Cosell Talks: The Slot Factor

From the Desk of Greg Cosell, Greg Cosell, Inside the Game

Keshawn Martin. DeQuan Menzie. Jarius Wright. Brandon Boykin. Devon Wylie.

These are five names you do not hear every day as we approach the 2012 NFL Draft. Three slot receivers (Martin, Wright and Wylie) and two slot corners (Menzie and Boykin). It’s always tricky to predict where players will be selected, but it’s a fair assumption that none of the five will come off the board before the third round.

Still, these five players call attention to a larger issue that I’ve been thinking about for quite awhile. We all know the NFL has evolved into a passing league, with three-wide receiver personnel (and occasionally four-wide) on the field the majority of the time. I don’t know the specific numbers, but based on my extensive NFL film study, I believe that a fair estimate would be 55-60 percent of the plays league-wide.

Keshawn Martin (AP)

It’s simple math. The third receiver, most often the slot receiver, plays statistically significant snaps. The defensive corollary is that the slot corner plays a relatively equal number of snaps. My point: Both positions are critical in the NFL game, yet they do not seem to be valued very much in the draft. How does that make sense?

As the NFL game has transitioned over the years, the four priority positions have become quarterback (obviously at the top of the list), left tackle, pass rusher (DE in a 4-3, OLB in a 3-4) and cornerback. They are the most valued, and teams predominantly draft accordingly. That’s been the gospel for quite some time.

Let’s take it a step further. Three-wide receiver personnel has become a base offensive set for many teams, used on first-and-10 almost as much as on third-and-3. We’ve all known the importance of Wes Welker since he joined the New England Patriots in 2007 and led the NFL with 112 catches. And he’s averaged 111 catches in the four seasons since. In each campaign, Welker has been utilized almost exclusively as a slot receiver. How about New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz this past season? More than 75 percent of his receptions — and yards — came from the slot.

Jarius Wright (AP)

This is where Martin (Michigan State), Wright (Arkansas) and Wylie (Fresno State) enter the conversation. All three had extensive slot experience in college. Each brings a different set of traits to the NFL, but each will be an effective slot receiver. That means they will likely be on the field 35-plus snaps a game, yet I am nearly certain none of the three will be selected in the first two rounds. Wright might be the exception, since he is the most vertically explosive of the bunch.

Keep in mind teams also run three-wide groups in normal down and distance situations as a regular feature of their offense. What burden does that place on the defense, as it specifically relates to the slot corner? It means he has three responsibilities: cover man (the most apparent), blitzer and run defender (not talked about enough). Those are three distinct skill sets, but they are all required of a slot corner.

Devon Wylie (AP)

Think about that for a minute. It’s not a filler position, simply employed because the offense lined up with three wide receivers. It’s a well-defined position that is essential to NFL defense, and it demands a specific set of attributes. Look at the Philadelphia Eagles last season. They had three very good NFL corners: Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. All three are perimeter corners. The Eagles believed they could put Rodgers-Cromartie and/or Asomugha in the slot, solely because they were athletically talented players. It doesn’t work that way, so things didn’t play out as the Eagles expected. Neither Rodgers-Cromartie nor Asomugha possessed the combination of traits necessary to play effectively in the slot, and it proved to be a primary contributing factor to the Eagles’ struggles in 2011. As the Eagles now know, a slot corner is a key component to defensive success.

Based on my film study, Alabama’s Menzie is the best slot corner in this draft. He played outside in the base defense and moved inside in sub-packages. He was physical in the run game, he was utilized as a blitzer, and he played both press and off coverage versus slot receivers. I have heard some say, due to his limitations as an outside corner, that he best transitions to the NFL as a safety. I can see that, especially with the proliferation of hybrid tight ends. Menzie would likely be effective as a cover safety with his corner experience. That’s a projection. What we do know is he’s an outstanding slot corner. Leave him there. He will play the majority of the snaps at a position that’s difficult to find.

Brandon Boykin (AP)

Boykin, from Georgia, is not as big as Menzie, but he’s a more naturally explosive athlete. He too played in the slot and also exhibited the three traits necessary to do it well. As with most positions, you can make an argument that you can find a good player later in the draft, or even one who isn’t drafted. Denver Broncos CB Chris Harris was an undrafted free agent out of Kansas a year ago. He became the team’s slot corner as the 2011 season progressed and flourished at the position.

It’s always easy to talk abstractly about the value of certain positions in the NFL, and by extension, in the draft. We have been programmed to believe that a few spots are more important to winning than others. That’s fine. My point is not to refute that argument. It’s simply to point out that in today’s NFL, slot corner is an important position. How teams value it is their call. All I know is that when you don’t have a good one, it’s a problem.

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