Big people beat up little people.
It’s one of the core tenets of NFL team building and, while the league has consistently found homes in which its more diminutive athletes can thrive, it’s a place where size does matter.
In the endless contest between offense and defense, those tasked with slowing down the increasingly spread out opposing attacks have in recent years turned to defensive back-heavy personnel packages to try to combat the explosive passing games that dominate the NFL landscape in 2022.
That the nickel defense has essentially become the base defense in the NFL is not breaking news. Last season, defenses on average used at least five defensive backs on 53.8% of snaps. Six teams used five or more on over 60% of snaps.
The response to defenses deploying smaller slot defenders on the majority of snaps? Size. And the game’s evolution in recent years has given birth to a role referred to by some as the ‘power slot.’ In other words, teams are deploying physically imposing receivers who have the athleticism and frame to dominate matchups with nickel defenders.
More and more teams are capitalizing on the mismatches power slots can create, and the importance of having big receivers who can operate successfully on the inside has only increased as several defenses have responded by moving their top corner inside. Jalen Ramsey of the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams being the most high-profile example of such an adjustment.
But which pass catchers have performed the best when deployed in the power slot in recent years? We’re turning to the metrics to answer that question.
Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Quietly one of the most dominant receivers of the modern era, Evans has an extremely strong case for being considered the league’s premier power slot.
Evans was exceptional from the slot in 2019. He registered a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup on a play in which he’s targeted, on 84.0% of targets, the most of all pass catchers with at least 25 slot targets. And 55.0% of his targets from the slot went for a big play – again the highest ratio in the league.
His ability to create separation from the slot dropped off a little in 2020, though he still had a burn rate of 75.0% and a big play rate of 43.4%. However, he once again led the NFL in 2021 with a burn rate of 84.4%, and was third in the league with 13.76 burn yards per target and sixth among slots with a big play rate of 42.0%.
Frustratingly for opposing defenses, the Bucs have another excellent power slot they can call on when they decide to deploy Evans in his outside receiver role.
Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Godwin hasn’t quite reached the heights of his teammate when playing from the slot, but his consistency in that role is still extremely impressive.
He was ninth in big-play rate from the slot in 2019, delivering a 20-yard burn or burn for a touchdown on 36.9% of slot targets.
In 2020, only Kansas City Chiefs wideout Sammy Watkins (80.0% on 25 targets) had a better burn rate from the slot than Godwin’s 77.6, which came on a larger sample size of 49 targets.
Just 10 receivers were targeted more often from the slot than Godwin in 2021 (Tom Brady threw to him 79 times when he was lined up inside). Though Godwin’s burn rate dipped to 69.6%, it was still good enough for eighth among all slot receivers.
The success of Godwin and Evans illustrates how both are mismatch nightmares for defenses regardless of where they line up.
Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs
Kelce played more snaps from the slot (412) than he did as an in-line tight end (368) in 2021.
While the man most regard as the league’s premier tight end was more effective at creating separation from his traditional position – Kelce’s burn rate from the tight end position was 79.1% – he still ranked third in the NFL in that same metric from the slot (74.4%).
That marked a minor dip from his 75.0% rate in 2020 when he delivered a big play on 45.3% of his slot targets. Kelce trailed only Evans with a burn rate of 82.6% a season earlier in 2019, though that came on 46 targets compared to 78 in 2021.
Kelce has racked up 19 touchdown burns from the slot over the last three seasons, going from four in 2019 to seven in 2020 and eight last season. By contrast, he had nine from the tight end position in the same period.
George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers has the edge as a blocker, but there’s no better route-running tight end in the NFL than Kelce. On last season’s evidence, the Chiefs appear to have decided the best place for him to harness his combination of size and route-running ability is in the slot.
Following the departure of Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins, there may be an even greater onus on him to maximize his impact from multiple spots in 2022.
Allen Lazard, Green Bay Packers
The Packers’ receiving corps looks significantly weakened in the wake of Davante Adams’ departure to the Las Vegas Raiders. However, as long as Aaron Rodgers has receivers he can trust, Green Bay’s passing offense can still be one of the league’s elite.
Of those on the Packers’ receiving depth chart, there will be nobody he trusts more than Lazard, who is an underrated threat from the slot.
Last season, Evans was the sole receiver with a better burn rate from the slot as Lazard won his matchup with a defender on 75.0% of targets. He was superior to Evans in big play rate, though, producing one on 43.0% of slot targets with six touchdown burns.
That was a substantial jump from his production in the latter regard in 2020, when Lazard delivered a big play on just 24.2% of targets from the slot. Yet the fact he was fourth with a burn rate of 76.9% and fifth with 13.03 burn yards per target two seasons ago speaks to Lazard being one of the best in the NFL at defeating coverage when lined up inside.
With his target share from Rodgers likely to go up unless the Packers do something drastic at receiver before the start of the season, Lazard’s prowess in this area may gain significantly more attention in 2022.
Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders
Waller did not lead the league in burn percentage in 2021, but arguably no player did more with the separation they created from the slot than the explosive Raiders tight end.
Waller was first in burn yards per target (15.48), winning his matchup on 21 of his 30 slot targets. Only new teammate Davante Adams (4.1), San Francisco 49ers wideout Deebo Samuel (4.1) and NFL Offensive Player of the Year Cooper Kupp (4.0) of the Los Angeles Rams averaged more burn yards per route.
Fourteen of Waller’s targets resulted in a big play as his ratio of 46.2% was the best of all slot pass catchers last season.
Due to Hunter Renfrow’s presence as one of the league’s premier route runners from the slot, Waller may not see an increase in his usage at the position.
However, with the downfield upside he can deliver from any spot, the snaps he does see in that role in 2022 could play a substantial part in the Raiders’ hopes of emerging from a loaded AFC West.
Banner graphic by Briggs Clinard.