc between the hashes like the fifth-year pro. Cobb is a remarkable catch-and-run playmaker on short crossers and option routes, yet he also has the burst to blow by defenders down the seam. Aaron Rodgers certainly takes advantage of Cobb's explosive skills in the slot in key situations. In 2014, he recorded 91 grabs (on 127 targets) for 1,287 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. Given regular opportunities to face one-on-one coverage due to the presence of Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams on the perimeter, Cobb will continue to torch opponents for years to come.