2019 Slot vs Wide: Quarterbacks
Our annual look at slot/wide splits in the passing game continues, thanks to the charting efforts from our friends at Sports Info Solutions. Last time, we looked at wide receivers, where we continued to see a gap between DVOA in and out of the slot. Today, we'll look to see how quarterbacks are handling this new paradigm.
The following table shows the data for the 34 qualified passers from 2019. Each player's DYAR, DVOA, and number of targets are shown on passes to receivers both in the slot and split wide. The table is sorted by descending Slot%, which is passes thrown to players who were lined up in the slot as a percentage of passes thrown to players at wide receiver positions (i.e., slot and wide are included, but not at tight end or in the backfield). That does include passes to tight ends and running backs if they lined up in traditional receiving positions. Note that the charting labels come from players' locations on the field regardless of the positioning of their teammates. A receiver on one side of the formation who was a few feet away from the offensive line was considered to be in the slot even if he was the widest receiver on that side.
In addition, the difference in DVOA from slot to wide is shown.
Quarterbacks, Slot vs. Wide, 2019
Eyes Wide Shut
In the receivers article, we mentioned that there were still three teams who targeted receivers split wide more often than in the slot, but that was only looking at wide receiver targets explicitly. In 2018, we were down to just two quarterbacks who threw more wide passes than slot passes: Dak Prescott and Ryan Fitzpatrick. In 2019, for the first time in the four years we've been gathering this data, that number has gone down to zero. Mason Rudolph had a perfect 50-50 split, but everyone else favored the slot. League-wide, the average slot target percentage only rose a small amount, from 59.2% to 60.7%. That rise was still enough to push the last stragglers across the line, but that's more a quirk of how close they were to that point already rather than a massive move in the 2019 season.
There were 24 quarterbacks who qualified for the leaderboards in both 2018 and 2019. On average, they saw their slot percentage increase by 3.1% in 2019, with 16 players increasing and eight players decreasing. Half of them were within five percentage points of their 2018 rates, which would be within pretty normal year-to-year variation. It's more interesting to look at the players outside that range and try to determine why their rates have changed.
Five players saw their slot percentage jump by at least ten points from 2018 to 2019. Two of them went to new teams -- Ryan Tannehill jumped from 51.6% to 70.6% going from Miami to Tennessee, while Ryan Fitzpatrick went from 44.9% to 55.3% going from Tampa Bay to Miami. We can chalk those up to changes in overall scheme and philosophy. Others were impacted by new personnel; Derek Carr went from 57.3% to 74.5% as Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller were much more enticing interior targets than Seth Roberts or Jordy Nelson had been in 2018.
That leaves Mitchell Trubisky (60.3% to 71.7%) and Deshaun Watson (50.8% to 62.8%) without obvious explanations. For Trubisky, while the percentage increased to a career high, his ranking sort of rebounded to where it had been in 2017 -- he was third in the league with 63.3% of his throws going to the slot in 2017 before falling to 15th two years ago and bouncing back to third in 2019. On the surface, changing tactics significantly after the best season in your career doesn't make a ton of sense, but "throwing the ball a lot to Allen Robinson" does. In 2018, Robinson basically split his time 50/50 between being split wide and in the slot despite having significantly better results in the slot for most of his career. In 2019, Robinson spent about two-thirds of his time in the slot and was targeted appropriately. Trubisky had the fifth-biggest gap between his slot DYAR and wide DYAR; he was an average quarterback when throwing inside! Just for the record, Trubisky's 0.0% DVOA to the slot "topped" Nick Foles' -0.1% DVOA, while Foles' -12.6% DVOA out wide topped Trubisky's -34.2%, for what that's worth.
As for Watson, well, the Texans were weird. Their top wide targets were, in order, DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Kenny Stills, and Keke Coutee. Their top slot targets were, in order, Hopkins, Fuller, Stills, and Coutee. No other team had the same pattern -- it's not super uncommon for one player to lead the team in targets in both splits, but only two teams went beyond target No. 1, with the Vikings riding the trio of Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, and Bisi Johnson in that order. But Minnesota's tactics were determined in part by injury, and the share of targets differed wildly between the two splits. The Texans' big four, on the other hand, basically had the same ratio of targets to one another -- Hopkins was a little more active out wide and Stills was a little more active in the slot, but not by a ton. Honestly, what I get from looking at the Texans data is "man, they're really going to miss DeAndre Hopkins" more than anything about their slot/wide splits. If I had to give a reason why Watson's slot targets increased, I'd point to the fact that he had the third-lowest slot-to-wide ratio in 2018; new playcaller Tim Kelly may have just been catching up to what the rest of the league was doing.
Drew Brees was the one player who really swerved in the other direction, going from 66.8% to 56.3% -- and it's notable that he had basically the same ratio as Teddy Bridgewater, implying that this was a team thing and not an individual quirk of Brees' injury. Basically, the only slot receivers Brees targeted in 2019 were Michael Thomas and Jared Cook, whereas 2018 Brees found time to find his other receivers and running backs in the slot; Brees' share of slot targets to Thomas + TE1 went from 49% to 66% last year. Adding Emmanuel Sanders, who might well be the best WR2 the Saints have had since Brandin Cooks left, might end up reversing that trend going forward. Brees had a significantly higher DYAR and DVOA when going to the slot, far above the league average, so if they can get more raw targets into the slot in 2020, that probably bodes well going forward.
If you had asked me to guess what sort of player would lead the league in slot passing DYAR, I would have guessed that he would play on an 11 personnel-heavy offense, one that was constantly making an extra effort to get three wideouts onto the field. That guess would have been exceptionally wrong, as it turns out the most productive quarterback to the slot was Jimmy Garoppolo. In retrospect, that makes sense -- Garoppolo had Deebo Samuel and George Kittle to throw to in the slot, and both Emmanuel Sanders and Kendrick Bourne were more productive when working inside as well. Garoppolo had a 750-DYAR difference between his slot and wide splits, most in the league; second place belonged to Patrick Mahomes at 523, so "having a really good pass-catching tight end" seems like a fairly solid route to success. I do wonder if Garoppolo's splits would even out somewhat if he had a more traditional outside receiver to throw to, but as the 49ers went ahead and drafted yet another slot target in Brandon Aiyuk, we may literally never know.
Of course, maybe Garoppolo learned to prioritize the slot while sitting behind Tom Brady. While Garoppolo was in town, Brady ranked third and seventh in the league in slot target percentage. That has dropped in recent years, though, in large part due to Rob Gronkowski being hurt and/or too busy being a WWE champion to catch passes. Brady has relied on his slot targets more and more as he has gotten older, and as they have aged, declined, or been replaced -- last year, they were 33-year-old Julian Edelman, the never-quite-right Mohammed Sanu, and rookie Jakobi Meyers, a far cry from even 2018's Injured Gronk and Chris Hogan -- his performance suffered. Even with that relatively weak group, however, Brady still had over 400 more DYAR throwing to the slot than going out wide. And now he goes to Tampa Bay, where Chris Godwin awaits with the league's most DYAR on slot targets a year ago, and where Gronk has decided to return, and you can see why there's such optimism about even a 43-year-old Brady moving down to Florida.
It amuses me that three of the top four quarterbacks in terms of slot/wide DYAR splits all play in the NFC West (Kyler Murray needs to get his act together). In the case of Garoppolo and Jared Goff, they had a positive DVOA when throwing to the slot and a negative DVOA when throwing wide, and their slot-wide ratio of over 70% each makes sense in context. Russell Wilson also had a negative DVOA throwing wide, and one of the best receivers in football in Tyler Lockett working out of the slot … and had just a 55% slot/wide ratio. Every time I think I understand offensive football, I watch some Seahawks film and just get more puzzled.
Dak Prescott may have thrown fewer passes out wide this year, but the ones he did throw that way worked wonders. His 413 DYAR on passes out wide are the fourth most we've ever recorded. The size of Prescott's lead is stunning -- the 115-DYAR gap between him and second-place Matt Ryan blows that record out of the water; the previous largest gap was 22, and the average gap before this year was 10. This is the first year where only one passer has broken the 300-DYAR barrier. Prescott almost would have beaten Ryan just on passes to Amari Cooper, with 290 DYAR coming from that connection alone, but he also added 164 more to Michael Gallup, which would have ranked eighth. Impressive.
Prescott still had more DYAR to the slot than he did out wide; he joins Kirk Cousins as the only passers to hit 10.0% DVOA in both splits. The list of quarterbacks who had more DYAR out wide is a motley crew indeed. You have a pair of Washington quarterbacks in Dwayne Haskins and Case Keenum; you have Week 1 backups Kyle Allen, Gardner Minshew, and Ryan Fitzpatrick; you have Mr. Mononucleosis himself Sam Darnold…
… and then you have Matt Ryan. Ryan wasn't always this way; back in the Shanahan days, his slot/wide splits looked similar to a Garoppolo or a Goff. He led the league in slot DYAR during his MVP season in 2016 and ranked fifth and eighth in 2017 and 2018, but fell to 20th in 2019. He wasn't helped by the trade of Mohammed Sanu halfway through the 2019 season, but he only had a 4.2% DVOA when targeting Sanu this season, so that's not all of it. We talked some in the receivers article about how unusual it is for a team to have two outside receivers eat up as much volume as Atlanta's did, and this is just another datapoint there. I wouldn't necessarily call this a warning sign -- Aaron Rodgers was the leader in wide DYAR over slot DYAR in 2018 and the Packers failed to add a slot receiver last season, but they still had a good year -- but it's certainly unusual, and against Ryan's recent history, to be focusing so much attention on the outside.