2020 Slot vs. Wide: Sean McVay's Skinny Rams Offense
Thanks to Sports Info Solutions' charting, we can break receiving DVOA and DYAR down into slot-versus-wide splits. Much of this data appears in Football Outsiders Almanac 2021 (available now!), and we're going to spend the next couple of weeks breaking down these splits, starting today with wide receivers.
We have been recording this data since 2016, and we have noted that throwing to the slot has consistently produced better results than throwing outside. 2020 was no exception as teams had a 1.8% DVOA when targeting players lined up either in the slot or tight to the line and a -1.0% DVOA throwing to players lined up out wide. If you limit the look to just wide receivers, those numbers jump/drop to 1.9% and -1.7%, respectfully. The size of the gap varies from year to year—it was at 7.1% in 2019, compared to just 3.6% in 2020—but it has always been there. You can come up with a number of potential causes to explain this. Playing inside will often see receivers matched up against nickel corners and safeties. They'll have more room to run routes before the ball is thrown and to cut upfield after the ball has been caught. With teams playing more and more nickel defensively, there are fewer big uglies in the middle of the field to jam lanes and hamper receivers. It makes a certain degree of intuitive sense that, all else being equal, receivers might have an easier time lined up inside than isolated out on the edge.
And NFL teams have really come around to this too. In 2020, a record 58.3% of all receiver targets went to players in the slot. Twenty-eight different teams saw over half their passes go to slot receivers, with the Dolphins, Giants, Steelers, and Seahawks being the holdouts; none of them were under 47%. Sean McVay's Rams basically lived in the slot, with 75.3% of their wideout passes going to players lined up inside. While they were the vanguards of the trend, they weren't alone; the Texans and Raiders also saw at least twice as many targets to "wide" receivers in the slot rather than split wide, while five more teams missed the mark by less than a dozen attempts. And remember, these are all wide receiver numbers; this isn't a case of Darren Waller throwing numbers out of whack.
For the first time in our charting, no qualifying wide receiver saw at least 80% of his targets when split out wide, and only 10 saw twice as many wide targets than slot targets. When we first ran this data in 2016, 28 players were split out wide at least two-thirds of the time, but the idea that a receiver can or should just be stuck on the boundaries and left there is slowly fading from the league. And it's not really an issue of all receivers becoming less specialized; there were just about as many slot specialists in 2020 as there were in 2016. It's just that teams are becoming more and more willing to bring their studs inside as time has gone along.
The following table shows wide receiver target and performance splits in the slot and out wide in 2020. Those 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. Receivers in motion were charted based on their original location, which tends to be in the slot on jet motions. We have grouped targets from the traditional tight end spot in with slot targets because of their similarity, but that's not a huge impact on the data; there were only 244 targets to wide receivers lined up tight, with Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, and Curtis Samuel being the only three to hit double digits.
|Wide Receivers Slot vs. Wide, 2020|
Just Ram It Inside
Let's talk about the Rams in a little more detail, as having both Kupp and Woods top 100 slot targets is incredible—and having them both hit negative numbers in DVOA is less than ideal. The Rams' wide splits really stand out when you look at them—just 90 attempts all season long, or less than six a game. And really even that is inflating the importance of their outside passing game, as 20 of those pass attempts were screens or jet sweeps. The Rams had a league-low 8.6-yard aDOT on their passes to receivers split wide as they struggled to create big pass plays downfield.
That's not Kupp or Woods' fault; both are generally considered among the top slot receivers in the league. Their efficiency stats don't back that up in 2020, but I'd put more blame there on Jared Goff and his regression than on Kupp or Woods, who did an admirable job hauling in errant passes and turning them into positive plays last season. To have not one but two receivers with over 100 slot/tight targets is an unprecedented outcome. At first, you might assume that this is a result of a lack of a receiving tight end, but no; Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett combined for 50 slot targets themselves. No, this is just a result of the Rams lining up narrowly and branching outwards from there. Per Next Gen Stats, the Rams had the lowest average offensive formation width in the league, just as they have had in every year of McVay's tenure. All the playcallers from that offensive tree use narrow formations to some extent, but McVay takes the cake. That allows Kupp and Woods to run more complete route trees without being limited by the sideline. 2020 took it to an extreme, but it's a basic fundamental building block of McVay's offense.
That being said, those route trees in 2020 branched sideways more than forwards. It's just not ideal for an entire offense to be designed around dinking-and-dunking even to very talented slot receivers, as the aDOT to Rams receivers in the slot was 7.9 yards, third-lowest in the league. You can see why Los Angeles would take the risk to bring in someone like Matthew Stafford; we'll discuss his numbers in a future article, but he has been significantly more willing and able to uncork the deep ball than Goff ever has. Kupp and Woods will almost assuredly be near the top of the slot target list again in 2021, but they'll ideally catch the ball a few steps further downfield.
The Jets also had a pair of wideouts with at least 80% of their targets in the slot in Jamison Crowder and Braxton Berrios, and now they're getting Mike LaFleur—another student of the Shanahan/McVay system—to call their plays. There are enough moving parts in the Jets' offense that making any proclamations about what they'll look like next year is a tough deal, but there'll be opportunity for increased slot production there in 2021.
Cole Beasley receiving an All-Pro vote last year raised eyebrows. He was 10th in DVOA, sure, but an All-Pro? Peter King explained his vote, saying that if he had to pick three receivers, he wanted to make sure one of them was primarily a slot guy. With that self-imposed criterion in mind, King picked the right man. Beasley's 308 slot DYAR is a lower total than we're used to seeing for a league leader, but first place is first place, and only Larry Fitzgerald spent more time in the slot that Beasley did a year ago. Can he repeat that in 2021? Beasley has alternated negative and positive DVOAs out of the slot every year we have done this, so he has been far from consistent. If Josh Allen's third-year jump wasn't a mirage, then Beasley has a shot, though we'll have to see if he takes it or not.
More consistently excellent in the slot is Chris Godwin, who has now been in the top five in slot DYAR in both years under Bruce Arians. Godwin's 28.6% DVOA in the slot ranked eighth among qualified players, but first among players who spent at least two-thirds of their time in the slot. Rashard Higgins' 60.3% DVOA in the slot led all players, and you could make an argument for Will Fuller's 50.7% slot DVOA on 60.3% slot usage as being impressive enough without hitting an arbitrary two-thirds threshold, but I would give Godwin the award for the most effective receiver who primarily played in the slot in 2020. Had he not missed a quarter of the season with a few small injuries, he may well have caught Beasley in DYAR. Godwin and Mike Evans were the only two players to repeat top-10 slot DYAR finishes from 2019 as Arians has always excelled using receivers out of the slot, Godwin just being the latest in a line that includes Larry Fitzgerald, Reggie Wayne, and Hines Ward.
Evans' top-10 finish is interesting in and of itself as he has been mostly split wide year-in and year-out. It's not a situation like a Stefon Diggs or a Davante Adams who were used all over the field and were great everywhere. Evans was more situationally moved into the slot, and nearly every time he ended up inside, the ball was going his way. Half of Evans' slot targets came on third down, compared to 40% for all Tampa Bay slot targets and 30% of all receiver slot targets. A note to defenses playing the Buccaneers in 2021: when Evans shifts inside, it's because the Buccaneers have a play called to get him matched up against a lesser corner, and they are going to throw the ball to him.
Wide and Waning
While there were about two dozen receivers who mostly lived in the slot, there were only two who stuck out wide practically all the time. A.J. Green has been primarily split wide for most of his career, with the exception of his one year with Bill Lazor calling plays in 2018. We mentioned that many of the McVay-adjacent coaches in the league run tight formations with plenty of slot targets, but that's not true of Zac Taylor. The Bengals had one of the 10 widest average formations, in part because Green was stuck on the outside. Now, to be fair, considering the speed Green showed last season, it's plausible he was asked to play inside and just couldn't make it there before the play clock expired; we'll see what Taylor's offense looks like without Green in 2020.
The other receiver in that boat was Michael Gallup, who has now ranked first, second, and second in his split-wide percentage in his three years in the league. The switch from Jason Garrett to Mike McCarthy didn't mean anything for Gallup last season, but that may come to an end in 2021. Training camp reports have Gallup lining all over the field in camp, including the slot. Will Gallup ever be more than a downfield boundary receiver? I'd side on things being a training camp mirage until I see him tiptoe inside during an actual, factual NFL game.
Six of the top 10 wide DYARs came from players who had more targets in the slot in 2020. That's not normal; 17 of the 20 players to make the top 10 in 2018 or 2019 had over 50% of their targets split out wide. With so many more targets being charted as going to players in the slot, you can get an A.J. Brown leading the league in wide DYAR despite nearly 45% of his targets coming in the slot; there just aren't enough players hoovering up a disproportionate number of wide targets to fight off really good players who happen to play everywhere.
Brown's +36.3% DVOA split wide was the best among players with at least half his targets split out wide, too, a significant change from 2019 when he had a +56.9% DVOA difference in favor of slot targets as a rookie. Calling Brown a wide specialist isn't accurate, but there just aren't many of those left. Rashard Higgins' 14.3% wide DVOA was the most for any player with at least two-thirds of his targets out wide, for what it's worth.
Odds and Ends
Stefon Diggs comes out as the most balanced receiver—the only one with at least 75 targets in both splits, and the only one above 150 DYAR both wide and in the slot. And with only a 3.8% difference between his slot and wide DVOAs, it didn't matter where Diggs lined up in 2020—he was dominant everywhere. Diggs is one of three receivers since 2016 to have at least 75 targets and double-digit DVOA in both splits, joining 2019 Michael Thomas and 2018 Julio Jones. Artificial endpoints? Sure, but no matter where you draw the line, it's rare to see someone combine such volume and efficiency everywhere on the field.
In this article last year, we wondered how the Vikings would replace Diggs. Adam Thielen consistently had better DVOAs and DYARs in the slot, while rookie Justin Jefferson played mostly in the slot at LSU. The answer was to just use both Thielen and Jefferson in both roles rather than specializing; they were within 10 targets of one another in both splits. Both were better in the slot, as anticipated, but they certainly didn't have a problem when asked to play split out wide, either. Jefferson had some big shoes to fill after 2019's trade, but I don't think the Vikings could have asked for anything more.
As usual, most of the biggest gaps between slot and wide DVOA come for someone with a tiny sample size in a split; we're not trying to imply that Greg Ward's struggles were a result of being poorly used. The biggest gap for someone who had at least 25 targets in both splits belonged to Jalen Guyton, whose slot DVOA was 55.7% better than his wide DVOA. Guyton only caught 38% of the passes sent to him out wide, compared to 62% in the slot. Guyton isn't a complete player at this point; he's someone you send deep and hope he burns his guy. His raw physical tools aren't really enough to beat top corners on the outside, but the Chargers found a few ways to get him open down the seams.