Keenan Allen, Tyreek Hill, and Slot Receiver Archetypes
While last week's dissertation on slot target percentages and their utility in opponent adjustment projections was undoubtedly fun for tens of readers out there, it may have seemed oddly timed for fantasy draft season. But that research's identification of the characteristics that teams want from their slot receivers can also help group those players into categories to inform fantasy draft decisions. Everyone wants to find the next Wes Welker or Julian Edelman late in their drafts, but you need to understand the traits that earned Welker and Edelman their heavy target shares when their real-world draft statuses undersold their promise. The label slot receiver may have communicated that fantasy potential in the past, but it is no longer enough now that teams throw increasingly diverse types of receivers into the slot. Thanks to Derrik Klassen for helping decide on the five following categories.
Quick-Twitch Slot Receivers
Archetype: Cooper Kupp
Other Established Examples: Cole Beasley, Hunter Renfrow, Jamison Crowder, Randall Cobb, Emmanuel Sanders
This is the slot receiver stereotype. Welker and Edelman were quick-twitch slot receivers, and Kupp has inherited their mantle. Typically, these players fall in the NFL draft because their smaller builds and unimpressive combine traits limit their versatility. They are not strong enough to beat press coverage, they are not fast enough to run by cornerbacks, and they are not tall or athletic enough to win contested catches. However, their quick twitch allows them to separate quickly if they are undisturbed off the line. That works well from the slot, and that makes them low-risk targets since quarterbacks can throw to them with short passes before pass rushes have a chance to a bring pressure. It's a tremendous combination for fantasy sleepers. Many fantasy players will overlook quick-twitch prospects because of their lack of draft pedigree, but those receivers may get a ton of to stay ahead of the sticks and keep offenses on schedule. To find these players, look for undersized receivers with poor 40 times but excellent results in their agility drills like the 3-cone drill and short shuttle.
Fantasy Sleepers for 2021: Jakobi Meyers, Albert Wilson
Meyers and Wilson aren't the big-name sleepers that many of the soon-to-be-discussed players are, but their skill sets as quick-twitch slot receivers make them two of my preferred fantasy targets later in drafts. From his first start in Week 8 to the end of the season, Meyers trailed just Davante Adams and Stefon Diggs with a 30.1% target share. With better touchdown luck, he could have been a second-half WR2 in PPR formats, and he has that potential in 2021. His target volume has room to grow with Mac Jones as his quarterback, and he has upside in the uncertainty of the Patriots' receiving pecking order with newcomers Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Jonnu Smith, and Hunter Henry.
Wilson has seen his early star in Dolphins camp fade with an injury, but he is on track to play in Week 1 and is compelling as a different type of player than his more heralded Dolphins teammates Jaylen Waddle, Will Fuller, and DeVante Parker. That latter trio has some combination of size and speed to add explosive plays to an offense that needed them in 2020, but quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is less explosive and more accurate as a passer. He may feature his early-open slot target Wilson as part of a conservative approach to protect himself as an inexperienced player and play to the strengths of a team with an above-average projected defense in DVOA.
Power Slot Receivers
Archetype: Michael Thomas
Other Established Examples: Robert Woods, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Jarvis Landry, Tyler Boyd
Thomas may have stumbled into his incredibly effective slot role because he landed in a Saints offense that relied on short passes to avoid mistakes and failed plays, but his success in that role demonstrated how power can play in the short middle of the field. Where traditional quick-twitch slot guys need capable outside receivers to draw their opponents' press corners, Thomas and his contemporaries can bully press corners from the slot and gain quick leverage. Meanwhile, they have enough quick twitch in their games to separate on slants and crosses whenever corners lay off of them. Their prototypical-for-receiver size tends to keep them out of Day 3 of the draft, when smaller quick-twitch slot receivers build much of their potential for fantasy value relative to ADPs. But power slot receivers can offer potential for fantasy returns when their underwhelming 40 times push them out of the first round.
Fantasy Sleepers for 2021: Kendrick Bourne, Amon-Ra St. Brown
Bourne has a different skill set than his teammate Jakobi Meyers, but those differences may not land them in different places on the field. As such, it seems unlikely that both players could excel in fantasy for a team likely to rely on frequent 12 personnel with Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. I prefer Meyers as a fantasy sleeper, but Bourne is a compelling choice as well. His 13.4% receiving DVOA from the last two seasons is one of the best rates at his position. He was redundant in San Francisco since the 49ers hit on a pair of recent rookies with excellent after-the-catch skills in Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, but he won't have to beat out any recent Day 1 or 2 draft picks for Patriots targets.
Sean McVay has convinced the world that Jared Goff is trash, and that opinion seems to have infected fantasy football even though Goff has consistently turned slot receivers Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods into top-20 fantasy options. St. Brown is more like the latter, and he won't have a teammate like the former to compete with for targets. After releasing Breshad Perriman, the Lions plan to pair St. Brown with receivers Tyrell Williams, Quintez Cephus, and Kalif Raymond. That trio has averaged 13.7, 14.5, and 17.6 yards in average depth of target since 2019, rates that would have landed them in the top 10 at the position if they had the 100 targets to qualify. They may be square pegs for a round hole in Goff if he struggles to throw accurate deep passes. And that could benefit St. Brown in fantasy.
Speed Slot Receivers
Archetype: Tyreek Hill
Other Established Examples: Tyler Lockett, Robby Anderson, Brandin Cooks
Speed slot receivers are fast enough to win on the outside—Hill may be the fastest player in the NFL. But their speed in the slot allows their teams advantages in opening both sides of the field and avoiding double teams. Those advantages can help, but speed is not the same as quick-twitch. Speed takes longer to win on a route than quick-twitch does. And so, for traditional fantasy formats, speed slot receivers are only as enticing as their full skill sets. That can be incredibly enticing. Hill has some quick-twitch in him and has refined his route-running. Paired with his speed and with the best deep passer in football in Patrick Mahomes, those skills offer Hill the chance to be the No. 1 receiver in fantasy. But NFL teams tend to pay for speed in the draft, and that often sets high expectations in fantasy that athletic but unpolished prospects fail to meet in their first few seasons.
Fantasy Sleepers for 2021: Mecole Hardman, Henry Ruggs, Russell Gage, KJ Hamler, Jaylen Waddle, Kalif Raymond, Deonte Harris, Tutu Atwell
There are more speed slot receiver sleepers than there are for the other slot categories, but based on what these types of players have done in recent seasons, that is likely a mistake. Hardman and Ruggs have at least "failed" before as hyped sleepers, and that has lowered them to palatable ADPs at the position of 54th and 48th. In contrast, the rookie Waddle has excelled in camp and is a top-10 NFL draft pick. It follows reason that he's up to 46th in ADP, but I think that is bad value. We are as optimistic as anyone on Tua Tagovailoa's second-year prospects, but KUBIAK still ranks Waddle just 52nd at the position in PPR formats. Waddle will likely need some time to become a fantasy star, especially with his Year 1 competition from veteran teammates Will Fuller and DeVante Parker.
Hybrid Slot Receivers
Archetype: Curtis Samuel
Other Established Examples: Deebo Samuel
Hybrid slot receivers are a newer group in the NFL. They can be powerful; Deebo earned his nickname from the bullying character from the movie Friday. They can be speedy; Curtis ran a 4.31s 40. But they do not have the combination of power and quick-twitch to consistently beat a talented press corner like a power slot receiver. And they do not harness their speed into a consistent capacity for deep catches like a speed slot receiver. They work from the slot as an extension of the running game, where their power or speed can help them excel after the catch. Even five years ago, that might restrict these players to gadget roles. But as coaches have become more creative and borrowed from the college and high school games, hybrid slot corners have ascended to fantasy relevance.
Fantasy Sleepers for 2021: Parris Campbell, Rondale Moore, Kadarius Toney, Jalen Hurd
The Samuel brothers have ebbed and flowed in fantasy with the friendliness of their offenses to their skill sets. Frankly, that's a concern for Curtis, who in free agency this offseason left the Joe Brady offense that orchestrated his 2020 breakout to return to Scott Turner's offense that never seemed to figure him out. But I think it's a bigger concern for rookie Kadarius Toney with the Giants. The team's free-agent addition of contested-catch winner Kenny Golladay tips their hand of their intention to build around quarterback Daniel Jones' apparent excellence as a deep passer. Toney may be stuck as a bit player in this offense as he develops—and as he heals up from whatever has held him out of most of this preseason.
Campbell and Moore are fascinating fantasy prospects. The former has played just nine games in two seasons because of myriad hamstring, finger, foot, and knee injuries. But he's healthy now and part of a Colts offense that decidedly isn't, something that counterintuitively could boost his fantasy potential. Despite 4.31s speed, I don't think Campbell is a skills replacement for the injured, field-stretching T.Y. Hilton. But he could a quick-release option for quarterback Carson Wentz as he tries to bring his YOLO passing attitude under control—or for backup Jacob Eason if he has to start and aims to steer a more conservative offense until Wentz can return.
Moore may have the deep speed to stretch the field. He didn't show it in a Purdue offense that seemed to have other priorities. And I don't think he'll show it in a vanilla Cardinals offense—as Vince Verhei detailed in their Almanac chapter, Arizona ran a very limited route tree in 2020. But that may work in Moore's favor for fantasy. Kliff Kingsbury may not be the offensive mastermind that his divisional counterpart Kyle Shanahan is, but he seems to have a reasonable priority of getting the ball out of undersized quarterback Kyler Murray's hands as quickly as possible. With his after-the-catch skills, Moore can be a solution to that problem. And that could be a quick path to a heavy target volume even in a crowded receiver room with prominent outside options in DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green.
Unicorn Slot Receivers
Archetype: Keenan Allen
Other Established Examples: Chris Godwin
Some slot players break the mold. Allen may be the best route-runner in the game. And since he lacks the size or speed of his prototypical outside teammates, he makes sense in the slot and has become a consistent fantasy WR1 there. Godwin is incredibly competitive despite his smaller stature and combines that spirit with excellent hands and concentration to reliably catch passes in traffic in the middle of the field. Unicorn slot receivers are difficult to identify ahead of their breakouts. But Godwin provided one pattern to look for in his increase in slot percentage from 49% in 2018 to 82% in his Pro Bowl 2019 season.
Fantasy Sleepers for 2021: Elijah Moore
Moore looks like a speed slot receiver at just 5-foot-9 and 184 pounds and with a 4.35s 40 time from his Pro Day. But scouts rave about his competitive nature and toughness. He reminds me of Steve Smith in that respect, and he may have an easier path to immediate fantasy success with the Jets' apparent plan to play him from the slot with bigger receivers Corey Davis and Denzel Mims on the outside attracting their opponents' bigger press corners. Jamison Crowder could delay Moore's fantasy ascension since the former's quick-twitch skills make him an attractive slot choice as well. But Crowder may also be the reason that Moore is outside the top 60 at his position in ADP, a position that offers him incredible potential return on a low draft investment.