No position is more easily identifiable by its stereotypes than slot receivers. They’re usually “quicker than fast,” “gritty,” and many of the most famous ones of recent vintage happen to be white. If you’re a white receiver who runs 4.6 or worse and stand under six feet tall, you’re a slot receiver, even when you’re not.
Emphasis on the last part for Matt LaFleur.
What we’re used to seeing in Green Bay from the slot, with Randall Cobb terrorizing opposing defenses in his prime, will leave with Mike McCarthy. That’s not what LaFleur will ask his slot receivers to do, which means the next “slot” guy could already be on the team. While it’s true the Packers don’t have a short-area quickness threat outside Davante Adams, that’s no big deal for LaFleur.
Last season, Tajae Sharpe led the Titans in slot snaps, lining up there nearly 50% of the time. Corey Davis came in second and saw the most targets from the slot. Davis, a bigger bodied receiver and Tennessee’s theoretical No. 1 pass catcher, isn’t a prototypical slot player. Either is Sharpe, at 6’2 201, but that’s not exactly essential for Matt LaFleur.
In 2017, Cooper Kupp played 58.7% of his snaps from the slot, by far the most on the Rams. In fact, he played nearly twice as often from the slot as anyone else. He may be white, but Kupp is a sturdy 6’2 208 pound receiver. He does have short area quickness, but he doesn’t live on Wes Welker option routes five yards down the field.
The other two top slot targets were Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, not “traditional” slot targets. In fact, this serves to emphasize how much LaFleur likes to put his top targets in the slot to create space for them to operate.
That trend goes back to 2016 with Kyle Shanahan when Mohamed Sanu led the team with a similar 59% slot snap rate. Second on that team? Julio Jones. Expect Davante Adams to get plenty of looks in the slot, certainly more than he saw for the Packers under Mike McCarthy. Not only does it free him up from press coverage (not that he needs the help) but out of bunch formations for example, it’s much harder to key in on Adams with coverage. With an unproven group of receivers, unburdening Adams unlocks opportunities for him that also make the lives of his fellow pass catchers much easier.
Like with few things in life, size truly doesn’t matter. LaFleur emphasized that when describing what he looks for in a slot.
“I think a slot, especially with what we want to do, has to have some good instincts, and really you want a smart player that you can call choice routes with and it takes smart players to do that. The guys that I’ve been around that have been capable of doing that were like Cooper Kupp was really good at that (in Los Angeles), Mohamed Sanu was really good at that.”
So many routes from the slot in the offense require going over the middle of the field or working underneath coverage. Having a feel for finding soft spots in zones, or using your body to create a lane become crucial, above the traditional tropes for the position. Short-area quickness helps in route running, making it a trait one might prize in any receiver. But Sanu, for example, thrives going over the middle and working through traffic. He’s impossibly reliable even if he’s not dynamic. The same can be said for Kupp. Play design gives them a chance to get open. They use their savvy to maximize those opportunities.
LaFleur will also use Adams in the slot down the field, on a double-moves and shot plays and could use a running back or a tight end outside of him to move defenders around on the field. Given how infrequently LaFleur likes to play with 3+ receivers (less than half the time), the best opportunities for slot shots will be that roughly 40% of the time when they’re playing with just one tight end.
In the short-term, that means Jimmy Graham will get opportunities in the slot as well and Geronimo Allison has that reliability factor that could make him an appealing early option in the slot. Not having to alter the true “type” of receiver they’re looking for makes finding a potential replacement in the draft easier. They don’t have to pick a player who can only play in the slot, as would be the case with many of the traditional archetype players.
Draft the 6’2 228-pound N’Keal Harry who lacks polish with his routes. Putting him in the slot gives him a head start at creating space. He’s an experienced, heady player who can make difficult catches in traffic and create after the fact.
Then there’s Parris Campbell who made a living at Ohio State on underneath option routes and finding vacated zones to make himself available. At 6’0 205, he’s big enough to shake off tacklers, but with 4.3 speed, has the jets to run away from them. Give him a chance to run crossing routes, digs, and options out of the slot and he could be a nightmare for opposing defenses.
Ole Miss star A.J. Brown gets overshadowed by the freak athleticism of DK Metcalf, but excelled from the slot in Oxford. His athletic testing suggests a more polished route runner than we saw in college and he’s a big (6’0 226) physical receiver who certainly can handle the dirty work of playing in this slot offense.
It’s not crazy to suggest the best slot option in the draft is a tight end either, with T.J. Hockenson, Noah Fant, Irv Smith Jr. and others appealing to the Packers. If the Packers double up at tight end, they could draft a more traditional tight end who can block, alongside someone like Fant to create a diverse, nightmarish duo for years to come. We’ve seen what a good tight end can do in this offense, which creates opportunities for the tight end as well as any scheme in the league.
Given how infrequently the team will be in spread personnel with three or more receivers, the idea this team even needs a slot receiver should be called into question. What they need is more talent generally. Luckily, this offense doesn’t require a niche slot player. Drafting a traditional receiver could simply mean more time for Adams in the slot, where he was always destined to up his usage.
As Tex Western pointed out yesterday, Equanimeous St. Brown and Marquez Valdes-Scantling each have a chance to earn that spot, and J’Mon Moore may be the best suited of the three 2018 receiver picks to play the slot.
Don’t worry about finding a slot type; worry about finding an instinctive, reliable player with talent, who can play inside or outside. That versatility makes LaFleur’s offense really go. Throw out the archetypes around the league, ones emphasized by years of Mike McCarthy’s offense. This is a new Packers offense and with it, comes a new type of slot receiver. Between the guys already on the team and those available in the draft, Brian Gutekunst will have plenty of options to provide LaFleur with a guy he can maximize. Then, it will be up to the coaches and Aaron Rodgers to go out and do just that.