In the ancient NFL (my childhood), there were only two wide receivers on the field at any time, a “split end” and a “flanker” (X and Z receivers in today’s terminology, respectively). When the American Football League was created in 1960, the original Los Angeles Chargers, with head coach Sid Gillman and offensive assistant Al Davis, looked for ways to get more players involved in the passing game on any play and confuse defenses. This eventually led Davis, who became head coach of the Oakland Raiders in 1963, to invent the idea of the slot formation, with two receivers on the same side of the field, the inside one in the “slot” between the split end and offensive line, plus a running back all running pass routes.
Over the years these ideas were passed down and expanded upon by Don Coryell, John Madden, and eventually Bill Walsh, and the idea of having three receivers on the field at once became popular, two wideouts and a slot receiver. That third receiver was always viewed, though, as low man on the totem pole - a small, quick, but not necessarily fast player who would find seams in coverage underneath. The prototype for the slot receiver in the modern NFL is 5-foot-9 Wes Welker, who was a great receiver for the almost unbeatable 2007 New England Patriots but was always viewed in a different light from his bigger, faster, more dangerous wideout teammate Randy Moss.
That implicit bias persists among football fans today. We see it in the discussion about the Giants’ never-ending search for an elite receiving corps to fully exploit the potential of Daniel Jones. In the 2022 NFL Draft fans excitedly awaited the Giants’ No. 36 pick, which... was traded to the Jets for No. 38, which... was traded to Atlanta for No. 43. Finally, “With the 43rd pick, the New York Giants select...” 5-8 wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson? With 6-3 George Pickens still on the board?
Robinson showed considerable potential before his season-ending ACL injury, but many fans still lament the Giants passing on Pickens, mainly because of his height and one OBJ-esque catch in a prime time game. Now, in 2023, with the Giants still needing a WR1, many fans want that big elite “X” receiver once and for all. A talented smaller receiver is often dismissed as being “just a slot receiver,” and therefore unworthy of a high draft pick.
What is a slot receiver in today’s NFL?
Slot receivers now aren’t what they used to be. It’s been that way for some time, yet many fans haven’t really paid attention to it. Consider the beloved 2007 New York Giants. While the Patriots were driving defenses crazy with little Wes Welker in the slot, what were the Giants doing at the slot receiver position? Here are their receiving stats divided into slot, wideout, and in-line, from Pro Football Focus:
The Giants’ mainstay in the slot was 6-3 Amani Toomer, their all-time leading receiver, who had a bit more than half his snaps there. Second in slot snaps was 6-5 tight end Jeremy Shockey, and third was 6-5 Plaxico Burress, an X receiver if there ever was one.
By the time of their second Manning-era Super Bowl season, here were the breakdowns:
The Giants’ slot man that season was primarily Victor Cruz, a bit more like the prototype slot receiver at “only” 6-1 but still not short and with the speed of a Z receiver. That Giants team did have two classic X (Hakeem Nicks) and Z (Mario Manningham) receivers who rarely played from the slot.
The thing is, in today’s NFL anyone can be a slot receiver, small, large, or in-between, as Robert Mays of The Athletic points out. Cooper Kupp, maybe the best receiver in the NFL, is a 6-2 slot receiver. And anyone can be a wideout, either X or Z. The Miami Dolphins tore up opposing defenses in 2022 with 5-10 Tyreek Hill (54 percent) and 5’-10 Jaylen Waddle (74 percent) getting the majority of the snaps at wideout. And the role a player has in college does not predict the role he is going to play in the pros. The Mays article, written last year, noted that 6-4 Drake London, the eighth pick in the 2022 draft, played about two-thirds of his snaps at USC in the slot. But then he got to Atlanta and Arthur Smith played him 78 percent of the time as a wideout.
Meanwhile, in addition to Isaiah Hodgins, the Giants already have a stud X receiver. It’s just that he is a tight end who often doesn’t line up as a tight end. Here are the 2022 PFF stats for the Giants’ TEs (+1):
New Giant Darren Waller actually played 62 percent of his snaps last season from the slot. He also played 20 percent of his snaps out wide. Only 17 percent of his snaps were in-line, the traditional location for a tight end. That 62 percent is twice as much as in previous seasons, perhaps the result of the switch to a Josh McDaniels offense. The other Giants tight ends also played a decent amount in the slot.
That’s just the way good NFL offense is right now - diversity in use of personnel. With Mike Kafka and Brian Daboll dialing up plays for the Giants, is there any reason not to expect the unexpected in 2023? “Slot receiver,” “X receiver,” “Z receiver” - you never know what role a particular player is going to have on a given play. The 2022 Giants did have a more traditional usage pattern, with Robinson and Richie James playing mostly in the slot and Hodgins, Kenny Golladay, and David Sills playing mostly as wideouts. But that doesn’t mean 2023 is going to be the same.
Finding a WR1 in the draft
This matters because the Giants look like they may be a true WR1 away from having a pretty dangerous receiving corps. I suspect that by a wide margin fans would like it to be a big “X-type” receiver. But that may or may not be possible. Most of the tall wide receivers in this draft are of Day 2 or Day 3 caliber. The one traditional “X” receiver (by size and by where he lined up, but not necessarily by his play style) who is expected to go in Round 1 is Quentin Johnston, but he is likely to be gone by the time the Giants are up at pick No. 25.
So what does Joe Schoen do? Wait until Round 2 or 3 for one of the bigs and select a cornerback or center in Round 1? Or select the best wide receiver available at No. 25, size be damned? Below is a chart showing the percentage of snaps played by the top 15 WR prospects from the slot as a function of their height (-1 = 5-11, +1 = 6-1, etc.) using information from the 2023 PFF NFL Draft Guide:
There is a general negative correlation between size and slot percentage, as expected. But there are a couple of surprises too. The 6-1 Jaxon Smith-Njigba, also likely to be gone at No. 25, played most of his snaps in the slot (his 2022 season was very limited by injury, but his 2021 was similar).
On the other hand, 5-10 Zay Flowers, who is situated on most big boards near or just below where the Giants pick, only played one-third of his snaps from the slot. He doesn’t look like a wideout. But he plays like one. Chris Pflum calls him “a starting slot receiver with additional versatility” though he only has a Day 2 grade on him. Tyler Scott, another Day 2 prospect, is only 5-11 but almost never played in the slot in three years.
So what to do, Giants fans? Pass on wide receiver and go cornerback or center at No. 25? Trade down and pick Flowers or one of the taller wide receivers in Round 2 or 3? Whatever Schoen actually does, it’s worth remembering that a prospect who is “just a slot receiver” may be just what the doctor ordered for the Giants’ offense as long as he can get open and catch balls.