2021 NFL Draft: Ja’Marr Chase and the joys of the slant route

Doug Farrar
·4 min read

On its surface, there are few more elementary route concepts in football than the slant. There are different iterations, of course, but it’s an angular route designed to attack the leverage of a defense and have the receiver work in short areas to graze on any open space, and take advantage. There are receiver subtleties, as well. The receiver must attack the ball as it’s coming to him. He can’t be passive with the slant, because it’s an attack route from the receiver’s perspective. Not much is going to happen if that isn’t the case.

Against zone coverage, the slant target can sell a more vertical rote to make the defender less aggressive. Against man coverage, especially aggressive man coverage, one good sell against the defender is to fake an outside release on the route and then tuck back inside, having taken the defender off his feet.

The best slant targets in the NFL are among the best receivers. Last season, per Sports Info Solutions, Chicago’s Allen Robinson led the league with 37 slant targets, with 27 receptions on 30 catchable passes for 302 yards, 193 yards after the catch, 44 yards after contact, and two touchdowns. Green Bay’s Davante Adams finished second with 27 slant targets, and 20 catches on 22 catchable passes for 198 yards, 125 yards after the catch, 26 yards after contact, and two touchdowns. Robinson and Adams each have the size and agility to win in short spaces, and the speed to make something big out of a “smaller” play. Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs had three slant touchdowns on just 12 slant receptions because he’s able to tie a cornerback in knots on the route.

Bigger, more physical receivers can really win with the slant. Seattle’s DK Metcalf also had three slant touchdowns this season on 17 receptions, and Tennessee’s A.J. Brown led all receivers with 167 yards after the catch on his slant targets. It’s an important route in any passing game, and these are the best guys when the ball’s in their hands.

When it comes to the 2021 draft class of receivers, it’s tough to find a better slant receiver than LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase, who caught 84 passes for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2019 before opting out of the 2020 season. Chase is a special receiver who does just about everything well, but in watching his tape, the slant kept standing out, and the metrics back it up. In 2019, Chase had the NCAA’s second-most slant targets (29) behind only Minnesota’s Tyler Johnson (35), who just won a Super Bowl with the Buccaneers. On those 29 targets, Chase caught 18 on 25 catchable targets for 308 yards, 192 yards after the catch, 146 yards after contact, and four touchdowns.

At 6-foot-0 and 208 pounds, Chase has the perfect balance of acceleration, awareness, quickness, and explosiveness after the catch to make the simple slant a living nightmare for any defense every single time. He had 10 catches for 229 yards and four touchdowns against Vanderbilt in Week 3 of the 2019 season, and he just killed the Commodores with slants.

On this play, all Chase has to do is grab the ball against passive coverage, but that’s where he goes to work across the field. You are going to have to attack him as a tackler if you want to avoid serious yards after the catch, and after contact.

And this is just a series of bad decisions and results for Vanderbilt’s defense. Here, Chase reminds me of Davante Adams in how quickly he’s able to impact open space, and zoom down the field. He also does a great job of selling the outside release before moving into the route.

And here, against Florida in the fifth week of the season, Chase shows his sense of spacing, timing, and precision with the slant. Cornerback C.J. Henderson is playing this about as well as anybody can, but it doesn’t matter. Any NFL quarterback would be absolutely overjoyed to have a receiver with this much hot sauce in the red zone.

Chase should be a top-five pick because of all the attributes he brings to the table, but when he does hit the NFL, remember how well he catches those little slants, the amazing things he can do with them, and what that will mean to his All-Pro potential.