As the NFL becomes more pass-heavy, the slot receiver role continues to evolve -- and grow in importance.
The slot position naturally gained significance with more teams using three wide-receiver sets. Then, offensive coordinators began lining up their most dangerous weapons in the slot, creating huge mismatches.
From 2005-09, an average of 13.8 players per season saw 50-plus slot targets. By the 2015-19 seasons, that number climbed all the way to 22.2. In 2020, there were 25 players who reached that mark. We've seen top-end receivers such as Tyreek Hill and Allen Robinson be used more heavily from the slot in recent years after beginning their careers almost exclusively as perimeter threats.
This trend is terrific for Fantasy: It presents yet another edge for those willing to dig into the slot data.
Slot targets vs. perimeter targets
The data I have collected over the past two seasons indicates that the average slot target is worth 7.7 percent more PPR points than the average perimeter target. The difference was down from 10.6 percent in 2019 to 5.1 percent in 2020.
If you want to take it a step further, Mike Tagliere compiled similar data for the 2017 and '18 seasons, which actually happened to favor slot targets even more strongly than the 2019-20 data did. In Tagliere's study, which used half-PPR rather than full, an 11.5 percent increase was reported.
A 7.7 percent difference might not sound like a big deal, but when most Fantasy-relevant receivers are piling up 90-plus targets in a season, it adds up. 7.7 percent was the difference between Calvin Ridley's WR4 finish and Adam Thielen's WR8 finish last season. It was the difference between Keenan Allen (WR14) and Chase Claypool (WR20).
Teams that use three-receiver sets the least
Vikings (39%), Titans (40%), 49ers (45%), Browns (45%), Raiders (52%)
Having a good understanding of which teams utilize three (or more) receiver sets at the highest and lowest rates can be helpful for slot analysis, and perhaps no team exemplifies that better than the Minnesota Vikings. Both Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson are better from the slot than the perimeter, but Minnesota doesn't use three-receiver sets enough to maximize their slot proficiency.
Only 23.6 percent of Jefferson's routes came from the slot during his rookie campaign, while Thielen's 27.7 percent rate was a career-low. The Vikings do use two tight end sets at one of the highest rates in the NFL, which allowed Irv Smith Jr. to still run 19 percent of his routes from the slot, even with Jefferson added to the mix in 2020.
Like Minnesota, Tennessee didn't use three-receiver sets often and instead often has a second tight end move into the slot. The Titans actually had the league's highest target per route run (TPRR) rate when running routes from the slot -- no team targeted the slot at a higher rate in 2020. Anthony Firkser had the ninth-highest TPRR rate among qualified pass-catchers on slot routes, and 56 percent of his routes came from the slot.
The second-highest TPRR rate from the slot belonged to the 49ers, thanks in large part to Deebo Samuel's absurd 37.7 percent rate. Only Davante Adams was targeted at a higher rate from the slot. Samuel's rate is a bit misleading, as the majority of his touch-pass end-around plays came from the slot. His average depth of target (aDOT) on slot targets was -2.4 yards.
Teams that use three-receiver sets the most
Bills (88%), Bengals (83%), Steelers (81%), Jaguars (77%), Jets (76%)
Buffalo's 88 percent rate was the highest of any team in the three years I have the data available for. The Bills (15 percent) and Cardinals (20 percent) are the only teams in the NFL to use four-receiver sets at a rate above five percent. So, even if Cole Beasley plays in 2021, Emmanuel Sanders and Gabriel Davis should have no problem finding the field.
Cincinnati ranked first in three-receiver set usage in 2020 and they came in second in 2021. Not that it ever was in any doubt, but Ja'Marr Chase should have no trouble finding the field as a rookie.
JuJu Smith-Schuster led the NFL with 545 routes run from the slot last season; CeeDee Lamb came in a distant second with 483. Just in terms of total routes run, Smith-Schuster led all players and Diontae Johnson ranked inside the top 30 even while dealing with multiple injuries. The Steelers just used three-receiver sets and dropped back to pass so often that it was easy for their wideouts to shine. Pittsburgh could lean more run-heavy with first-round RB Najee Harris added to the mix, so their three-receiver set usage will be something to monitor in the early going.
Keelan Cole ranked 15th in total routes and eighth in slot routes run in 2020. Insert Laviska Shenault, who drew targets at a rate twice as high as Cole's when operating from the slot in 2020. The Jags are another team that could lean more run-heavy than in 2020, but as long as their three-receiver set usage doesn't drop drastically, it sure seems like it is Viska SZN.
Between Corey Davis, Jamison Crowder, Keelan Cole, Denzel Mims, and my personal favorite of the group -- advanced analytics darling Elijah Moore -- the Jets have a surprisingly deep receiving corps. Here's to hoping they still utilize three receivers at such a high rate under new management, because I really want to see Moore ball out as a rookie.
Most PPR points from the slot
Kansas City Chiefs (418.1 PPR points). Tyreek Hill is good. Over the past three seasons, only three players have scored more than 230 PPR points from the slot -- Hill leads the NFL with 310 during that time. He has 10 percent more slot Fantasy points than the next-highest player during that span, even though he has run 35 percent fewer routes from the slot.
Hill's slot rate has climbed steadily in each of the past four seasons, from 35 percent, to 42 percent, to 44 percent, and then all the way to 55 percent in 2020.
Houston Texans (400 PPR points). The Texans surprisingly scored the second-most Fantasy points from the slot without having a single player rank inside the top 35 in Fantasy points scored from the slot. It was a team effort -- Randall Cobb chipped in 47 points in 10 games, Brandin Cooks scored 43 PPR points, Jordan Akins and Darren Fells combined for nearly 70 points, and Keke Coutee scored 28 points in eight games.
This is an important situation to monitor because if Deshaun Watson ends up playing for Houston, someone is likely to score some serious points from the slot for the Texans. It could be former second-round pick Anthony Miller, who Houston traded a fifth-round pick for. The Texans followed that move by immediately trading Randall Cobb away, so their actions at least point toward Miller potentially playing a relevant role.
Buffalo Bills (398.4 PPR points). If Cole Beasley plays, he is a massive value at his average draft position. If Cole Beasley sits out the season, Emmanuel Sanders becomes a similar value.
Dallas Cowboys (386.6 PPR points). Of course, CeeDee Lamb was mostly responsible for Dallas' standing as one of the highest-scoring teams from the slot. He came just two points shy of Smith-Schuster's lead for slot scoring while running 62 fewer routes from the slot. What might surprise you is how involved Dalton Schultz was from the slot. Schultz ran nearly 300 slot routes and was targeted 45 times on those routes. I would expect that role to mostly go to Blake Jarwin in 2021.
Green Bay Packers (369.5 PPR points). Davante Adams ran the 68th-most slot routes in 2020 and ranked sixth in slot Fantasy points. You read that correctly. Another fun Green Bay slot nugget -- Aaron Jones was targeted on 52 percent of his slot routes in 2020!
Those stats are mostly just for flavor, because as fun as it would be to see Green Bay utilize their best playmakers from the slot more often, it seems unlikely that will happen. With Randall Cobb and Allen Lazard both on the roster, I'd expect Adams to line up on the perimeter at a higher rate than either of the past two seasons. It really is a bummer too, Adams' insane 38.8 percent TPRR rate on slot routes was by far the highest among qualified players in 2020.
Fewest PPR points from the slot
New England Patriots (182.9 PPR points)
Denver Broncos (186.9 PPR points)
Cleveland Browns (214.9 PPR points)
Las Vegas Raiders (219.2 PPR points)
New York Giants (228 PPR points)
Read Part 2 of Gibbs' series here. He identifies 10 wideouts whose change in slot usage could impact their 2021 Fantasy value.