by Scott Kacsmar
When you look through Football Outsiders Almanac 2017 (available soon), you may notice some references to new data that we have not had in previous seasons. That includes information on where a receiver lined up on the field for his targets. This comes from the charting done by our friends at Sports Info Solutions. They have charted where the receiver lined up at the snap of the ball: out wide, in the slot, in the backfield, or a standard tight end position.
The meat of this data comes in distinguishing between effectiveness in the slot versus wide, especially for wide receivers. Most running backs will catch their passes out of the backfield, while many tight ends still line up in their traditional spot. We'll have a second article on Wednesday that looks at those positions, but today's focus is on the wide receivers and their quarterbacks.
When you only have one season of data to go on, it is hard to draw many conclusions with any certainty, so we're going to tread a bit lightly in that department while we start to get comfortable with this data. Is it more efficient to throw to the slot than out wide? We already know from catch rates that slot receivers catch a higher rate of passes, due largely to running shorter routes and being closer to the quarterback. But does it produce better offense? Here are the league-wide receiving numbers (including all positions) from 2016:
- Slot passes: 7,402 attempts, 7,598 DYAR, 2.1% DVOA (air yards per target: 9.3).
- Wide passes: 5,684 attempts, 5,006 DYAR, -1.0% DVOA (air yards per target: 12.5).
We can definitively say that most quarterbacks target slot receivers more often than receivers out wide, and do it with shorter throws. However, the efficiency is fairly close, with the slot being about three percentage points higher in DVOA. Is it always going to be that close? We'll just have to wait on the future data for that.
2016 Wide Receivers
We usually start with the quarterbacks when it comes to stats like this, but the wide receivers are up first since their roles are going to help us make more sense of the quarterback stats.
The following table shows the data for 94 wide receivers with at least 50 targets in 2016. Their DYAR, DVOA (with rankings), and number of targets are shown from both the slot and wide. We also looked at the ratio of wide targets to slot targets (W-S Ratio). Finally, the difference in DVOA from wide to slot is shown, and that is how the table is sorted.
Yes, this is a big-ass table, so we'll go through it in pieces.
First, 51 of the 94 receivers had more wide targets than slot targets. A total of 45 players had a higher DVOA out wide than in the slot, so a little less than half of the sample. No one was out wide more often than Detroit's Marvin Jones at a 10:1 ratio. Surprisingly, former slot guru Victor Cruz was right behind him; we'll have more on him soon. Dorial Green-Beckham had the third-highest ratio; he's now a free agent after the Eagles cut him.
The most committed slot receiver was Washington's Jamison Crowder, who had 94 targets in the slot compared to three wide. The other slot-heavy players should come as no surprise: Jeremy Kerley, Willie Snead, Eli Rogers, and Randall Cobb round out the top five. Sterling Shepard was sixth, as the rookie took over the slot job from Cruz. Shepard was respectable in the role, and should keep it while newcomer Brandon Marshall is likely to play outside more with the Giants.
Marshall will replace Cruz, who joined the Bears, where he is likely to return to a slot role. The Bears lost their big outside threat in Alshon Jeffery, but shouldn't expect Cruz to be able to replace much of that production. Cruz's eight slot targets produced an unseemly -83.4% DVOA last season, the worst in the league. That is why he had the biggest wide-to-slot DVOA difference (81.4%) last season, a struggle in his return from significant injuries. In Philadelphia, Jeffery should slip right in as a much better wide option than Green-Beckham.
New England rookie Malcolm Mitchell only had 11 slot targets, but had a league-best 130.5% DVOA on those plays. Since he was ranked 68th out wide (-12.3%), he had the most radical difference of anyone in DVOA (-142.8%). As usual, the Patriots have a flexible player to exploit where he is needed.
Perhaps the most interesting result came from the Chiefs. Jeremy Maclin and Tyreek Hill were both in the top 15 in DVOA out wide, but both were in the bottom 20 in the slot. With Alex Smith at quarterback, one might expect better results in the slot, but that wasn't the case with the Chiefs last year. Chris Conley and Albert Wilson also saw better DVOA out wide. In fact, the Chiefs' top four wideouts all ranked 76th or worse in slot DVOA, and all but Wilson ranked 17th or higher in wide DVOA. The Chiefs infamously cut Maclin in June, and will have to get creative to replace what was thought to be their No. 1 wideout going into 2017. Maclin played more in the slot than usual last season, and he may have to do so again in Baltimore given the playing styles of Breshad Perriman and Mike Wallace.
Miami was another team with an interesting split. Jarvis Landry is one of the few No. 1 wideouts in the league who does most of his damage from the slot, and he had 104 slot targets last season compared to 59 total from teammates DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills. However, Parker (63.1%) and Stills (10.4%) had better DVOA in the slot than Landry (3.5%). The opposite was true out wide, where Landry (9.8%) had higher DVOA than Parker (1.0%) and Stills (2.0%). It might benefit the Dolphins to change things up more in 2017 in the second year in Adam Gase's offense.
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There were 47 players who had at least 30 targets wide and 30 targets in the slot. Just looking at those 47 players, no one had a bigger DVOA gain out wide than Seattle's Jermaine Kearse (47.6%), who ranked next to last in the slot, but 60th wide. So that still wasn't good for the Seahawks, but at least Doug Baldwin is still producing, and Tyler Lockett should return from injury this year.
If we look at the receivers with more slot success, then Ted Ginn and Pierre Garcon stand out the most. Ideally, Ginn could have played the slot while Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess were out wide, but Funchess has been a massive disappointment so far. Garcon had the best slot DVOA (54.1%) of anyone with at least 30 slot targets. Garcon could be a much more effective slot receiver than Jeremy Kerley was for the 49ers. In his place, Terrelle Pryor will try to help out Kirk Cousins, but Pryor did solid work in the slot too (30th in DVOA) with Cleveland's ragged crew of 2016 passers.
Julio Jones was a monster in 2016. He was the only wideout to rank in the top five in DYAR in both the slot and out wide. When it comes to strictly slot production, T.Y. Hilton (348 DYAR), Julio Jones (252 DYAR), and Cole Beasley (242 DYAR) had the most value in 2016. Out wide, New Orleans' standout rookie Michael Thomas (275 DYAR), Davante Adams (261 DYAR), and Julio Jones (205 DYAR) were the top three. It sure helps to have an accurate, MVP-caliber quarterback there. Accuracy issues show up at the bottom of the DYAR list for wide passes: Allen Robinson (Blake Bortles), Ginn (Cam Newton), Tavon Austin and Brian Quick (Rams), and Robbie Anderson and Brandon Marshall (Jets) are the bottom six.
The next table shows the 2016 quarterbacks (the 34 qualified passers) with the same splits and stats that we showed for the wide receivers. A quick note on the DVOA ratings: This based on receiving DVOA for the wide receivers, rather than passing DVOA for the quarterbacks, so sacks aren't included and interceptions are not penalized any more than other incomplete passes.
Only six quarterbacks threw more wide passes than slot passes. Those quarterbacks don't have a lot in common, but some of the most dominant wide receivers are their go-to targets, and they primarily played outside. This would be Odell Beckham Jr. for Eli Manning, Antonio Brown for Ben Roethlisberger, and A.J. Green for Andy Dalton. Trevor Siemian had the third-highest ratio in Denver, because that passing game is almost primarily Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, usually out wide. We mentioned how often Marvin Jones lined up out wide for Matthew Stafford in Detroit, a passing offense that will need to replace Anquan Boldin's slot role.
Then there was Cleveland rookie Cody Kessler, who easily had the biggest ratio (1.68) of wide-to-slot passes, led by the now departed Terrelle Pryor. Kenny Britt could fill that void for the Browns this year, though he did also rank 10th in slot DVOA. Britt has always been an underrated receiver, but who knows what he's getting involved in with Cleveland's 2017 quarterback situation. The starter could be Kessler, it could be rookie DeShone Kizer, and it could even be -- gasp -- Brock Osweiler.
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The slot-preferred quarterbacks make a lot of sense when you see Andrew Luck, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Marcus Mariota, and Philip Rivers on the list. But the first name on that list is Colin Kaepernick, who threw often (and unsuccessfully) to receivers from the slot in Chip Kelly's offense last year. Yes, it is hard to find a 2016 stat where rookie Jared Goff wasn't dead last, but Kaepernick has him beat with the worst DYAR (-114) and worst DVOA (-22.5%) on slot passes. Kaepernick was also 33rd in wide DVOA (-21.4%), but don't worry, Goff still took that crown with an abysmal -50.8% DVOA.
In fact, Goff was so bad on wide targets that he had the largest difference in DVOA between slot and wide (-30.3%) despite being terrible in both categories. But the more interesting names on that list come after Goff, such as Brady (difference of -24.7%) and Mariota (difference of -26.3%). Mariota was third in DVOA in the slot, but just 29th out wide. The selection of Corey Davis (Western Michigan) with the No. 5 overall pick looks to be a way of Tennessee helping Mariota improve in this regard. For the Patriots, obviously the addition of Brandin Cooks from New Orleans can help out Brady. Cooks ranked No. 6 in wide DVOA, but still mostly worked from the slot. Drew Brees, who ranked No. 1 in wide DVOA (24.1%), likely won't miss Cooks that much. Brees still has Willie Snead in the slot, and the aforementioned Michael Thomas had the most wide DYAR as a rookie.
Brees and Aaron Rodgers may be the most accurate passers in the game, so it is no surprise to see them take the top two spots for wide passes in DVOA and DYAR. Likewise, underwhelming rookie performances on bad offenses placed Goff and Carson Wentz, the top two picks in the 2016 draft, at the bottom in wide DYAR. Wentz got Alshon Jeffery, and Goff is getting a new offensive-minded coach in Sean McVay.
Ben Roethlisberger was No. 2 in slot DVOA (16.6%), but only 17th out wide (2.2%). The return of Martavis Bryant should help balance that out more, assuming Bryant can still be the player he has had the potential to be.
MVP Matt Ryan dominated with his receivers in the slot, racking up the most DYAR (789) and highest DVOA (31.2%) on slot passes. He was still excellent out wide too, ranked sixth in DYAR (282) and fourth in DVOA (14.6%). The only other quarterbacks to rank in the top 10 in DVOA in both wide and slot were Andrew Luck (No. 5 slot, No. 6 wide) and Aaron Rodgers (No. 8 slot, No. 2 wide).
Earlier we mentioned the odd wide/slot splits for Kansas City's wideouts. Naturally, Alex Smith (16.2%) had the second-highest difference in DVOA when throwing wide passes, behind only the similarly-skilled Siemian in Denver (18.0%). Denver's lack of a third receiving weapon saw Sanders and Thomas still take on most of the slot targets, but they were just not as successful with Siemian as they were lined up out wide. Siemian also struggled throwing to Jordan Norwood, producing minus-53 DYAR on 24 slot targets.
On Wednesday, we'll take a look at which running backs and tight ends lined up in the slot the most, then on Thursday we'll look at defensive performance against slot passes compared to receivers lined up wide.
(Note: For those who are curious about motion, charting is based on position after any motion. The exception came if the player was in "jet" motion. That was charted as the spot they originated from, which was usually in the slot.)