2021 Slot vs Wide: Pitts, Patterson, and other Weird Falcons
NFL Preseason Week 1 - Most targets to players split wide go to wide receivers—the hint is somewhat in the name. But what do you do when your wide receivers aren't actually any good? If you're the Atlanta Falcons, you turn to Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Pitts and call it a day.
Our annual look at slot/wide splits in the passing game continues as we hand things over to the running backs and tight ends of the league. Targets in the slot can legitimately go to nearly anyone, and while wide receivers still get the lion's share of slot value, there are a significant number of tight ends and running backs who made an impact outside their listed position. In 2021, 76.1% of targets to the slot went to wide receivers, with 20.7% going to tight ends and 3.2% going to running backs (and one more going to Kyler Murray). There is certainly a hazy line between where slot receivers end and pass-catching tight ends begin, with players such as Travis Kelce putting up more value out of the slot than players such as Keenan Allen. Pass-catchers occupy a continuum in the NFL, and the dividing line between a receiver who occasionally lines up wide and a receiver who occasionally lines up tight can be thin at times.
Except for Kyle Pitts, who is a freaking wide receiver.
Slot/tight targets made up 9.4% of running back targets in 2021, about the same as in the past few years. But in 2019, those targets had a combined DVOA of 11.0%. In 2020, those targets had a combined DVOA of 9.3%. In 2021, that DVOA fell to -1.7%. That's a surprising drop-off, and it's worth digging into it a little before we get to the overall numbers.
No single running back gets enough targets in the slot to tank numbers all by himself, but there were seven running backs with -15 DYAR or worse out of the slot last season—Michael Carter, Myles Gaskin, Mike Davis, Darrell Henderson, D'Andre Swift, Sony Michel, and Devin Singletary. There was just one such player in 2020 (Alex Ingold), but there were six in 2019, so that not all of it. It's more the bulk of negative targets getting in the way. In 2021, 53.9% of slot/tight targets to running backs went to players with a negative receiving DVOA, compared to 47.2% in 2020 and 49.3% in 2019. And you can go further—in 2021, 43.4% of those targets went to players with a double-digit negative DVOA, compared to 34.4% in 2020 and 34.9% in 2019. Or you could run it the other way—just 41.9% of these targets went to players with double-digit positive DVOA in 2021, compared to 50.2% in 2020 and 48.7% in 2019.
So more targets went to players who were not as successful last season, and that, in turn, brought numbers down significantly around the league. I do not think this is some fundamental change in the value of receiving targets. Instead, I think it's just the random fluctuations that happen to every team every season mostly pointing one way out of pure chance—the Rams never adequately replacing Malcolm Brown, Chase Edmonds getting banged up in Arizona, the Vikings experimenting with C.J. Ham as a replacement for Irv Smith. We'll keep an eye on this in the future to make sure nothing fundamentally has changed, but I do suspect it's a weird one-year blip more than anything else.
Only six of the 57 qualified backs from 2021 had more than one-third of their total targets on slot/wide plays, and only Patterson and Nyheim Hines would have made the 25-target threshold on their slot and wide targets alone. Darrel Williams was second in receiving DYAR among running backs last season, but he didn't receive a single target outside of the backfield. James Conner and Brandon Bolden were third and fourth; they each received only four targets out of the backfield. Not all backs can handle a receiver-type role, and not all offenses have room for a running back split out there thanks to depth at the wideout position.
|Slot vs. Wide, Running Backs, 2021|
And then there's Cordarrelle Patterson, with 49 targets in the slot or split wide. Patterson's history as a wide receiver makes him significantly more effective when used as a wideout than most other players. It's no surprise that he ended up with double the amount of split targets as almost any other running back in the league.
It is surprising, however, Patterson didn't set records, either in usage or value. Last season, the Football Team used J.D. McKissic split out on 51 targets in only 16 games. And both 2017 Alvin Kamara and 2016 David Johnson generated more DYAR than Patterson did when out of the backfield. But we have never seen a "running back" used in the passing game quite like Patterson, with 71.0% of his targets coming from traditional wideout positions. The previous record (since we started gathering this data in 2016) was 50.7% by Tarik Cohen in 2018. Only nine other running backs have ever even topped 40.0%: Cohen, Cohen again, D.J. Foster, Travaris Cadet, J.D. McKissic, Nyheim Hines, Kyle Juszczyk, Juszczyk again, and Juszczyk a third time. Patterson blew them all out of the water.
Shouldn't that mean that we grade Patterson as a receiver, not a running back? No, not really; Patterson had 153 rushes compared to 69 pass targets; he was a rusher first and foremost. Should we group him with Deebo Samuel as a wideback? Well, no; Samuel only had five receiving targets out of the backfield compared to Patterson's 20. Patterson just doesn't fit in a box, partially because of his wide receiver background, and partially because Atlanta's receiving corps last season was not exactly upper-echelon competitive, especially after Calvin Ridley left the team. Every team not named the Atlanta Falcons saw at least 70% of their slot or wide targets go to wide receivers, with the low-water teams being those with big slot tight ends such as Miami, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Kansas City. Atlanta saw just 59.7% of their slot/wide targets go to wide receivers, because of Patterson and … well, we'll get to him in a second.
First, though, let's switch from volume to efficiency.
|Slot/Tight Efficiency, Running Backs, 2021|
|Minimum five slot/tight targets|
Demetric Felton! That's not a name I expected to write about. The sixth-round running back/receiver hybrid spent the bulk of his rookie season on special teams in 2021. But he did make the most of his opportunities, catching 11 of his 12 targets out of the slot for 133 yards, two touchdowns, and five first downs. It's not like it all came in one or two games due to injuries, either; Felton's 12 targets came in eight different games from three different quarterbacks. Felton had the lowest BackCAST last season, but the second-highest RecIndex among the rookie class; he's more of a gadget player than an actual running back. His five biggest receptions out of the slot came on three screens, one very short whip route, and a broken play, so it's not like he was doing a wideout's job. But there was something there, and it would be interesting to see Felton work on a larger sample size going forward. That will be hard to get with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt in front of him, and a 133.3% DVOA is not something that's going to survive a larger sample size, but Felton flashed some dynamic ability with the ball in his hands as a rookie.
Someone who did not flash dynamism was Michael Carter on the Jets. It's hard to put up -23 DYAR in the slot as a running back, because if you're doing that badly, teams stop giving you targets. Carter only had six targets from the slot; he caught three of them for a total of 9 yards, which is simply not going to work. Carter was fine as a rusher, but remedial at best as a pass-catcher; it's no surprise that the Jets went out and grabbed Breece Hall, who had 82 receptions for 734 yards at Iowa State.
|Wide Efficiency, Running Backs, 2021|
|Minimum five wide targets|
Here's where Patterson really shined. His 70 DYAR split out wide is in the top 25 for all players, although it's not quite an apples-to-apples comparison as different positions use different baselines. Patterson was basically an average wide receiver when split wide last season, which is better than most of the Falcons actual wideouts could boast; he was a more effective pass-catcher split wide than Calvin Ridley was, at the very least. There's talk that Patterson might be used even more as a receiver this year, with Tyler Allgeier getting more of the load in the backfield. I feel that would be a mistake; we have seen what Patterson looks like as a full-time wideout, and it's underwhelming. A significant chunk of Patterson's value comes from defenses not being able to easily match up from a personnel standpoint, and shoehorning him into a receiver role most of the time takes that away from him. Keep doing strange things, Atlanta.
And speaking of strange things, Austin Ekeler putting up a -74.7% DVOA on wide targets is not something I would have expected. Ekeler's seven targets resulted in three completions for 25 yards, but also a pick-six on a quick out that Ekeler dropped into the hands of Patrick Surtain. Ekeler had a down year as a receiver, putting up a -35.7% DVOA when out of the backfield compared to 27.1% in 2020. Ekeler had a career-high workload as a rusher, which may have something to do with his reduced efficiency as a receiver; Ekeler himself has called for his own touches to be limited, which is unusual for a running back. We'll see if someone like Isaiah Spiller can step up, taking some of the workload off of Ekeler, and let him focus on catching passes more.
There are tight ends who are pretty much pure tight ends, constantly lining up next to offensive tackles and rarely, if ever, wandering out of a tight alignment—think Rob Gronkowski or Noah Fant, both of whom had over 60% of their targets come from tight alignments, and end up in-line on over 70% of snaps when you take into account running plays. These are traditional tight ends.
There are tight ends who are pretty much big slot receivers who, on occasion, line up inside. Think Mark Andrews or Travis Kelce, both of whom had more than 65% of their targets coming out of the slot. They both end up lined up as traditional tight ends about a third of the time, but on any given play, they're more likely just to be one of the bulkier slot receivers in the league. This is a perfectly normal variant of tight end, one that has become more and more prevalent over the past 20 years.
And then there is Kyle Pitts who, again, is a wide receiver.
|Slot vs. Wide, Tight Ends, 2021|
Note that not all of these numbers add up to 100%; there were 93 targets to tight ends who were lined up in the backfield, led by the seven of Cole Kmet. The line between tight end, fullback, and H-back is sometimes a blurry one.
But the line between tight end and wide receiver shouldn't be blurry, and yet, there is Kyle Pitts. His 82.5% of targets coming from non-tight positions is strange on its own, but not unique; Mike Gesicki actually had more targets away from the line than Pitts did. But a tight end having over 20% of their targets come when they're lined up wide? That's worth stopping to stare at. Pitts had more wide targets than players such as Chris Godwin, Mecole Hardman, Cooper Kupp, Christian Kirk, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Jakobi Meyers—and, while we're at it, teammate Olamide Zaccheaus. We're perfectly happy calling all of them wide receivers even though they live in the slot.
Pitts is not the first tight end in our database to have a season like this. In 2017, Jimmy Graham ended up with 26 wide targets, or a 27.0% target rate—and he presumably had several more such seasons in New Orleans before our data begins. And Graham is a perfect example of why this matters—remember, his time in New Orleans ended in part because of a conflict between Graham and the Saints on whether he should receive the franchise tag as a tight end or a wide receiver. Arbiters at the time ruled that Graham was, indeed, a tight end, even though he spent about two-thirds of his snaps in the slot or out wide. Pitts was used the same way last year, with 67.8% of his snaps coming lined up in the slot or out wide. The "Pitts is a wide receiver" crack is a bit of hyperbole; I'd like to see Kupp or Godwin spend 200 snaps lined up in-line. But Pitts' usage out wide puts him in a different class of player than your Andrews or Kelces. And that matters from a financial perspective, if nothing else—the franchise tag value for a tight end this season was $10.9 million while the value for a wide receiver was $18.4 million. Worth another shot at the arbiter's table, if it came to that.
Between Pitts and Patterson, no team used fewer wide receivers split wide than the Falcons. Ridley led the way with 31 wide snaps before departing, but Patterson and Pitts were second and third. When Ridley left, Pitts' wide usage skyrocketed—20 of his 25 wide targets came after Week 7. Will the arrival of Drake London and Bryan Edwards allow Pitts to work more out of the slot? Or will the arrival of Anthony Firkser push Pitts even further from tight positions? There are a lot of moving parts in Atlanta, is what we're saying, but maybe we can get a hint if we look at efficiencies.
|Slot Efficiency, Tight Ends, 2021|
|Minimum 35 slot targets|
Mark Andrews may have beaten him to the overall tight end DYAR crown, but Travis Kelce remains the top tight end out of the slot. Kelce's 198 slot DYAR was ninth most in the league last season, and the arrow is trending upwards for him with Tyreek Hill's departure. Kelce has shown just the tiniest cracks of age if you peer deep into the numbers; he'll turn 33 in October. Only one tight end 33 or older has gained 1,000 receiving yards in a season—Pete Retzlaff in 1965, which is protohistory in terms of development of the tight end as its own pass-catching position. I'd put a fair amount of money on Kelce being the second.
Zach Ertz had a -44.3% DVOA in the slot in Philadelphia (13 targets) and a -21.4% DVOA in the slot in Arizona (49 targets). He is definitely closer to the end of his career than the beginning, and I'm not sure about his potentially expanded role in Arizona post-Christian Kirk, but he is better than he looked in his final year and a half with the Eagles.
|Wide Efficiency, Tight Ends, 2021|
|Minimum five wide targets.|
Pitts' 75 wide DYAR is not the highest we have seen for a tight end; Jordan Reed had 86 for Washington in 2016. It's close, though, and considering Pitts was drawing top coverage from Atlanta's defenders and Reed had the likes of Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson to open up space for him, I'd give a subjective nod to Pitts there. Pitts' usage out wide is pretty much a 50/50 split between deep go routes and short-to-intermediate slants, with the latter being more effective (40 DYAR to 29). Considering that neither Marcus Mariota nor Desmond Ridder is known for having a cannon for an arm, working Pitts more over the slot and letting him body shorter cornerbacks may be the way to go.
Jonnu Smith was one of the bigger busts of 2021. When you sign a player to a four-year, $50-million contract, you're expecting a little more than 294 receiving yards and some mediocre blocking. His last-place finish here, though, is a little misleading. Smith had -29 DYAR for one play: a fumble on a tunnel screen against Miami in Week 1 on a play that wasn't going to pick up a first down anyway. When you have a sample size of six, these things happen.