The importance of slot targets in Fantasy football pt. 2

Part two of Fantasy expert Jacob Gibbs' slot target series focuses on 10 players whose change in slot usage could impact their 2020 Fantasy value.
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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 2005-2009, an average of 13.8 players per season saw 50-plus slot targets. That number climbed all the way to 22.2 during the 2015-2019 seasons. We've seen top-end receivers such as DeAndre Hopkins, Allen Robinson, Tyreek Hill and Chris Godwin be used more heavily from the slot in recent years, after beginning their careers almost exclusively as perimeter threats.

In case you missed it, Fantasy expert Jacob Gibbs broke down how much more valuable slot targets are than perimeter targets in detail in part one of this series.

10 receivers whose Fantasy value could be impacted by their slot usage in 2020:

Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams
2019 slot snap rate: 67.3 percent
2020 slot snap rate expected to drop

Weeks 1-13: L.A. ran 12-personnel sets on 21 percent of their offensive plays. Cooper Kupp had a 71 percent slot rate and averaged 7 slot targets per game.

Weeks 14-17: L.A. ran 12-personnel sets on 37 percent of their offensive plays. Cooper Kupp had a 55 percent slot rate and averaged 3.8 slot targets per game.

That is too small of a sample to guarantee anything, but L.A.'s offseason moves certainly point towards them using more 12 personnel in 2020. The Rams traded Brandin Cooks to the Houston Texans, leaving them with just two proven wide receivers, but they didn't stop there. L.A. also used a fourth-round selection on tight end Brycen Hopkins, pairing him with talented young tight ends Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett.

75 percent of Kupp's targets and 74 percent of his receiving yardage came from the slot in 2019. He averaged 2.27 yards per route run from the slot, which fell all the way to 1.69 when running routes from the perimeter. If his 2020 slot rate resembles the 55 percent rate from Week 14 on, Kupp will be a massive Fantasy bust at his current average draft position (ADP) as the WR7.

Chris Godwin, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2019 slot snap rate: 63.4 percent
2020 slot snap rate expected to drop

As mentioned already, Bruce Arians said that Tampa's base offense for 2020 will feature two tight ends. The Bucs used two tight ends on just 23 percent of their offensive plays in 2019, and they only passed on 47 percent of those plays -- as opposed to their 68 percent pass rate when three receivers were on the field.

Now, using more 12-personnel sets doesn't necessarily signify a drastic drop in slot routes is coming for Godwin. Philly has led the league in offensive plays from 12-personnel in each of the past two seasons, but their lead slot wide receiver has still averaged 4.5 slot targets per game. Godwin averaged 4.9 slot targets per game in 2019. But there are also cases like L.A. last season, where a move to more 12 personnel marked a steep downturn in Cooper Kupp's slot role.

Chris Godwin's slot rate won't fall to the 27.3 percent mark we saw in 2018, but I'd be surprised if it was above 60 percent again in 2020. And given the work he put in from the slot in 2019 -- no player scored more Fantasy points per game from the slot -- a drop in slot routes could be a red flag for those investing a first-round pick into Godwin.

With that said, Godwin's yards per route run didn't drop in the way Kupp's did when moving from the slot to the perimeter. He actually averaged more (2.27) yards per route run from the perimeter than the slot (2.22). Still, given his excellence in the slot and Tom Brady's propensity for targeting his slot receiver, it will be a shame if Godwin's snap rate from inside drops in 2020.

Amari Cooper, WR, Dallas Cowboys
2019 slot snap rate: 14.2 percent
2020 slot snap rate expected to increase

Amari Cooper is one of my favorite 2020 Fantasy draft targets because there are multiple realistic paths to him providing league-winning value at his current ADP. The first path is if Cooper sees a spike in his usage from the slot. In the one game Randall Cobb missed last year, Tavon Austin and Jason Witten soaked up nearly all the reps from the slot. With none of Cobb, Austin, or Witten on the 2020 Cowboys roster, Cooper and CeeDee Lamb stand out as the two logical choices for heavy slot usage.

Cooper is now playing for Mike McCarthy, who has loved targeting the slot historically. Dating all the way back to 2012, only one of McCarthy's teams has not featured at least one receiver who saw 60-plus slot targets, and it came in 2018 when Cobb was pacing to finish well above that mark but was limited to just nine games. In 2014 and 15, McCarthy's offenses led the NFL in slot targets. And the propensity for utilizing his slot receiver hasn't been just a product of having a talented slot specialist in Cobb, either. Any time Cobb missed games with injury, we saw McCarthy feature other top weapons in the slot -- whether it be Jordy Nelson in 2016 or Davante Adams in 2018.

If the slot role belongs to Amari Cooper in 2020, finishing as a top-five WR in Fantasy is within his grasp. If he gets the slot role and the Cowboys pass at a higher rate when in the red zone, Cooper could realistically finish 2020 as the WR1 for Fantasy. That type of upside is unique for a player being selected anywhere near Cooper's current ADP.

DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Arizona Cardinals
2019 slot snap rate: 36.1 percent
2020 slot snap rate expected to drop

Hopkins is likely to see fewer total and less accurate targets while playing as a member of the Arizona Cardinals in 2020, and as if that wasn't bad enough, he'll have fewer opportunities to take advantage of lesser defenders from the slot. The Cardinals already have established slot man Larry Fitzgerald, and the up-and-coming Christian Kirk ran 42 percent of his routes from the slot in 2019.

Over the past two seasons, Hopkins' 2.5 yards per route run when operating from the slot has dropped to 2.16 on perimeter routes. Given the amount of question marks surrounding Hopkins' 2020 Fantasy outlook, I am staying far away from him at his ADP. He's going off the board as a top-five Fantasy WR in most formats, but I have him ranked as the WR13 as of this writing.

Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay Packers
2019 slot snap rate: 27.4 percent
2020 slot snap rate expected to increase

No receiver had worse luck finding the end zone in 2019 than Davante Adams. Everything from his statistical profile other than his touchdowns was there. If he bounces back to his career norms when it comes to converting red zone targets into touchdowns, Adams has very real WR1 upside in 2020.

If you need even more reason to get excited about Adams' 2020 outlook, there's a strong possibility that he will spend more time lined up in the slot. Aaron Rodgers loved targeting Adams from the slot last year, as his already ridiculous 29.7 percent target share rose to 34.7 percent when aligned on the inside. With full-time slot man Geronimo Allison gone and Green Bay making no effort to replace him, it's possible that Adams sees a lot more action from the slot in 2020.

Among receivers who saw at least 40 targets from the slot in 2019, Adams ranked first in Fantasy points per route run. Over the past three seasons, Adams has averaged a strong 1.99 yards per route run from the perimeter but a truly elite 2.33 yards per route run from the slot.

Any additional time spent lined up against slot corners will present a boost in Adams' already awesome Fantasy value. I have Adams ranked just behind Michael Thomas as my WR2 at the moment. However, if we see him lined up in the slot more often during the preseason or hear word out of Green Bay's camp that he'll occupy that role more often in 2020, a real case can be made for selecting Adams as the WR1 in Fantasy.

Sterling Shepard, WR, New York Giants
2019 slot snap rate: 47.2 percent
2020 slot snap rate expected to drop

Shepard averaged 1.89 yards per route run and 1.81 Fantasy points per target from the slot in 2019, but those rates fell to 1.11 yards per route run and 1.38 Fantasy points per target when running routes from the perimeter.

In games that Golden Tate missed in 2019, Shepard ran 80 percent of his routes from the slot. In games that Shepard shared the field with Tate, his slot rate dropped to 23.1 percent.

With both Tate and Engram presumably set to play more games in 2020, Shepard's slot rate could fall below 20 percent. And if his 2019 splits are any indication, that is going to present a big hit to his Fantasy value.

Parris Campbell, WR, Indianapolis Colts
2019 slot snap rate: 47.9 percent
2020 slot snap rate expected to increase

2019 was a lost season for Indianapolis' second-round rookie, but Campbell has a terrific opportunity ahead of him in 2020. Colts coach Frank Reich said that he anticipates Campbell seeing more reps out of the slot in 2020 with T.Y. Hilton and rookie Michael Pittman working from the perimeter.

Chester Rodgers (88 percent slot rate) and Eric Ebron (63 percent) dominated the slot reps in 2019, but neither will be a member of the Colts in 2020. The slot job seems to be Campbell's to lose, and we have seen how much new Colts quarterback Philip Rivers loves targeting the slot.

Campbell is going undrafted in the majority of Fantasy leagues, but the potential is there for him to emerge as Rivers' number two weapon with better health in his second pro season.

Tyler Boyd, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
2019 slot snap rate: 65 percent
2020 slot snap rate expected to increase

Boyd averaged just 1.22 yards per route run from the perimeter in 2019, which jumped all the way to 1.88 from the slot. He played on the perimeter a bit more than in 2017 (88.4 percent slot rate) and 2018 (73.2 percent slot rate), which was likely a result of A.J. Green missing the season.

With Green back and talented perimeter threat Tee Higgins added with the first pick of the second-round in 2020's NFL Draft, it would make sense for Boyd to return to close to a full-time slot role. Boyd has finished as Fantasy's WR21 and WR15 in the past two seasons but is being selected as the WR32 on average heading into 2020. A case could be made that his 2020 situation is the best of Boyd's career to this point, so don't be surprised if he posts a third-consecutive 1,000 yard season and easily outproduces expectations at his ADP.

Ian Thomas, TE, Carolina Panthers
2019 slot snap rate: 57.5 percent
2020 slot snap rate expected to increase

Thomas' slot snap rate might not drastically increase, but his snap rate as a whole is sure to spike in 2020. He played sparingly in relief of Greg Olsen last year, but the 2018 fourth-round selection appears set to operate as Carolina's primary option at the position in 2020.

Thomas has the athleticism and route running chops to line up from the slot, and new coach Joe Brady has shown the ability to use the tight end position creatively -- often lining Thaddeus Moss up in the slot or on the perimeter at LSU last season. Jarius Wright logged an 87.1 percent snap rate from the slot for Carolina in 2019, but won't be with the team in 2020. With the perimeter receiver spots filled by D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson, expect Thomas and Curtis Samuel to occupy the slot more regularly in 2020.

And for what it's worth, Mark Andrews was the only tight end to score more Fantasy points from the slot than Jared Cook in 2019. During the time Teddy Bridgewater was starting, over half of Cook's targets came while lined up in the slot. It's possible that Thomas sees similar usage in 2020, and he is completely free in drafts.

If you'd rather bet on Curtis Samuel taking the slot role and running with it, he's also essentially free in drafts. Samuel's already poor efficiency has been even worse in the routes he has run from the slot to this point in his career, and the likelihood that Thomas is a start-worthy option in Fantasy at the tight end position seems higher than Samuel being start-worthy at a wide receiver position that is incredibly deep in 2020.

D.J. Chark, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
2019 slot snap rate: 24 percent
2020 slot snap rate expected to increase

If just looking at Chark's yards per route run (1.43) from the slot as opposed to the perimeter (1.78), the fact that he is set to play a larger role from the slot in 2020 might not seem noteworthy. In this case, though, I don't believe taking those numbers at base value tells the whole story.

Chark ran 24 percent of his routes from the slot last year, but he was rarely targeted when operating from the inside. He was targeted on 21.2 percent of his routes on the perimeter, but just 14 percent of his routes from the slot resulted in a target. So while he did run a few routes from the slot every game, they weren't first-read type of routes.

That could change in 2020. Jacksonville offensive coordinator Jay Gruden had this to say about Chark's slot usage for 2020:

"He's got the skill set with the size, speed and ability to come in and out of cuts," Gruden said. "I think we can do a little bit more with him. I'd like to get him inside and do some more things with him in the slot."

If the Jaguars make targeting Chark from the slot a priority, his 2019 splits suggest that it should yield positive results for Fantasy. Chark averaged 1.75 Fantasy points per target from the perimeter, and an even stronger 2.9 from the slot. That number is certainly inflated and would drop if we had a larger sample size of targets from the slot, but Chark's catch rate, yards per target, and touchdown rate were all higher from the slot.

Jacob GibbsDFS Guru