2018 Slot vs. Wide: Running Backs and Tight Ends
by Scott Spratt
Running backs and tight ends were party to the slot target revolution that both wide receivers and quarterbacks experienced in 2018, though the former's 9.9 percent and 42.3 percent slot target rates were more modest increases from recent seasons. And although running backs sacrifice a few percentage points of catch rate and a couple of yards per play after the catch by moving from the backfield to the slot, they more than make up for that with a 3- to 4-yard advantage in average target depth. That has added up to tremendous efficiency from the slot, to the tune of 15.3%, 4.0%, and 7.8% DVOA the last three seasons. Running backs consistently do their best receiving work from the slot, but not every back enjoys splits that mirror that overall trend.
The backfield, in-line, slot, and out wide designations cited in this analysis are courtesy the charting efforts of Sports Info Solutions.
A healthy total of targets was not a clear indicator of where a back was positioned for them in 2018. Saquon Barkley did not see any of his 122 targets from the slot. In contrast, Tarik Cohen, Nyheim Hines, and Todd Gurley each saw more than 20 percent of their targets there. James White, Cohen, and Jalen Richard had more than 10 percent of their targets out wide. But Ezekiel Elliott had just one.
|Slot vs. Wide, Running Backs, 2018|
|Minimum 25 total targets.|
The greater consistency is on the other end of the spectrum, where five running backs turned in 100 percent backfield target rates on at least 25 targets. And if the names Latavius Murray, Marlon Mack, Adrian Peterson, Leonard Fournette, and Corey Clement don't evoke a picture of a certain kind of back in your mind, then their proximity to the target cutoff should. Traditional power backs don't spend a lot of time in the slot and certainly don't spend a lot of time out wide. But don't take that as a criticism. Versatility may be the coveted skill of modern football, but those five backs combined to produce 115 DYAR and an average DVOA of 1.7% on their backfield targets. Creative coaches like Frank Reich and Matt Nagy play to the strengths of their power backs such as Mack and Jordan Howard and rely on different backs in Hines and Cohen with different skill sets to spread the field.
|Slot/Tight Efficiency, Running Backs, 2018|
|Minimum 7 slot/tight targets.|
Hines and Cohen were arguably the two best slot receivers at the position in 2018, finishing second and fourth with 51.9% and 35.3% DVOA, respectively, and doing so on about twice as many targets as the No. 1 and No. 3 slot efficiency backs, Kyle Juszczyk and David Johnson. The fullback Juszczyk seems something of a square peg in a round hole as Kyle Shanahan's featured slot target, but Jerick McKinnon's injury necessitated some role expansion, and Juszcyzk and Matt Breida answered with excellent efficiency on both their slot and wide targets. Breida even led the position with a 22.6 percent wide target rate. Free-agent addition Tevin Coleman should be the centerpiece of those efforts for the 49ers in 2019. He has been the position's most efficient slot receiver, accumulating 128 DYAR on 17 slot targets over the last three years. He put up otherworldly totals of 74 DYAR and 243.9% DVOA on seven slot targets in Shanahan's final season as the Falcons' offensive coordinator in 2016.
Johnson's traditional numbers were down across the board in his return from a dislocated wrist that cost him nearly all of the previous season. In fact, he and Theo Riddick were the only two of 17 total backs with 60 or more targets who finished below -10.0% DVOA, and Riddick was subsequently released by the Lions. But Johnson's productivity from the slot suggests that his poor overall efficiencies were failings of the Cardinals' poor blocking and quarterback play. With space to work with, Johnson thrived with a 38.3% DVOA on 11 slot targets. Johnson eclipsed a 35.0% DVOA from both the slot and out wide in his breakout 2016 season while leading the position with 28 slot and 18 wide targets. New head coach Kliff Kingsbury can make life easier on rookie quarterback Kyler Murray if he is willing to treat Johnson more like a receiver.
Like Johnson, Christian McCaffrey, James White, and Todd Gurley have reputations as some of the game's best receiving running backs. But interestingly, all three players fared markedly better from the backfield in 2018 (with 18.8%, 20.5%, and 12.7% DVOA on 100, 96, and 53 respective targets) than from the slot (-15.8%, -53.3%, and -24.6% DVOA on 19, 10, and 23 respective targets). Sample size could be a factor, but McCaffrey has had similar splits each of the last two seasons and White each of the last three. The Panthers at least seem to believe the numbers. They cut McCaffrey's slot target rate from 23.0 percent in his rookie season to 15.3 percent last year. Gurley, meanwhile, had just three slot targets in both 2016 and 2017 before he jumped to 23 in 2018. Effectiveness may not be the only factor the Rams consider for Gurley's 2019 workload changes, but it will be interesting to see if his 2018 spike ends up an anomaly.
|Wide Efficiency, Running Backs, 2018|
|Minimum 7 wide targets.|
Without further context, Kenyan Drake looks like the gold medalist of running backs out wide, but his 117.4% DVOA there is carried by a lateral play that Patriots fans are sure to remember.
If you exclude his walk-off touchdown, Drake produced a solid 37.3% DVOA on six targets out wide. Coupled with his efficiency on a handful of targets in 2017, he looks like a decent bet to continue his productive play away from the backfield. He may even earn some extra plays out there in 2019 as the Dolphins work in sophomore back Kalen Ballage in traditional looks.
Whatever you make of Drake's true talent, Alvin Kamara deserves the highest praise for his work as a receiver. Over the last two seasons, Kamara has 133 DYAR on 42 slot targets and 96 DYAR on 19 wide targets. You can reasonably consider him one of the game's best wide receivers whenever the Saints choose to use him that way.
Hines and Cohen were two of just seven backs to see seven or more wide targets in 2018, but neither fared as well there as they did from the slot. Hines also struggled with -12.6% DVOA from the backfield on a healthy 51 targets there. In contrast, Cohen was the only back to reach 30.0% DVOA from both the backfield and from the slot. His inefficiency out wide was likely a fluke of small sample size.
By and large, tight ends enjoyed greater role diversity than running backs last season. Seventeen tight ends saw at least half of their targets from the slot, and 10 saw at least a tenth of their targets out wide.
|Slot vs. Wide, Tight Ends, 2018|
|Minimum 25 total targets.|
If numbers don't add to 100 percent, that's because of targets from the backfield.
The tight ends most often considered oversized receivers tended to see their targets more from the slot than out wide. Antonio Gates, Eric Ebron, Ricky Seals-Jones, Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, and Jordan Reed were the six tight ends with a slot target rate of more than 60 percent. Kelce in particular thrived there, with 19.2% DVOA on 99 targets.
Despite a big spike in his slot target rate, Ertz has been more efficient in-line each of the last three seasons. In 2018, his 23.5% DVOA there was sixth-best. The Ravens' Mark Andrews and the Buccaneers' O.J. Howard set the pace with the same 51.7% DVOA and can expect to see a lot more targets there next year with another year of NFL experience for the former and hopefully better health for the latter.
|Wide Efficiency, Tight Ends, 2018|
|Minimum 7 wide targets.|
Teams used their tight ends out wide sparingly in 2018, and the uniform inefficiency of the eight tight ends that did see seven or more targets there suggests that was a good decision. But tight ends aren't negative contributors out wide every year. In 2016, Eric Ebron (16.5% DVOA on 10 targets), Jordan Reed (78.8% DVOA on 13 targets), and Travis Kelce (54.8% DVOA on 16 targets) had positive DVOA. In 2017, Ebron (55.1% DVOA on 9 targets), Jared Cook (16.8% DVOA on 12 targets), and Rob Gronkowski (43.5% DVOA on 16 targets) did.
Gronkowki bookended his excellent 2017 efficiency with negative DVOA rates out wide in 2016 and 2018, but he fell short of 10 targets there each season. Across all of his targets, Gronkowski has experienced the slow decline from 44.5% DVOA in 2016 to 40.4% in 2017 to 13.3% last year that you would expect. He seems to have picked the perfect time to retire.
Reed has declined markedly both out wide and overall on his targets; like Gronkowksi, he can point to declining health as the biggest culprit. Ebron has actually been exceptional in all three seasons of Sports Info Solutions' data, but the Colts gave him just four targets out wide in 2018, fewer than half the totals of 10 and nine he had with the Lions the prior two years. Cook has been close to average on 40 wide targets over the last three seasons, which is excellent for the position, but his plus 2017 efficiency looks like an outlier.