Last season, per Sports Info Solutions, NFL quarterbacks attempts 18.983 passes, and of those passes, 7,998 went to targets in the slot. That 42.1% slot target rate throughout the league tells you everything you need to know about how teams see the importance of the slot receiver these days. No longer is the slot receiver an ancillary concern — in most offenses, they’re nearly as important as your best X-iso guy, and in a lot of cases, your best X-iso guy is asked to win from the slot, as well. It’s a slight uptick from, say, five years before, when in 2016, 40.2% of all passing attempts went to slot targets.
No longer is the slot the sole domain of the smaller, quicker receiver who can beat a slot defender on a simple two-way go. Now, offenses are constructed in ways that provide specific schematic advantages to slot targets. Those receivers are asked to run switch releases and crossers with other slot receivers and outside targets. They’re asked to beat inside defenders up the seam and across the field with posts and deep overs. They can be smaller receivers, bigger receivers, tight ends, and running backs. Sometimes, they’re actually outside receivers in reduced splits after the actual outside receiver motions to the other side of the field pre-snap.
The modern slot receiver is a full-on starter with his own required skill sets, and here are the 11 best slot receivers in the NFL today.
(All advanced metrics courtesy of Pro Football Focus and Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise indicated).
11. Robert Woods, Los Angeles Rams
(Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports)
One of the more underappreciated route technicians of his era, Woods has excelled for the Bills and Rams through his career, and with Cooper Kupp dealing with injuries last season, he became an invaluable slot target in Sean McVay's offense -- even when Jared Goff was dealing with accuracy and mechanical issues. In 2020, Woods caught 50 of 66 slot targets for 506 yards and four touchdowns; one can only imagine how he'll fare when Matthew Stafford is throwing him passes as opposed to Goff. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1410397112500736001
10. CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys
(Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)
The former Oklahoma star took very little time to get the hang of Dallas' passing offense in his rookie season, even after Dak Prescott was lost for the season due to injury in Week 5. Whether it was Prescott, Andy Dalton, Ben DiNucci, or Garrett Gilbert throwing him the ball, Lamb was able to combine his open-field speed and impressive understanding of the requirements of the position to amass 69 slot receptions on 101 targets for 877 yards and five touchdowns. No NFL receiver caught more slot passes of 20 or more air yards than Lamb's 10 for 306 yards and two touchdowns; imagine what that might look like with a full season of Prescott throwing him the ball. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1410377760825122850
9. Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
Tom Brady has long relied on outstanding slot targets, and he had two in his first year with the Buccaneers -- Godwin and Mike Evans. We're giving Godwin the slight nod here because of his speed to get open and shiftiness once he catches the ball. From Week 1 through Tampa Bay's Super Bowl LV win over the Chiefs, Godwin caught 53 of 69 slot targets for 690 yards and five touchdowns. With Brady getting the hang of the Bruce Arians offense in the second half of the 2020 season, Godwin's slot target share could increase in 2021, as could his overall productivity. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1410232871051276293
8. Zach Pascal, Indianapolis Colts
(Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)
Pascal is probably the least-known receiver on this list, but he caught 33 of 48 slot targets for 397 yards and five touchdowns with a quarterback in Philip Rivers who was clearly at the end of the road. Not that the Redemption Edition of Carson Wentz gives Pascal more explosive opportunities, but the third-year man from Old Dominion has the route and leverage understanding to drive slot defenders nuts, and that should at least help Wentz along the way. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1410381497819971586
7. Isaiah McKenzie, Buffalo Bills
(JAMIE GERMANO/ROCHESTER DEMOCRAT AND CHRONICLE-Imagn Content Services, LLC)
Cole Beasley was Buffalo's most targeted slot receiver last season with 109 and 90 catches for 1,061 yards and three touchdowns, but when things got tricky in the red zone for the Bills and Josh Allen, it was McKenzie -- the fifth-round pick of the Broncos in 2017 -- who Allen turned to more often than not. Like all great slot receivers, McKenzie has the ability to elude defenders with quick option and movement concepts in compressed areas, and there's no more compressed area than the red zone. That's why McKenzie caught six touchdown passes on just 21 overall slot catches and 23 targets for 152 yards. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1410389000301449223
6. Adam Thielen, Minnesota Vikings
(Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)
Vikings rookie receiver Justin Jefferson built on his LSU career by becoming an explosive slot target last season, but Thielen was the team's most reliable and estimable slot receiver last season, catching 26 of 34 targets for 326 yards and five touchdowns. Thielen doesn't have the jets he used to, but he understands his role, and he's certainly capable of taking advantage when a bad defense (Hello, Cowboys) overspills to Jefferson. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1410394793956593664
5. Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams
(Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)
2020 was a bit of a lost season for Kupp, as he played through knee injuries and had to deal with Jared Goff's decided regression, but he still managed 62 slot catches on 82 targets for 669 yards and a touchdown. Not quite the 69 slot catches on 99 targets for 853 yards and five touchdowns he managed in 2019, but a healthy Kupp should see an uptick in production... especially when Matthew Stafford is throwing him the ball as opposed to Jared Goff doing the same. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1411354097194876929
4. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers
(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
The Steelers went with a short passing game through most of the 2020 season whether they wanted to or not. That benefited Smith-Schuster as a slot receiver, as his numbers in that position went way up in 2020 -- he caught 25 of 38 slot targets for 316 yards and two touchdowns in 2019, and saw that shoot up to 39 slot receptions on 119 targets for 888 yards and 10 touchdowns. We'll see what the Steelers' passing offense looks like in 2021 -- there are questions about everything from the stability of the offensive line to the condition of Ben Roethlisberger's arm to how things will look under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada -- but it's likely that Smith-Schuster will continue his prolific slot performances. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1410585428554665988
3. Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
In 2018, Lockett became the first NFL receiver we're aware of to present a perfect passer rating to his quarterback when targeted. This speaks to Lockett's expertise as a route technician, and though he wasn't in the slot a lot in 2020, he was outstanding when that happened. Last season, he caught 52 of 72 slot targets for 556 yards and two touchdowns, but this is where you have to head to the tape to see how impressive those scoring plays were. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1410571782696935427 If Seahawks offensive coordinator Shane Waldron is able to implement a more explosive passing offense with quicker tempo and more formation diversity, expect to see Lockett's slot numbers shoot up in 2021, because Russell Wilson already knows that he can trust Lockett in any area of the field.
2. Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers
(Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
Allen has been one of the NFL's more underrated receivers since the Chargers selected him in the third round of the 2013 draft out of Cal. Allen doesn't blow you away with explosive plays -- he doesn't really have the straight-line speed for that -- but when it comes to understanding and exploiting coverages from anywhere on the field, there are few better. Here, against the Dolphins last season, Allen sees the DB blitz, he sees his defensive back turning in what appears to be a bail look from the inside slot, and you can imagine that he knew this was a touchdown before it played out. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1410571474671448067 In 2020, Allen caught 43 of 60 slot targets for 441 yards and six touchdowns. Those numbers put him behind other slot receivers on this list, but the tape really doesn't. When a defensive back doesn't have the advantage of the boundary to deal with Allen's route trickiness, the task becomes exponentially more difficult.
1. Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs
(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
Defending Hill anywhere on the field has been a royal pain in the posterior for opposing defenders since Hill came into the league in 2016, but he's especially dangerous as a slot receiver, and just about uncoverable when the Chiefs place him as the inside slot man to the dominant side of the field and run tight end Travis Kelce as the Y-iso receiver to the other side. No fun, that. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1352287356653473793 Hill's combination of blazing speed, elusiveness, and route acumen (which he doesn't get enough credit for) makes him the toughest inside receiver in the NFL. In 2020, including the postseason, Hill caught 59 passes from the slot on 88 targets for 831 yards, and seven touchdowns. Six of those touchdowns came on passes of 20 or more air yards, and three of those touchdowns came on passes of 30 or more air yards. What does it all mean? From receiver screens to deep overs, once Hill is tracking the ball from the slot, your defensive back is about to have a very bad rep. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1410579429034758147