While the development of the ‘slot receiver’ role has been one of the most compelling evolutions in the game of football over the course of the last couple of decades, the reality is that there is no one way to do it, no true prototype of the position.
It’s true that the inside receiver role has made it possible for players of a shorter and leaner stature who have great short-area quickness to become stars in the league, where it previously wasn’t really possible, or at least exceedingly difficult, on the outside.
But just like there are a number of different body types for those outside wide receiver positions, the same is true of the inside, as any fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers should know. You only have to take a quick look between Ryan Switzer and JuJu Smith-Schuster to figure that out.
While players like Switzer and Eli Rogers are pegged as ‘slot guys’, the reality is that that is where Smith-Schuster has primarily lined up over the course of his two-year career so far. In fact, I believe he is in the top five in terms of routes run, receptions, and receiving yards out of the slot over the past two years.
With Antonio Brown leaving this offseason, Smith-Schuster is expected to see more time on the outside more, but the slot position is going to be multi-faceted, as it has been whenever the Steelers have actually had a number of options to work with.
Wide receivers coach Darryl Drake talked about this a bit over the course of spring practices, as Jonathan Bombulie wrote for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently. Drake said of the slot role that it’s “an accumulation of where we want to put a guy, what we feel like a guy can do, whether a guy can get open off a linebacker or work off a nickel. With our offense, it’s so interchangeable”.
According to Pro Football Focus, Smith-Schuster led the team by far in snaps from the slot last season with 421. Switzer was second with 175, with Brown coming next at 139. Despite being active for just three games, Rogers saw 67 snaps in the slot. Even James Washington got 52 snaps, but he was targeted just six times, the lowest percentage of targets per slot snap on the team. Justin Hunter also had 11 snaps from the slot.
Smith-Schuster caught 63 passes for 814 yards and four touchdowns out of the slot in 2018. Brown caught 33 passes for 315 yards and five touchdowns (he was targeted over 31 percent of the time when in the slot). Switzer was next with 25 receptions for 204 yards. The rest combined for 15 receptions totaling 119 yards.