Dallas Cowboys: Why Slot Receiver is so Important in Today’s NFL

Cole Beasley #11 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Cole Beasley #11 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

The Dallas Cowboys just let Cole Beasley walk in free agency, so today we look at the importance of the Y receiver in today’s NFL and how it’s imperative Dallas addresses it properly

For years, Dallas Cowboys fans have been taught all the great receivers in the NFL are of the “wide” variety. It’s seemed as if to be considered a true No. 1 receiver, he must play at either the X or Z receiver position outside. And while the reality of that in today’s NFL has changed considerably, the narrative remains the same to many.

It’s this outdated narrative that causes many of us to undervalue a truly invaluable position: the Y receiver (aka slot receiver).

In case you haven’t noticed, the Dallas Cowboys just let their long-time slot weapon, Cole Beasley, leave in free agency.  While life without Beasley doesn’t have to be a bad thing, it does leave a huge hole in this offense that will need to be “properly” addressed if the Cowboys hope to improve in 2019.

Slot receiver is arguably the most impactful receiver position in the NFL. On the Dallas Cowboys, no position led to more expected points last year than that Y spot. That’s right, in 2018 no player put the Cowboys in better position to score points than the recently departed, “Bease”.

passing to a slot receiver is on average worth more expected points than passing to an outside receiver.

Calling a slot receiver (who only scored three touchdowns on the season) the most impactful may sound absurd, but anyone who understands EPA knows that it’s not always the guys posting gaudy stats that are helping the team the most. Using historical data, plus in-game context, we can determine which players helped the offense score points and which ones just looked good in fantasy football.

If you’re unfamiliar with EPA, I invite you to read, “What EPA tells us about the 2018 Dallas Cowboys offense”.

Note: What this is not saying is that Cole Beasley is better than Amari Cooper or Michael Gallup or anyone for that matter. It’s saying the slot position is often a more consistently impactful position than outside receiver.

There are three obvious advantages to lining up in the slot position:

  1. Break Options: Lining up on the outside, a receiver is limited in route options because the sideline basically takes away 50 percent of his potential directions. In the slot, the receiver can literally go any direction and run any route because the sideline isn’t there to cage him in. This makes him nearly impossible to cover in man coverage.
  2. Competition Faced: Typically teams employ their top cornerbacks on the outside (because the stakes are higher). While some CBs will travel inside to the slot, most do not, meaning rarely do slot receivers face top-notch CBs and often times it’s the No. 3 CB they match up against inside. Can you say, mismatch?
  3. Proximity to the Passer: On passes to the outside, windows are smaller and air yards are typically greater. Passing to the slot it’s the opposite. For the reasons listed above (Break Options and Competition Faced) slot receivers also enjoy more separation per route than outside receivers. This means it’s easier to get them the ball.

Elite Receivers Playing Inside

It’s the above inarguable advantages that have led many NFL teams to move their bona fide No. 1 wide receivers inside to the slot. That doesn’t mean they play exclusively out of the Y, it just means when the offense goes three-wide (11 personnel), teams often place their top receiving weapon in the top play-making receiver position.

Last year, Football Outsiders charted how the NFL’s top receivers split time between slot and wide and tracked their impact accordingly. No. 1 receivers like Michael Thomas from the Saints, Odell Beckham Jr from the Giants (now with the Browns), JuJu Smith-Schuster from the Steelers, Keenan Allen from the Chargers, Adam Thielen from the Vikings, T.Y. Hilton from the Colts, Tyreek Hill from the Chiefs, and Julio Jones from the Falcons are just a handful of No. 1 receivers who split their time inside. And not just a few snaps a game, but they consistently moved inside when in 11 personnel.

Separation Advantage

Pro Football Focus addressed this same thing last season. Eric Eager and George Chahrouri pointed out that passing to a slot receiver is on average worth more expected points than passing to an outside receiver.

Why might that be? Because on average they have greater separation than anyone else. They are easier to get open, easier to pass to (less air yards needed), and more likely to convert. Teams have been seeing this and adjusting accordingly.

If it’s 3rd and 6, the Falcons are inclined to go three-wide and move their best weapon, Julio Jones, inside where’s he’s virtually uncoverable. He may not be the big play threat he is on the outside, but he’s considerably more likely to convert that 3rd down, extend the drive, and collect maximum expected points in the process.

Outside is still Valuable

This doesn’t mean you can just mail-in the outside receiver spots. Outside receivers are still the best big-play threats on the field. They keep safeties back and defenses honest. That’s why you see all the top receivers split their time inside and outside.

Adam Thielen, one of the top producing receivers in the game, takes nearly all of his team’s slot snaps. But when in 2-receiver formations, he doesn’t leave the field – he plays outside. Theilen’s as good as anyone outside, it’s just his coaches see the advantages by lining up in the slot, and they have him do so whenever the option is available. It doesn’t hurt having Stefon Diggs on the outside keeping the safety honest, either.

Amari Cooper

When Dallas first traded for Amari Cooper the writing was on the wall (shout out to King Belshazzar) regarding Cole’s future. With the way the NFL was using elite receivers inside, I spoke of the likelihood of a Beasley departure and Cooper being the primary fix (see flashback article below).

light. Must Read. Flashback: Why Amari Cooper, not Beasley, may be the future at slot

Last season Coop only played around 13 percent of his snaps at the slot (down from his career averages). But much of that was because Beasley couldn’t effectively play outside. So in order to keep the best-three receivers on the field, Coop essentially NEEDED to play outside.

Looking at Cooper’s historical success at the Y, we can see he’s probably in line for considerably more slot snaps in 2019.

With the pre-Gruden Raiders, Cooper was targeted 88 times inside and caught 59 of them. As Austin Gayle from Pro Football Focus points out, his 2.88 yards per route run were tied for 3rd best all-time in the NFL. Another thing Gayle points out is Amari’s college production when he averaged an unfathomable 6.71 yards per route run from the slot.

As you can see, his numbers reflect the advantages of playing in the slot and are consistent with the rest of the NFL.

What this means

So, what does this mean for the Dallas Cowboys? It means that Cole Beasley’s production from the slot is too important to be trusted on an unproven weapon like a rookie draft pick. NFL teams have been using their No. 1 receivers inside for quite a while and it’s probably time for the Dallas Cowboys to catch up.

Clearly, moving Amari inside for these all-important slot snaps comes at a cost – the outside – and finding players capable of taking those outside snaps when Amari’s at the Y is still something that needs to be addressed. Lucky for us the Dallas Cowboys have plenty of time and resources to do so.

Cooper, together with Allen Hurns and Cedrick Wilson are more than capable of filling the void left by Cole Beasley inside. How this plays out in Kellen Moore’s offense is anyone’s guess, but Cooper’s ability inside gives them a huge advantage as long as they use him like the rest of the NFL uses their No. 1 receivers.

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Don’t underestimate the importance of the slot receiver in the Dallas Cowboys offense. Cole Beasley is replaceable, and even upgradeable, as long as the Cowboys use their different weapons to their fullest.

  • Published on 03/13/2019 at 12:00 PM
  • Last updated at 03/13/2019 at 11:52 AM