Leading up to the start of Patriots training camp, we'll try to answer one question every day as a way of giving you a better idea of where our focus will be when practices begin. Today we take a look at the slot position -- both offensively and defensively -- and wonder who we'll see there during training camp.
You have to give the Patriots credit: They're ahead of the curve on most football trends we've seen over the better part of the last two decades. If the rest of the league starts to lean on the running game, deploy fullbacks regularly, and draft big run-stuffing linebackers then we'll give them credit for being early on yet another.
One trend that the league has most certainly come around to that the Patriots helped to bring en vogue has been the deployment of the slot receiver. Whether it was Troy Brown, Deion Branch, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola, the Patriots have consistently received critical contributions from their interior weapons over the course of their dynastic run.
Even Bill Belichick acknowledged where the slot position was going in his pre-draft press conference earlier this offseason.
"It seems like there’s a little bit more of an emphasis towards the smaller, quicker slot receivers," he said. "So, better find somebody to cover those guys."
That cuts at the core of a fascinating study done by the guys at Pro Football Focus last offseason. PFF found that throwing to slot receivers yielded 0.243 expected points added (EPA) while throwing to outside wideouts yielded 0.228 EPA. In layman's terms, since 2006 (where PFF data begins) throwing to the slot has been more efficient than throwing outside. It makes sense. The throws are typically easier to make in the short-to-intermediate area. Though slot targets may not provide the big-time explosive pay-off, on a down-to-down basis, they're a better option.
If you look at the 40 most efficient receivers in the NFL in 2018 (based on PFF's yards per route run metric), 40 percent of them played the majority of their snaps in the slot. They include players like Keenan Allen, Emmanuel Sanders, Adam Thielen, Tyler Boyd, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Julian Edelman, Jarvis Landry, Larry Fitzgerald and Nelson Agholor.
Given the importance of that area of the field — the quarterback's best bet — it would make sense for the best teams to have the most surefire plans there. Offensively, obviously, but defensively as well.
That brings us back to the Patriots, a team whose plan for the slot — on both sides of the ball — seems to be a little bit up in the air.
Offensively they have Edelman, who played over 65 percent of his snaps on the interior last season. But do they want him there? Efficient as it is to have a good slot receiver, it's also dangerous. Having your best target in the passing game working the middle of the field around much larger linebackers and hard-hitting safeties isn't necessarily a foolproof plan for long-term success. There's risk.
The Patriots seemed to acknowledge that over the offseason, chasing help at the slot position in the form of Adam Humphries (83.3 percent of his snaps came from the slot in 2018) and Cole Beasley (88.3) in order to save Edelman from some of the beating he'd take if he were to spend a great deal of his time in the slot yet again.
Though the Patriots didn't land any veteran slots in free agency or via trade, they could still find a way to get Edelman out from the middle.
Second-year receiver Braxton Berrios missed all of his rookie season but had a strong spring and could have the inside track at a roster spot as one of the club's few experienced punt returners outside of Edelman (another job the Patriots may want to take away from the 33-year-old in order to preserve his health).
Veteran wideout Maurice Harris is another option to play on the interior. He played nearly half (48.6 percent) of his snaps in the slot last season for Washington and has the hands to secure contested catches over the middle. At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, he's not the traditional low-cut slot option the Patriots are accustomed to, but he could end up a reliable option for Brady after an impressive stretch of OTA and minicamp workouts.
Then there are the rookies. First-round pick N'Keal Harry played some in the slot at Arizona State and his catch-and-run ability makes him an intriguing fit on the inside. His size and leaping ability, though, make him perhaps the team's best option to play outside the numbers. Undrafted rookies Jakobi Meyers and Ryan Davis both played inside in college and could end up surprising if they can wrap their heads around the Patriots playbook in short order.
Edelman remains the best option to play inside, but Belichick and Josh McDaniels would surely welcome other contributors in there — if only to save their top receiver from unnecessary punishment. Who those contributors will be remains to be seen.
Defensively there are slot questions as well. Jonathan Jones was the top option inside, playing 295 snaps there. Jason McCourty (233) and Patrick Chung (210) followed as Belichick's most frequently-used slot defenders.
How'd they fare? Excellently at times. Jones allowed just one catch on three targets in the AFC title game and recorded a pass breakup. He was leaned on in Super Bowl LIII against Sean McVay's crosser-heavy schemes, playing 62 of a possible 63 snaps, but Jones did allow five catches on nine targets, for 81 yards.
That was a bit of a trend for Jones last year. When opposing quarterbacks took to the air against the Patriots, they often went Jones' way. Among slots who played at least 50 percent of their team's defensive snaps, no defender saw more targets per snap in coverage in 2018. Jones was targeted once out of every 4.8 coverage snaps, per PFF. That may have had as much to do with the fact that the Patriots employ some extremely gifted outside corners that passers wanted to stay away from, but Jones also allowed more yards per snap in coverage than any regular slot (1.60). Only Arizona's Budda Baker (6.8) had a worse cover snaps-per-reception ratio than Jones (7.0).
There's room for improvement there.
Does that mean more work for Chung or Jason McCourty inside? It's possible, though the Patriots play so much man-to-man defense, the question for Belichick will be whether or not he wants to match those players up on traditional slot wideouts — the "smaller, quicker slot receivers" he referenced before the draft. Those were Jones' matchups last year in part because Jones' skill set as a smaller, quick, athletic and solid-tackling defensive back made sense inside.
The player who could push Jones for work on the interior might be someone who didn't play a single snap last season. Duke Dawson — who spent the early portion of last season on injured reserve, was later activated to the roster but never dressed for a game — spent time with starters last summer while Jones rehabbed an injury. In his lone preseason game, he spent significant time defending the slot
It looked like Dawson was taken in the second round in 2018 with the importance of defending the slot in mind. He was a versatile player for the Gators, and showed proficiency inside. While he wasn't a burner like other highly-drafted outside-the-numbers defenders, he was thought to be an instinctive player and a willing tackler whose transition to slot life in the NFL might be easier than most.
Dawson might represent an upgrade at the slot corner — or "star" position, as the Patriots call it — if he proves he can make up for lost time during this year's training camp. But after missing an entire year, that "if" is sizable
However the Patriots plan on addressing that oh-so-valuable space between the numbers — both offensively and defensively — we'll be watching closely over the course of the next month.
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