Fantasy Football: How Does Using a Wide Receiver in the Slot Affect Production?
I’ve never understood the draw of Las Vegas.
This isn't meant to offend Las Vegans, and I actually am interested in some of the retro 1950’s Americana aesthetic that I’ve seen featured in travel shows set in the American West. No, I simply just have never been interested in gambling, and that -- aside from marriages performed by Elvis impersonators -- appears to be Vegas’ primary industry.
I’d gladly take a few raucous rounds of Apples to Apples over Texas Hold ’em, some Risk instead of roulette, and even Catan in lieu of craps. Frankly, even slot machines bother me because I could lose some serious pocket change.
A lot of people fear a different kind of slot machine that they have to deal with in fantasy football: the slot wide receiver position.
Slot receivers get a bad rap when we’re discussing the fantasy impact of pass-catchers, and -- with the recent hullabaloo over Philadelphia Eagles wideout Jordan Matthews -- it’s clear that people are worried the slot will waste players’ talents.
How does playing in the slot affect wide receiver fantasy production?
The use of three or more wide receiver sets in the NFL has grown to epic proportions in the last few years as the league has shifted more and more to a passing-heavy focus.
Per Pro Football Focus, 37 wide receivers ran at least 150 routes out of the slot last year, and there were 20,081 individual routes run from this position on the field by wide receivers (36.83 percent of all wide receiver routes). With the number of NFL passing plays last year totaling 19,486, the average passing play in 2015 featured an average of slightly more than one slot wide receiver, and just under three routes run by wide receivers on those plays (2.80).
The slot wide receiver isn’t a tricky little gadget in the NFL, and definitely isn’t in fantasy football.
The table below shows the number of wide receivers in fantasy football who scored in the top-100 among offensive fantasy players in 2015, both in non-PPR scoring and PPR formats. It also shows the number of receivers among that group who ran at least 33 percent of their routes from the slot and 50 percent from the slot.
Consider that, in a standard 12-team, start-three wide receiver format, the 34 non-PPR to 40 PPR top-100 overall wide receivers are a nice fit to the starting requirements. The table shows us that just over 20 percent of top-100 overall fantasy wide receivers run a majority of their routes out of the slot, which means a slot receiver accounts for nearly one startable wide receiver slot on each fantasy team in the league.
Even for players we wouldn’t classify as “slot receivers”, they still play in the slot at points and earn plenty of value from it. 32.30 percent of non-PPR points earned by top-100 wide receivers resulted from routes run from the slot; this amount was 33.14 percent of scoring in PPR formats.
Slot receivers have changed the NFL game, but also become valuable assets in fantasy football. It's crucial to understand slot usage to properly assess fantasy value for wide receivers in this day and age, when a third of our players’ points come from usage at this spot.
So, what is the difference between an outside wide receiver versus the slot from a fantasy standpoint?
On the surface, there’s not a ton of difference between the two. Matthews, for example, ran 92.70 percent of his routes from the slot in 2015, and he stands 6’3”, 212 pounds. On the other hand, Randall Cobb checks in at 5’10”, 192 pounds, and he ran 86.32 percent of his routes from the slot. A slot receiver comes in all shapes and sizes.
To truly identify the difference in profiles between these players, we have to dig into the data. The table below shows the 2015 averages of slot routes versus outside routes, in terms of Target Rate on routes (Targ%), Catch Rate (Catch%), Drop Rate (Drop%), Yards per Route Run (YPRR), and Touchdown Rate (TD%).
Let’s begin with the similarities: there was only a marginal difference between the slot and outside wide receiver positions last year in both Target Rate and Drop Rate. It appears that these two categories are affected less by the position on the field and its responsibilities than the skill of the wide receiver or quarterback themselves.
It is worth noting, though, that only six wide receivers -- Jarvis Landry, Larry Fitzgerald, Cobb, Matthews, Anquan Boldin, and Doug Baldwin -- led their team in targets as the primary wide receiver while also running more than 50 percent of their routes in the slot. “Target hog” number-one wide receivers are more likely to come from the outside than the slot.
The average from the slot receiver has a significantly better Catch Rate and marginally better Touchdown Rate. I want to ignore the Touchdown Rate for the most part, as even the difference between the two at the ridiculously high level of Landry’s 156 targets is about one touchdown if targets are split evenly; at lesser target volume, it becomes negligible.
Catch Rate is compelling, however, because we hear all the time that short crossing routes are “higher-percentage routes”, meaning they innately have a better chance of being completed. This study from Grantland in 2013 helps illustrate this, showing that throws attempted within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage -- often the area the slot receiver operates in -- are completed overwhelmingly more commonly. This means that there is a much better chance of a receiver capitalizing on the targets they are offered just by the sheer nature of playing closer to the line; they don’t always need to soak up 150 or more targets a year to be effective.
The other primary difference shown by the data is that the average Yards Per Route Run is greater for outside routes than slot routes. Routes on the outside generate just over 11 percent more yardage than slot routes -- again, due to the slot receiver playing closer to the line. Even at greater route volume, though, that difference isn’t very substantial. If a receiver ran 600 routes in 2015 at the average Yards per Route Run rates, 20 percent in the slot and 80 percent outside, he would have totaled 923 yards receiving. Flip those percentages, though, and he would have earned 865 yards in 2015. In fantasy scoring, that’s a difference of just 5.8 points.
The Philadelphia Kid
So, what does this mean for those fantasy players panicked about Matthews being “condemned” to the slot for the Eagles? If we assume the average rates for him, it hardly would make a difference for his value in standard leagues, and the added average Catch Rate in the slot actually might help in PPR. Still, it’s hard to assume the average, when Matthews was so much better as a slot receiver.
The table below shows his production in the receiving rates in the slot.
Now, Matthews ran just 42 routes outside, being targeted six times. Despite the excruciatingly small sample for the outside position, Matthews still was significantly better in every rate from the slot position (excepting Drop Rate). The higher slot Target Rate suggests that he was able to get separation more often inside, and the significantly better Yards per Route Run implies that he was able to do more after the catch in the slot.
The slot isn’t significantly damaging to receivers, and in the case of Matthews it actually might elevate him. Be glad the Eagles are reducing their risk and keeping him where he works best.