2019 Slot vs Wide: Wide Receivers
Every year since 2016, we've been able to break down receiving DVOA into slot-versus-wide splits, thanks to Sports Info Solutions' charting. Much of this data appears in Football Outsiders Almanac 2020 (available now!), and we're going to spend the next several weeks breaking down these splits, as has become yearly tradition around these parts.
With four years of data, there's a clear trend making itself clear -- throwing to the slot is notably more effective than throwing out wide. This year, all passes thrown to players charted as lining up out wide had a DVOA of -3.7%, while passes thrown to players lining up either in the slot or tight on the line had a DVOA of 3.4%. Limit that to only wide receivers, and the difference becomes even more prominent -- -3.3% to 4.1%, with a raw DYAR lead of 7,396 to 3,103 for the slot targets.
Slot targets have been more efficient than wide targets in each of the four years we've been able to do this study, although the size of the gap has varied; it was as low as 3.1% in 2016. This year's 7.1% gap is the biggest we've seen so far, though I would wager that that is mostly due to year-to-year variation rather than anything real and replicable going forward. But while the size of the gap has fluctuated, its presence has remained a constant. This makes a certain amount of sense -- lining up in the slot gives receivers more room to go either inside or outside, and often ends up with them lined up against a third corner or safety rather than one of the defense's top cover guys.
Offenses have picked up on this. In 2019, 56.9% of receiver targets went to players lined up in the slot, up from 51.8% in 2016. It's fairly universal, too, rather than one or two outlier teams pumping up the numbers. Eighteen teams saw more than 55% of their wideout targets go to players in the slot, and only three (Tampa Bay, Dallas, and Carolina) ended with more passes out wide than to their slot receivers. If anything, the DVOA gap suggests that teams should be throwing to the slot more until opposing defenses are able to clamp down on that extra efficiency.
But enough with the generalities; it's time to look at the players receiving those targets. The following table shows wide receiver target and performance splits in the slot and out wide in 2019. 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've 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 169 targets to receivers lined up tight, led by Chris Godwin's eight.
The table includes all receivers who qualified for our main receiving leaderboards, even though two of them (Adam Thielen and DaeSean Hamilton) fell under the 50-target qualifying mark when looking solely at slot/wide targets.
Wide Receivers Slot vs. Wide, 2019
Any discussion of the best receiving corps in the NFL has to start in Tampa Bay, as the Buccaneers boasted two of the top six DYAR finishers last season in Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. Each receiver has a pretty clear set of responsibilities, with Evans earning three-quarters of his targets when split out wide and Godwin getting more than 80% of his targets in the slot. That's business as usual for Evans, who has seen a larger and larger proportion of his targets out wide each year we've run this data. But Godwin wasn't a slot specialist in 2018; he was split fairly evenly between wide and slot targets two years ago. Adam Humphries was the Buccaneers' slot specialist then, but the job opened up when Humphries went to Tennessee. It's fairly safe to say that Godwin thrived in his new role, though the splits are interesting:
Evans and Godwin, Slot/Tight vs. Wide, 2018-2019
|Player||Season||Slot%||Slot Tgt||Slot DVOA||Wide Tgt||Wide DVOA|
It's interesting that Evans and Godwin both technically had a higher DVOA in the other's role, and that Breshad Perriman also had reverse splits (significantly more work out wide, significantly better DVOA in the slot). But all but one of Bruce Arians' qualified receivers in Arizona in 2016 and 2017 had better DVOA out of the slot; that is, to a certain extent, a basic tenet of his offense. In Pittsburgh, he put Hines Ward in the slot and let Santonio Holmes go vertical. In Indianapolis and Arizona, he moved existing top receivers (Reggie Wayne and Larry Fitzgerald) into the slot, to great results in each situation. From that history, and just looking at the 2018 numbers, there was some talk early on that Arians would make Evans into his new Fitzgerald, as he loves moving his best receivers around the field with plenty of interior action. But no, Arians was all in on Godwin from the beginning, saying that he was going to catch 100 balls and never come off the field. Most people -- us included! -- scoffed, but Godwin was on pace for 98.3 receptions had he played all 16 games. So, yeah, maybe Arians knows a thing or two about receivers in the slot.
We only have the last two years of Arians' run in Arizona charted, so take this with appropriately sized grains of salt, but the highest wide DVOA for any of Cardinals receivers in 2016 or 2017 was 4.5%, by J.J. Nelson. Evans and Godwin both blow that out of the water. At least some of that can be attributed to Jameis Winston being a better quarterback than the lingering ghost of Carson Palmer or the Blaine Gabbert/Drew Stanton Experience, of course. Even with that, it remains interesting that Godwin pipped Evans to the line in wide DVOA, but I think most of that can be chalked up to Jameis Winston's deep ball accuracy, or lack thereof -- Winston ranked 21st in accuracy on deep shots according to the Deep Ball Project. The average depth of target on passes to Evans was 15.9 yards while Godwin's aDOT was 8.1; you can't pick up DYAR if the pass is 20 feet over your head. This won't be an issue with Tom Brady under center, as I'm not entirely sure Brady can still throw the ball 20 yards downfield. We'll talk more about what the potential Brady-to-Godwin hookup will look like when we get to the quarterback version of this article.
Godwin was joined by two other players in having more than twice as many slot targets as wide targets with a slot DVOA over 30%. It's a somewhat arbitrary set of criteria, I grant you, but it's a set of criteria that no receiver hit from 2016 to 2018. We had a couple people come close in 2018 -- Cooper Kupp was at 25.9% DVOA, while Chris Hogan was one slot target away from qualifying -- but no one actually put up such a high level of performance as a slot specialist until this season.
The first was Tyler Lockett. Lockett excelling in the slot is nothing new; he had a 54.8% DVOA in 2018 working out of the slot in his breakout year. What is new is his focus in the slot position. In 2018, Lockett was used in the slot only 57.9% of the time and had a significantly higher DVOA when split out wide (82.4%). But 2019 saw his wide targets cut by more than half -- Doug Baldwin's retirement opened up the primary role inside, with DK Metcalf and his less refined route tree making more sense gobbling up targets out wide. Lockett wasn't as efficient last season as he was two years ago, but considering he was shattering efficiency records then and saw his workload increase by half and lost out on having Baldwin drawing coverage away from him, that was never going to be in the cards. Lockett, Godwin, and Michael Thomas became the third, fourth, and fifth players to top 300 slot DYAR in a season. At gunpoint, I think I'd take Godwin as the league's best slot receiver, but Lockett now has two years under his belt to Godwin's one and had the higher DYAR and DVOA, so, you know, your mileage may vary.
The third player didn't even hit 200 DYAR out of the slot as he didn't really start coming on until the second half of the season: rookie Deebo Samuel. Samuel had 170 of his 191 slot DYAR from Week 9 on, leading the league over the second half of the season by a significant margin (Keenan Allen was second with 144 DYAR; Lockett and Godwin had 120 and 108, respectively). He had a 49.6% DVOA out of the slot over the second half of the season, exploding onto the scene as the 49ers made their playoff run. It will be very interesting to see if he comes close to that level of production over his sophomore season, with three major strikes against him -- he's recovering from a Jones fracture which may cost him part of the season; the 49ers lost Emmanuel Sanders, whose arrival corresponds with Samuel's boost in production; and in the first round San Francisco drafted Brandon Aiyuk, who also is a slot receiver who fits well into Kyle Shanahan's scheme. Someone needs to play out wide, presumably, but I'm not sure even San Francisco knows who that will be at this point. Still, that's a very promising start for the rookie out of South Carolina.
More than twice as many receivers were primarily slot receivers than had the majority of targets out wide, but there were still a couple receivers who excelled in a more traditional role.
The Cowboys were one of the three teams who threw wide more than to the slot, and one of the major reasons was Amari Cooper, who has been a more natural fit for Dallas than he was in Oakland. Remember, too, that Cooper was hampered by knee and ankle injuries over the last seven weeks of the season; Cooper had 215 DYAR and a 41.1% DVOA out wide over the first ten weeks. You can understand why the Cowboys would be eager to lock Cooper up to a long-term extension, if not so much why they weren't excited to lock the other half of that passing combo up to a similar deal. With the franchise tag already used on Dak Prescott and more than 70% of Dallas' wide passing DYAR at any position going through Cooper, Jerry Jones almost had to write Cooper a blank check, which is why he is now the second-highest-paid receiver in football.
The other player of note to top 200 DYAR out wide -- excluding Michael Thomas, who, again, was good at everything -- was Calvin Ridley, which is interesting. Somewhat like Lockett, Ridley's move to a more exclusive role is a change from 2018; he had 48 targets wide two years ago compared to 46 targets from the slot. But his DVOA splits two years ago showed him being better outside, and new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter split Ridley out wide far more often than Steve Sarkisian had the year before -- itself at least in part a knock-on effect from increasing Julio Jones' slot targets, though Jones was still targeted as a wideout more often than as a slot receiver in 2019. It's difficult for an offense to really support two high-usage outside receivers, at least according to the numbers we've gotten over the past four years. The departures of Austin Hooper, Mohamed Sanu, and Devonta Freeman leave some slot targets open for Atlanta, but do you move Ridley more inside after his great performance out wide in 2019? Do you move Jones more inside despite having a lower DVOA on slot targets than Ridley last season? There are some interesting decisions to be made in Atlanta, though having two wideouts excel at the same skill sets is far from the worst problem to have.
Odds and Ends
Another week, another receiving stat where Michael Thomas nearly laps the field -- 333 DYAR in the slot; 216 DYAR split wide. At some point, that stops being fair. Of course, some of that is due to his massive target share, but that massive target share is a result of massive amounts of value. Finishing third on both sides of the ledger is basically insane. Only Mike Evans and DeVante Parker joined Thomas in having even 140 DYAR in both splits; topping 200 is insane.
Adam Thielen has now put up better DVOA and DYAR totals in the slot than out wide in each of the last two seasons. That makes adding Justin Jefferson to the Vikings' offense interesting, as he's coming from an offense where he was mostly used out of the slot himself. The Vikings don't really have a natural replacement for Stefon Diggs out wide; Thielen's 20 targets were second-most on the team behind Diggs' 60. After him would come Bisi Johnson, who wasn't particularly effective on his 16 wide targets last season. In fact, the runner-up in wide DYAR behind Diggs last season for Minnesota was Laquon Treadwell, with 42 DYAR on six targets. Minnesota has a bit of work to do to figure this one out.
Most of the biggest gaps between slot and wide DVOA come from players with small sample sizes in one or the other categories -- Randall Cobb and Hunter Renfrow not catching their one wide target is not particularly indicative of their skill levels. The biggest gap for someone with at least 25 targets in both splits belonged to A.J. Brown, whose slot DVOA was 40.5% higher than his wide DVOA despite being targeted more when split out wide. That gap is almost exclusively present in his time with Ryan Tannehill; Brown hovered around a 0.0% DVOA regardless of lineup position under Marcus Mariota. Plenty of pre-draft talk had Brown pegged as a slot standout at the next level, but the Titans were happy to use Adam Humphries and Corey Davis there more often than not. I don't believe Tennessee is particularly upset with Brown's rookie performance, but finding ways to get him matched up inside going forward might make him even more dangerous.