How Do Slot Targets Affect Fantasy Football?
How many times have you heard opportunity means production from a fantasy football analyst? I know I’ve said it countless times, though it’s not a complete thought or process. There are many things that go into how many fantasy points a player scores. Their own talent, their quarterback’s talent, the offense they play in, the talent around them, etc.
But can we learn anything from where they line up on the field? The NFL is moving more and more to three- and four-wide receiver sets, which is allowing creative offensive coordinators to move top-tier wide receivers into the slot in order to create mismatches. Does it translate to more fantasy points, and if so, how many?
With all the advanced statistics available nowadays, I’m going to be able to give you an actual hard percentage when it applies to how much more the slot target is worth than the perimeter target. To do that, I’ve gone through the last four seasons of targets to receivers, which amounts to more than 40,000 targets in our sample size. This study will be based on half-PPR formats, as it’s a good middle ground.
Anyone can tell you the catch-rate would be higher while playing in the slot, right? Their average depth of target is lower, as they’re typically shorter, quick-hitting passes. But hey, this is part of the process. The catch-rate is a full 9.3 percent higher while in the slot. Wide receivers haul in 69.1 percent of the passes they receive on slot targets, while netting just a 59.8 percent catch-rate on perimeter targets. It’s interesting to note that the perimeter catch-rate went up to 62.5 percent in 2020, which could be a product of the NFL shifting to more of a pass-friendly game, or it could just be a blip on the radar, so we’ll pay attention to this number next offseason.
This statistic obviously favors those in PPR formats because if your wide receiver is going to be moving into the slot on a more frequent basis, you should expect his catch-rate to rise, therefore giving you more points.
Yards Per Reception and Yards Per Target
“Ok Mike, we all know the catch percentage is higher in the slot, but the difference in actual production can make up for that, as the depth of target is significantly higher on the perimeter.” Well, receivers average 13.59 yards per reception on the perimeter while that number dips down to 11.95 yards per reception in the slot.
“See, I told you.” Not so fast. When you factor in the 9.3 percent lower completion rate, you have 8.13 yards per target on the perimeter, compared to 8.26 yards per target in the slot. The raise in yards per reception does not make up for the lowered catch-rate. So, not only are we piling up more receptions, but we’re also adding more yards per target when in the slot.
It’s accepted in the fantasy football community that slot receivers don’t score as many touchdowns, as they’re typically smaller receivers. To quote a line from the late great John Candy in the movie Rookie of the Year: “Well, you were wrong again, Ernie!” Wide receivers score a touchdown every 20.0 targets on the perimeter, while scoring one every 18.6 targets in the slot.
The reason slot receivers don’t score as many touchdowns as perimeter receivers comes down to sheer volume, as there’ve been 1,203 perimeter touchdowns over the last four seasons compared to 772 slot touchdowns. That’s a 35.8 percent decrease despite there being a 40.7 percent difference in targets overall. If a player sees the same number of targets in the slot and on the perimeter, he’s more likely to score more touchdowns in the slot.
Actual Value of Targets
You probably understand that slot targets are worth more by now, right? They outperformed perimeter targets in every major statistic. Now it’s time I provide you with that hard percentage I promised earlier. In a half-PPR format, slot targets are worth 5.5 percent more than perimeter targets in half-PPR formats.
What does that amount to? The difference in fantasy points between Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones last year was 2.8 percent. The difference between Terry McLaurin and Cole Beasley was just 7.7 percent. You can see just how significant 5.5 percent is now, right?
How This Impacts Certain Players
Now onto the question as to how this matters and how we can apply it to help us get better in 2021 and beyond? There are certain players who benefit even more than the norm on slot targets, while others are somewhat unaffected. There are also rare cases where a player has been better while on the perimeter.
MOST SLOT RELIANT
Let’s start with those who benefit most from slot targets, and then try to determine whether they may see more or less in 2020. Here’s a list of players who relied heavily on their slot production (minimum 40 targets in each of the past two seasons, except rookies):
|Odell Beckham Jr.||1.68||1.19||0.62|
|DJ Chark Jr.||1.77||1.42||0.45|
These are the players who have fared much better while in the slot than on the perimeter. Some may be smaller sample sizes than others, but keep in mind that these numbers are over the last two years combined in order to make those sample sizes bigger.
Marquez Valdez-Scantling isn’t likely to see many snaps in the slot moving forward, as Amari Rodgers projects as their go-to option in that area of the field, so we’re likely to see his efficiency dip in 2021. The Chiefs move their receivers all over the formation, but if Mecole Hardman wants to earn a bigger role, he needs to produce more on perimeter targets, as slot targets have been his bread and butter to this point.
Do the Titans plan on using Josh Reynolds in the slot? Of the wide receivers used in this study, he scored the sixth-fewest points per target on the perimeter, so that could be noteworthy. Mike Evans started performing much better once Bruce Arians started moving him into the slot, and this study proves that. With Deebo Samuel and George Kittle back for the 49ers, how much will Brandon Aiyuk be used in the slot?
CeeDee Lamb and JuJu Smith-Schuster are two of the bigger names on this list, though it’s important to note that Lamb only saw 10 non-slot targets. He’s essentially a full-time slot receiver, which we know is extremely beneficial. As for Smith-Schuster, this is problematic, as we’ve heard the Steelers talk about using him more on the perimeter in 2021. If you draft Smith-Schuster, you want him in the slot as much as possible because he simply hasn’t been efficient on the perimeter throughout his career.
NOT SLOT RELIANT
Remember when I said there were rare cases where a wide receiver didn’t perform better in the slot? These are the players who aren’t nearly as dependent on targets from the slot, as they’ve actually been better on the perimeter:
|Marvin Jones Jr.||1.51||1.78||-0.26|
With some players, you need to factor in sample size. For instance, Henry Ruggs saw just 18 slot targets, so it’s not the biggest sample size. You’ll notice there are a lot of speedsters on this list, as their downfield prowess makes up for the decreased catch-rate.
Jalen Reagor saw just 11 slot targets, but also turned them into just 33 scoreless yards. KJ Hamler is going to be locked into the slot with Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton on the field, so this does nothing for his sleeper appeal. It’s also weird to see both Jeudy and Hamler so high on this list, which tells me it’s likely a quarterback/system issue, as slot targets are supposed to be worth more. Also seeing Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup as better on the perimeter, while knowing CeeDee Lamb is better in the slot, the Cowboys have all their receivers in the correct roles.
Oddly enough, Laviska Shenault was better on the perimeter than he was in the slot. With the Jaguars talking about using Travis Etienne in the slot, maybe that’s a good thing for Shenault, though his next obstacle is Marvin Jones. The Steelers talked about moving JuJu Smith-Schuster to the perimeter a bit more, though his production suggests they shouldn’t. Meanwhile, Diontae Johnson would not benefit from more slot snaps, as he’s far better on the perimeter.
When the Panthers drafted Terrace Marshall, some expect D.J. Moore to move into a slot-heavy role. Based on his production there the last two years, this would not be great for his efficiency, as he’s turned 42 slot targets into just 26 receptions for 237 yards and two touchdowns.
When all is said and done, we know that slot targets are worth 5.5 percent more than perimeter targets. So, ideally, our wide receivers are moving into the slot more often in 2021. However, when you have a receiver who stretches the field with his speed, don’t be as concerned with it, as they might suffer when they move into the slot.
This study would certainly vary if you went team-to-team and quarterback-to-quarterback, as some are better targeting the slot than others, but we know fantasy football isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, we look to take every little statistical advantage we can. We look for that 1-2 percent difference, and from what we’ve learned here, slot targets are likely to get you more than 1-2 percent.