2021 Slot vs. Wide: Yet Another Record for Cooper Kupp
NFL Offseason - Thanks to Sports Info Solutions' charting, we can break receiving DVOA and DYAR down into slot-versus-wide splits. Much of this data appears in Football Outsiders Almanac 2022 (now available!), and we're going to spend the next couple of weeks breaking down these splits, starting today with wide receivers. And yes, that means more Cooper Kupp and Ja'Marr Chase love, because when you're coming off seasons like they had, you end up at the top of nearly every table you qualify for.
But before we get to the specifics, we should cover the generalities.
Throwing to the slot continues to be more effective than throwing out wide on a per-play basis. In 2021, receivers working either tight or out of the slot had a 2.7% DVOA, while receivers split out wide were at -3.7%. The gap actually widens if you look at just wide receivers, from 4.1% to -4.2%. Getting a talented wideout lined up against a third or fourth corner is usually an advantage for the offense, and working out of the middle of the field also gives them more potential options for route running. Add in the ever-increasing amount of nickel defense opening space in the middle of the field, and it appears lining up in the slot is a small but persistent benefit for receivers. It's not a huge gap, and the size varies from year to year, but it's consistently there.
Last season, 56.3% of all receiver targets went to wideouts in the slot, and 26 teams saw over half their passes go to slot receivers. Those numbers are both slightly down from last year, but it's still the predominant strategy for using wideouts. Every team saw at least 46% of their receiver targets go to the slot except for the Pittsburgh Steelers, which makes a little bit of sense when your top target out of the slot is Ray-Ray McCloud; more on him in a bit. But nearly every team with any degree of competency at wideout was finding ways to get targets to their guys inside.
But when the entire league zigs, someone has to zag. In 2020, we didn't have a single wide receiver with at least 80% of their targets split out wide. Well, wide receivers came back in 2021, with DeVante Parker, A.J. Green, and Diontae Johnson essentially living outside. Fourteen different wideouts saw twice as many targets outside as inside, including some of the larger names in the sport. Who Dey? Well, you'll just have to wait and see.
The following table shows wide receiver target and performance splits in the slot and out wide in 2021. Those charting labels come from players' locations on the field regardless of the positioning of their teammates. A receiver 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 have 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 225 targets to wide receivers lined up tight, with Amon-Ra St. Brown and Cooper Kupp the only ones to hit double digits.
|Wide Receivers Slot vs. Wide, 2021|
|Amon-Ra St. Brown||DET||92||132||5.8%||19||51||20.9%||82.9%||-15.1%|
The team that targeted wide receivers the most frequently in the slot, once again, was the Los Angeles Rams. In 2020, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods had the second- and third-most slot targets in the league. The workload was more spread out in 2021, but Kupp, Woods, and Van Jefferson all spent more time in the slot than otherwise. We'll get to Kupp specifically in a moment, but I want to focus on the team level for just a moment here. Just like they have done every year during Sean McVay's tenure, the Rams lined up in skinny formations and branched outwards. The addition of Matthew Stafford at quarterback meant that they also branched downfield more than they had with Jared Goff—the average depth of target to a Rams receiver in the slot jumped from 7.9 to 11.5 yards last season—but the basic philosophy remained intact: Use narrow formations, line all your receivers in tight, and then take advantage of the space on the field opened up by the defense narrowing itself in response. L.A. did this slightly less last season, ranking 28th in formation width after ranking 32nd in McVay's first four seasons, but this is still a fairly fundamental aspect of most playcallers in the McVay/Shanahan mold.
"Most" is a very important word in that sentence, because the team with the least frequent targets to receivers in the slot was … well, it was the Steelers, but not far behind them were the Cincinnati Bengals, led by McVay protégé Zac Taylor. The Bengals buck the traditional McVay strategies and split themselves wide, with both Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins in the top 10 in wide targets last season. Again, we'll get to Chase specifically in a moment, but it's striking just how different two coaches from the same tree lined up, even with both using essentially the same personnel groupings. But the Rams' three receivers tend to line up in bunches or trips; the Bengals were more traditional with each side featuring a wideout out wide.
The Rams have averaged the most condensed average formation width in every season under Sean McVay, except for 2021 where they ranked 5th.
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) February 8, 2022
Which is better? Well, we said that targets to the slot were more efficient than targets out wide, and the Rams did win the Super Bowl, so that's a feather in their cap. Of course, the Rams lined up wider in the Super Bowl than they had all season long, but that hurts the nice little narrative we have here. If only there was some kind of record that we could get distracted with.
In 2020, the leader in slot DYAR was Cole Beasley with 308. Beasley fell to -1 DYAR last season, but not even his 2020 numbers would have topped the table in 2021. Justin Jefferson would have beat him with 373 DYAR working out of the slot in a very good season for the wideout from Minnesota…
Oh, and then there's Cooper Kupp, with 560 DYAR out of the slot. We only have data going back to 2016 here, and there was a 17th game last season, but the previous record was Tyreek Hill's 357 slot DYAR in 2018. Jefferson topped that with help from the expanded schedule. Kupp took the record, chewed it up, and spat it back out again. We'll get more into the specifics when we talk about routes in a few weeks, but Kupp had over 100 DYAR on both posts and deep crosses out of the slot; the rest of the wide receivers in the league combined had one player with 100 slot DYAR on a specific route working from the inside (Deebo Samuel on digs). We're running out of ways to say that Kupp was fantastic last season.
We're also running out ways to point out that Kupp's volume is what turned a very good season into one of the best seasons we have ever seen. Kupp was "only" fifth in DVOA for receivers who spent more than half their time in the slot; Bryan Edwards led the way in Las Vegas. Jefferson, who also surpassed Hill's slot DYAR record, had a 46.1% DVOA to Kupp's 32.8%. But being 30.0% above average on 150 targets is leaps and bounds more valuable than being 45.0% above average on 80 targets. A year after the struggles of the Rams' offense limited Kupp to just 72 DYAR on 111 targets, he set records. Performing at that level two years in a row is likely impossible, but Kupp has been near the top of the slot charts whenever the Rams offense has worked; he'll be hanging out here again next season, surely.
At the very, very bottom of the list you'll find Ray-Ray McCloud. We mentioned the Steelers threw the lowest percentage of passes to the slot, and that's in large part because they thought McCloud was their best option inside. Not only did he have the lowest DVOA out of the slot at -44.1%, but he did it on a healthy 60 targets. The resulting -150 DYAR also sets a record, beating out 2018 Jarvis Landry's -134 for the least DYAR out of the slot we have ever seen. McCloud is a return man who probably should never see the field as a receiver; we doubt even the YAC+ machine in San Francisco will produce any value from the gadget player in 2021. Sticking any of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, or Chase Claypool in the slot would have likely had better results for Pittsburgh last season, but Smith-Schuster was hurt and McCloud may still have been a better option than James Washington was. I think most Pittsburgh fans will be happy that the team is off of McCloud in the slot in 2022.
Wide Open Spaces
Ja'Marr Chase didn't quite set the record for most DYAR out wide last season, but he did nearly lap the field with a 98-DYAR advantage over DeAndre Hopkins in second place. It's not that Chase was any worse when lined up inside, but his strengths—his explosion on vertical routes, his ability to jump up and corral passes, his awareness of the sideline—all make him a prototypical boundary receiver. Even Sean McVay likely would call a few wider sets if he had someone like Chase to work with.
And don't let Chase outshadow Tee Higgins, who was third out wide with 148 DYAR of his own. Chase and Higgins had 174 of Cincinnati's 191 targets to receivers split wide, with 412 of their league-leading 399 DYAR. Ex-Bengals star A.J. Green bounced back from a nightmarish 2020 to give the Cardinals two players in the top 10 along with Hopkins, but they played a clear second fiddle to Chase and Higgins last season.
The relative lack of full-time players split wide means that guys such as Robert Woods and Davante Adams, despite spending at least 60% of their time in the slot, can still appear in the top 10 in DYAR here. It also helps when the leader in wide targets, Diontae Johnson, put up a negative DVOA; that will open up a slot or two for slot guys making cameos out wide.
Green's jump from -126 DYAR to 125 DYAR gives some hope to players at the very bottom of tables. This year, the rear is occupied by Robby Anderson and his -125 DYAR. When we did our interviews with SBNation, the Panthers writers asked if Anderson was really that bad. Playing with Sam Darnold does hurt, and that explains some of Anderson's dropoff, but he was at 3 DYAR out wide in 2020. The Panthers' offense has some deeper structural problems to solve.
Odds and Ends
Your most successful balanced receiver of 2021 is probably Davante Adams, one of only two players with a least 70 targets both wide and in the slot. He managed at least 130 DYAR in both splits too, putting him a step ahead of Justin Jefferson and his 25 DYAR on 89 targets out wide. Jefferson should have been used more in the slot; Adams was successful wherever he lined up, and the Packers were more than willing to move him around as needed. The Raiders' equivalents of Adams, in terms of receivers who lined up both inside and outside, were Bryan Edwards and Zay Jones. So, an upgrade, then.
Both Edwards and Jefferson were players significantly better out of the slot than out wide, each seeing their DVOA jump by more than 50.0% when lined up inside; only Marquez Valdes-Scantling had a larger gap in favor of slot. That is odd, because normally the biggest gaps between slot and wide DVOA come from someone with a tiny sample size in a split; something like Ray-Ray McCloud being useless out wide. Instead, it's a trio of versatile receivers atop a list suggesting they should be a little less versatile, with none having a larger gap than Valdes-Scantling's 82.3%. Valdes-Scantling lost 45 DYAR on go routes lined up wide. He was much more effective when he got to turn at some point, putting up big DYAR on deep corners and posts. Put him in the middle of the field and give him space on both sides to work with; it has produced better results in each of the last two seasons.