It has been a popular trend this offseason to project the Green Bay Packers to acquire a dedicated slot receiver. With veteran Randall Cobb expected to leave as an unrestricted free agent — which he did, signing in Dallas — there appeared to be a significant void in the Packers’ offense.
Leading up to free agency, speculation abounded about a few of the other slot receivers hitting the market potentially coming to Green Bay. Jamison Crowder, Cole Beasley, and others were names bandied about in various media circles, including here at Acme Packing Company. Ultimately, however, general manager Brian Gutekunst elected to invest his energy and money on the defense, landing two starting pass-rushers and a top safety, plus grabbing a versatile piece for the offensive front in Billy Turner.
The notable transactions at wide receiver were to retain players. Geronimo Allison signed a one-year deal after getting a restricted free agent tender, while Jake Kumerow signed his exclusive-rights tender in recent days. Both of those players could contribute in the slot, but neither fits the traditional mold of the smaller, quicker, shiftier slot receiver that described Cobb well over the past eight seasons.
Now, with the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft just two weeks away, slot receiver continues to be on the minds of many Packers fans and media. However, it is probably time to put away the notion of a dedicated slot player on this roster, especially given recent comments from the Packers’ players during the first few days of the team’s offseason workouts. Instead, the versatility of the players on the roster now implies that the focus should be on receiver prospects who can play multiple positions instead of being slot-focused players.
First, let’s take the Packers’ unquestioned number one receiver, Davante Adams. Last season, Adams lined up largely on the outside, but he has plenty of experience playing inside. After all, one of the hallmarks of Mike McCarthy’s approach to developing wideouts was to get them to learn every receiver position. His skill set, which includes the most devastating release game in the NFL, according to All-Pro cornerback Stephen Gilmore, makes him a tantalizing option inside.
Adams himself discussed his excitement to line up tighter to the line this season: “I think that’s something that Matt is definitely looking forward to having me do, and I’m definitely looking forward to doing the same thing,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “If that will take their number one (cornerback) off me, and I can get some mismatches maybe on the (line)backer or the safety or anybody else, I think that is beneficial.”
Adams is hardly the only option for that crucial position, however. Two of last year’s draft picks, Equanimeous St. Brown and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, both have experience in the slot. Last season, St. Brown played in the slot more often early in the season, with MVS starting on the boundary. However, down the stretch, the team swapped the two, putting St. Brown on the outside and playing Valdes-Scantling inside more often.
The results were interesting. Using Pro Football Focus’ statistics, MVS did indeed produce more overall in the slot, though St. Brown was a bit more effective on a per-snap basis, though that comes in a much smaller sample size:
- Valdes-Scantling: 220 snaps (31.7% of total), 27 targets (37%), 18 receptions (47%), 283 yards (49%), 1.29 yards per route run from slot
- St. Brown: 67 snaps (18.7%), 9 targets (25%), 5 receptions (24%), 97 yards (30%), 1.45 yards per route run from slot
That’s not all. Kumerow also produced in the slot in the preseason and in brief action late in the regular season, while Allison has been a surprising slot weapon as well. Despite his agility testing lagging behind players like Adams and MVS, Allison has recorded fully 45% of his targets and 49% of his career receptions from the slot, per PFF.
And then there’s tight end Jimmy Graham, an established slot weapon for much of his NFL career. Particularly early on, his usage in the slot was so substantial that he requested to formally be designated as a wide receiver when given the franchise tag during the 2014 offseason. The request was denied, but the fact remained that he lined up in the slot or split wide on two-thirds of his snaps in 2013, and he has stayed most effective since when off the line. With Marcedes Lewis returning to Green Bay — presumably to play a bigger role as an in-line tight end — that will likely afford Graham more opportunities to split out rather than play on the line, where McCarthy and company insisted on lining him up throughout 2018.
Interestingly, every one of the players named here is 6-foot-1 or taller — much taller than the players who typically man that position. In fact, Adams is the shortest of the group, while the rest are all at least 6-foot-3. As Adams suggested, that provides more of a physical mismatch against safeties, linebackers, or even slot corners, who tend to be on the smaller and shiftier side as well.
In the 2019 NFL Draft class, there are certainly a number of players who fit the more traditional description of a slot receiver. Ohio State’s Parris Campbell, for example, was largely a slot player in college and put his 6-foot, 205-pound frame to use as the Buckeyes fed him the ball quickly to let him make plays with his feet. He could be a dynamic weapon, though he would surely need to work on his route-running early on. Ole Miss’ A.J. Brown and South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel both are more thickly-built players, at 6-foot/226 and 5-foot-11/214, but both show good release skills and quickness from the inside. Then there are the particularly small slots like Andy Isabella (5-foot-9/188) and Hunter Renfrow (5-foot-10/184) who have demonstrated their skills there in college.
There are options there, but the talent level and slot experience of the players already on the roster suggest that they should not over-exert themselves to find the player who will be a one-for-one replacement for Cobb. Besides — receivers tend to have a longer learning curve than other positions, taking a year or two to fully integrate into an offense and develop into reliable playmakers. In addition, plenty of NFL teams use larger receivers in the slot, and Gutekunst recently implied that he thinks a bigger player could hold up better at that position. That seems to suggest that the current receivers fit the direction he would prefer to go in the slot.
Ultimately, there’s every reason to think that the Packers’ primary slot option or, more likely, options for 2019 are already under contract. The Packers got lucky with contributions from rookie receivers a year ago, but much of that was borne out of necessity. Given the strides that those players made and the returns of some key contributors from injury, the Packers should be just fine in the slot even if they do not draft a clear slot guy in two weeks. Instead, the bigger challenge will be dividing up the slot snaps among the various options that they already have.