Nickel is the new base when it comes to the NFL, and teams spend far more time now in sub-packages than they do in their regular ‘base’ defense. Players that occupy the slot, on offense and defense, are de-facto starters that can see upward of 700 snaps on the right team, even without seeing the field on early downs or certain packages.
They may not be quite the every-down contributors some of their teammates are, but they have become a huge part of the game, and some of the more important players to success given the potential matchups that can occur.
So here is a look at the 10 best slot weapons in today’s NFL, across both sides of the ball.
1. Tyrann Mathieu, CB, Arizona Cardinals
Tyrann Mathieu was having a Defensive Player of the Year kind of season before injury struck and robbed him of the final games of the season, as well as robbed Arizona of the best slot weapon in football for the playoffs. Safety or corner, Mathieu spends the majority of his time (70.6 percent of his coverage snaps) in the slot and was PFF’s highest-graded cover corner in the league last year. He has the ability to match up with smaller, shifty receivers but also bigger, more powerful TEs and excel against either. He is the defensive version of the matchup problem players that offenses have been exploiting for years to get favorable matchups in the slot, and he may be the first player to tilt the balance the other direction.
2. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots
Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in the game – by a distance – and is also one of the league’s best slot weapons. For a while now elite receiving TEs have been deployed in the slot to cause havoc in defenses that don’t have players that can adequately match up with them. They are too big for defensive backs and too athletic and polished as receivers for linebackers. Gronkowski is the height of that philosophy, and has gained more than 2.0 yards per route run from the slot in each of the past three seasons. Only 6 TEs have topped that mark in any of those three seasons, and Gronkowski is the only one to do it twice, let alone three years running.
3. Chris Harris Jr., CB, Denver Broncos
Chris Harris Jr is the spiritual successor to Antoine Winfield when it comes to slot-covering cornerbacks that are prepared if not eager to do the dirty work and set the tone by delivering big hits against the run and stuffing the screen game to their side of the field. Harris is an elite cover guy, but relishes the opportunity to kill the short passes for easy yards that have become such a staple of today’s offenses. He allowed a passer rating of just 43.4 when covering the slot in 2015, more than 10 points lower than any other slot corner.
4. Doug Baldwin, WR, Seattle Seahawks
Doug Baldwin showed last season the kind of production slot receivers can put up, beyond simply catch volume. Despite playing 80 percent of his snaps as a slot receiver, he notched 14 touchdowns, which tied for best in the NFL among all receivers. He caught 78.8 percent of the passes thrown his way, dropping just two passes all season, and was more than just a short-gain receiver, averaging 13.7 yards per reception. Baldwin has quietly become one of the league’s best receivers, but we just don’t admit it because he is dismissed as “just a slot WR.”
5. Jarvis Landry, WR, Miami Dolphins
Slot receivers in today’s NFL are often employed outside too. Jarvis Landry has become one of the league’s best slot weapons, but lines up outside on nearly a third of his snaps, and played 891 total snaps over the season. He is one of the slot receivers that starts games and plays snaps on base downs as well before kicking inside to the slot in sub-packages. Landry is a missed tackle machine from the slot, forcing 28 missed tackles last season as a receiver, and another 12 on his gimmick carries, the most among receivers.
6. Malcolm Jenkins, S, Philadelphia Eagles
There aren’t many safeties that can do a good job of covering the slot in today’s NFL. Several are deployed that way as a response to the Gronkowski-type TEs that teams have to try and match up with, but few can execute it with any kind of success. Jenkins in Philadelphia has been different. In 2015, only Chris Harris surrendered a lower amount of yardage per coverage snap from the slot, with Jenkins topping all other cornerbacks let alone safeties.
7. Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs
There aren’t many receiving weapons better than Kelce after the catch. Over the past two seasons he has averaged 7.5 yards per reception after the catch, the best mark in the league among TEs, and has broken 33 tackles over that time span. He doesn’t have the imposing strength and power that somebody like Gronk does, but he has elusiveness and speed after the catch that most teams aren’t used to dealing with from a player of his size, and has been a real weapon for the Chiefs despite their conservative passing offense.
8. Randall Cobb, WR, Green Bay Packers
The entire Green Bay offense was in a funk last season when Jordy Nelson went down and Aaron Rodgers lost confidence in everything, but go back just a year and you see Cobb at his best – one of the league’s most destructive slot weapons. In 2014, Cobb scored four more touchdowns from the slot than any other receiver and gained significantly more yards per route run from the slot than any other wide out. He remains a real matchup problem for defenses and if Aaron Rodgers is back to his best in 2016 we should see that.
(PFF Fantasy Insight: One of our fantasy analysts thinks Cobb might not be a sure thing to return to form in 2016. See where Cobb and the rest of the fantasy options fall in our current fantasy rankings.)
9. Julian Edelman, WR, New England Patriots
The impact of Julian Edelman on the New England offense last season was profound. Despite Tom Brady losing weapons regularly, it wasn’t until Edelman went down that the quarterback’s play began to suffer. Without Edelman last season, Brady’s completion percentage dropped 1.5 percent, his average per completion fell by 1.4 yards, his passer rating fell by 11.4 points, and he threw 14 touchdowns to five interceptions compared to the 27 he threw against the same five turnovers with Edelman in the lineup.
10. Greg Olsen, TE, Carolina Panthers
The Panthers didn’t have a whole lot to smile about at receiver last season, but the one exception to that was Greg Olsen, who like most elite receiving TEs today plays a significant amount of his snaps in the slot. Including the playoffs, Olsen lined up in the slot on 36 percent of his snaps and was split out wide on another 13 percent. He actually saw more targets in the slot than he did as an in-line TE, despite playing fewer snaps there. Olsen was the Panthers’ unquestioned No. 1 receiver last season and did a lot of his best work as a slot weapon, proving to be a tough matchup regardless of the fact he was the primary focus of the defense in coverage.