A couple days back I wrote an article talking about the rise of the slot receiver position over the course of the past decade, as seen through the lens of Pro Football Focus’ data set, which distinguishes the slot receiver from the outside receiver.
Their data shows the disparity in which the two positions are deployed, particularly with respect to the frequency and variety of routes and the relative discrepancies in their average depth of target. Not every slot receiver is capable of playing and excelling on the outside; likewise, not every outside wide receiver is able to transition into the slot.
But for many veteran wide receivers, the slot has become a sort of a safe haven for them as they age and their speed diminishes, yet their route crispness and positional awareness is still precise, perhaps even heightened, knowing intuitively where the open holes in the zone will be to sit down and snare a pass.
PFF mentioned in that article that the rise of the slot receiver role has helped to extend the careers and the effectiveness of certain aging wide receivers, naming in particular Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne and, perhaps especially, Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, whose prominence in the slot last year coincided with a marked improvement over his previous three seasons.
We also saw former Pittsburgh Steelers great Hines Ward continue to be effective for the team late into his career, particularly in his last two seasons, as he drew more and more snaps in the slot role as Antonio Brown began to come into his own; yet Brown has never been one to shy away from the slot, where his short-area quickness allows him to thrive.
In fact, Brown has been among the best players in terms of production out of the slot in the span of the past decade, in PFF’s data. He has produced the sixth-highest yards per route run out of the slot in the league over that span, averaging 2.34 per route in the slot.
Many of the names on that list are in actuality primarily outside receivers, which goes to show how extensively the role has become part of the norm in recent years. Heading the list is DeSean Jackson with 2.8 yards per route from the slot (with a minimum of 300 routes run), while Julio Jones, A.J. Green, and Calvin Johnson take up the next three spots.
The prominence of the slot position—including the mere fact that it typically accounts for more total routes run by wide receivers, and thus more opportunities—it stands to reason, could have a positive impact on the life and effectiveness of their careers.
Brown may have only just turned 28, and so there are a few years or more yet before anybody should start worrying about the twilight of his career, but given his skill set, and the fact that he has already proven to be effective and productive out of the slot, we might expect him to be able to hang around and make an impact for a good long while as he transitions to a player more apt to line up inside rather than outside.