By Matt Kelley (@Fantasy_Mansion)
Special to Yahoo Sports
At the close of last season, I offered four very bold predictions for 2018. The least bold was that, after scoring an unprecedented number of fantasy points in 2017, slot receivers will rule fantasy football this season.
As more NFL teams run 3 and 4-receiver sets and call plays featuring slot receivers in the read progression, a higher percentage team target shares are funneling inside. In fact, 10 receivers with Slot Rates above 35-percent scored 12.0 or more PPR fantasy points per game last season.
While identifying last season’s slot monsters is as easy as typing “PlayerProfiler.com,” pinpointing this season’s volume slot receivers is less straightforward.
Eric Decker, Patriots
Julian Edelman is the patron saint of slot fantasy points, but he will miss the first four games of the season due to suspension. Who is the next man up in New England’s coveted slot role? It would have been Jordan Matthews before another lower body injury further derailed his career. With prototypical split end/X-receiver Kenny Britt next up on New England’s receiver depth chart, Chris Hogan was poised to shift inside… Then Eric Decker arrived.
Decker is a plug-and-play slot replacement for Edelman/Matthews. While Patriots have yet to utilize the “big slot” archetype in their offense, Decker was born to play that role in New England. As he aged, Decker has shifted further and further inside, culminating in a 32.8-percent Slot Rate with the Titans in 2017. Decker has always won with precision and nuance more than explosive athleticism, and should be an upgrade on Danny Amendola in the long term with a real chance to lead all Patriots receivers in targets in the month of September.
In summary, the Patriots wide receiver corps is less ambiguous than it may seem at first glance. With the loss of Edelman and Matthews, the target distribution should consolidate. Rob Gronkowski will remain Tom Brady’s go-to receiver. Chris Hogan will dominate the intermediate routes and operate as Brady’s 1B red-zone option opposite Gronkowski. This leaves Decker and James White to soak up the underneath targets. Now losing training camp reps to Phillip Dorsett, Britt remains a strong cut candidate. Meanwhile, Dorsett will likely command a relatively high Snap Share during Edelman’s absence, but his Hog Rate (targets per snap) should hover around league bottom as he occupies safeties with his 4.33 wheels in lieu of commanding actual targets.
Gronkowski, Hogan, Decker, and White have been the clear winners in the passing game as unfortunate events unfolded in New England this summer. Most notably, a career renaissance as a volume slot receiver is well within Decker’s range of outcomes. Carrying a final round sticker price, he is currently the best-value receiver option in drafts.
Taywan Taylor, Titans
Decker is not the only under-the-radar volume slot receiver tethered to an efficient and/or prolific quarterback. Another very bold prediction for 2018 is that Marcus Mariota will outscore Deshaun Watson in fantasy. Mariota experienced a worst-case scenario season last year, and is scheduled for a significant positive mean reversion in 2018. Assuming Mariota’s completion percentage on deep balls (26.7-percent) and in the red zone (49.0-percent) improves, Taylor is a good bet to catch a surprisingly high proportion those high-value targets.
As Rishard Matthews continues to miss valuable training camp reps with an undisclosed injury, Taylor is reportedly making splash plays and developing strong rapport with Mariota throughout offseason practices. Meanwhile, top-10 über prospect, Corey Davis, is balancing highlight catches with morale-crushing drops.
With Cooper Kupp’s former offensive coordinator, Matt LaFleur, now manning the headset in Tennessee, Taylor is perfectly positioned to convert his Doug Baldwin-esque skill set into monster slot production in Year 2. He may not out-produce Decker in weeks 1-4, but Taylor should finish the season with more fantasy points.
Trent Taylor, 49ers
Industry enthusiasm for a Jimmy Garoppolo breakout is building to the point of perceived inevitability. Who else wins when Garoppolo wins? Trent Taylor. Indeed, 2018 may be a tale of two Taylors as both Taywan and Trent Taylor angle for valuable slot snaps on ascending offenses.
While Taywan Taylor’s ability to thrive in spite of Decker’s failure in the slot last season remains theoretical, Trent Taylor already demonstrated exceptional efficiency in the slot. Last season, he ran 36.9-percent of his routes from the slot on his way to posting a 71.7-percent catch rate, which ranked No. 7 among qualified NFL receivers.
Following the time-honored formula for identifying fantasy breakouts: efficiency + volume = fantasy points, and Taylor just needs targets. Fortunately, San Francisco led the NFL with 650 total pass attempts in 2017. Just a slight uptick in target share would necessarily nudge Taylor from final round flier to consistent weekly fantasy contributor in 2018.