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Breaking down the Packers’ slot receiver usage in 2019

Did the move from the Mike McCarthy offense to Matt LaFleur’s system affect which players lined up in the slot for the Packers? Randall Cobb’s departure may have actually been a bigger factor.

Washington Redskins v Green Bay Packers Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

The Packers’ offense of course changed significantly from 2018 to 2019. Mike McCarthy’s firing and the move to the Matt LaFleur offense was a main driver, but so was the loss of Randall Cobb, who was a consistent presence as a slot receiver in the eight seasons prior to LaFleur’s arrival. With Cobb leaving, a significant void arose on the inside. Combined with the new scheme, the Packers’ slot receiver usage looked fairly different in 2019 compared to years before.

Overall, the Packers used three or more wide receivers personnel on 62 percent of their snaps in 2019, or approximately 684 plays. That personnel grouping led to the best DVOA of any formation that Football Outsiders charted, as the offense clicked at +21.5% and 5.9 yards per play. But with so many snaps to go around with players in the slot, how did the team divide up those snaps? Thankfully, FO charts the numbers for qualifying receivers in their 2020 Football Outsiders Almanac, so we can think through these players’ primary roles.

Note that the slot refers to an receiver who is separated from the line in any formation but is lined up closer to the line than the outside-most receiver. Therefore, the total number of slot snaps will naturally be higher than the 684 listed above due largely to two factors: First, tight ends may line up in the slot and second, there is also a slot receiver when the team lines up with just two wideouts on the field but places both of them on the same side of the formation.

Below, we’ll look at the rate that the Packers’ notable receivers lined up in the slot to see what trends, if any, we can glean from these numbers heading towards 2020.

Geronimo Allison: 82%, 536 total

The player who was used in the slot most often in 2019 was Allison, who lined up inside on more than 4/5 of his 654 snaps. It seemed logical that LaFleur would use him on the inside; he fits more of the profile of a taller slot man that the Kyle Shanahan/Sean McVay offenses have used.

That was a drastically different way of lining up Allison than how Mike McCarthy used him; Allison was at 44% slot in 2017 and just 23% in limited action in 2018. And clearly, it didn’t work, given the poor results that Allison displayed that led him out of town and to a division rival.

Jimmy Graham: 55% slot, 351 total

Finally, we get to Graham, who spent more than half of his time in the slot last season. Of course, his slot snaps could have come in 11, 12, 22 personnel, etc, but the overall slot rate dropped just two points from last year, going from 57% to 55%.

His usage on the boundary dropped a bit during the McCarthy-to-LaFleur transition as well, from 8% to 2%, though it was low to begin with. All told, Graham lined up tight to the line on 43% of snaps in 2019 compared to 35% in 2018, a modest but notable difference. Compare both of those to his spending just 30% of his time on the line in Seattle in 2017 — clearly the Packers asked him to do a bit more as a conventional tight end, a questionable decision at best.

The logical extension for the Packers will be to use Jace Sternberger in the Graham role in 2020. He played in the slot heavily in college and should see plenty of opportunities there moving forward.

One other nugget from the Almanac on Graham: Next Gen Stats reported that Graham’s average target came with the most separation of any receiver in the NFL at almost 4 yards. In other words, the Packers either schemed him open or Rodgers only threw to him when the defense forgot him.

Allen Lazard: 72%, 348 total

While Lazard is a big body at 6-foot-5 and 227 pounds, he played more of a prototypical “big slot” role last year, running 72% of his routes from inside. While his breakout play against the Lions in week 6 came from the boundary, that game saw Davante Adams out with an injury. Afterwards, almost all of Lazard’s notable receptions came from the inside, including his later touchdowns against the Giants and Lions in week 17.

The Packers tended to go with these big bodies as slot receivers pretty heavily in 2019. Allison, while not bulky, is a taller player, and Jimmy Graham also saw plenty of slot action (more on that later). Don’t be surprised if the combination of Lazard, Devin Funchess, and Equanimeous St. Brown end up rotating through inside and outside in 2020.

Davante Adams: 48%, 334 total

Adams saw his slot usage increase in 2019 in Matt LaFleur’s offense as well, with the team seemingly trying to find ways to help him get open rather than simply relying on his route-running skills to create separation. These numbers are well up from the previous two years, when McCarthy had Adams at 32% of snaps. Expect LaFleur to use him there heavily again in 2020, though a 50/50 split seems unlikely given some of the other options available.

Marquez Valdes-Scantling: 45%, 250 total

While MVS’ playing time tailed off late in 2019, he still did have a fairly substantial slot usage throughout the season. Still, his numbers trail significantly behind Lazard, who had a similar number of snaps overall but far outpaced MVS’ slot usage.

Devin Funchess

While we do not have numbers for Funchess’ usage in Green Bay (since he signed as a free agent this offseason) or from a 2019 that he lost to injury, we can look back to his 2017 and 2018 seasons in Carolina, where he was at 38 and 39 percent, respectively. He’s not a burner, but his size — similar to Lazard — and route-running ability suggests that the Packers may use him inside frequently in 2020.

Equanimeous St. Brown

St. Brown missed all of 2019 with a high ankle sprain, but he would seem to be a candidate to join Lazard and Funchess as more of the big-slot players in 2020.

2018 Slot Numbers

For reference, here are the team’s primary slot snap leaders in 2018.

Jimmy Graham: 57%, 453
Randall Cobb: 90%, 419
Marquez Valdes-Scantling: 56%, 388
Davante Adams: 32%, 305
Equanimeous St. Brown: 54%, 193
Geronimo Allison: 23%, 55