Pro Football Focus (PFF) continues their June Rankings with a look at the slot players for teams around the NFL.
This isn’t just a look at the Wes Welker clones; it’s an examination of all offensive and defensive players that align in the slot.
Patriots WR Julian Edelman comes in 9th place. He spends roughly half of his time in the slot when on the field, but closer to 75% of his time in the slot in two-receiver sets (Danny Amendola plays in the slot on 3 receiver sets). It’s possible that Edelman’s slot usage will spike with 2016 with the introduction of TE Martellus Bennett.
“The impact of Julian Edelman on the New England offense last season was profound,” PFF writes. “Despite Tom Brady losing weapons regularly, it wasn’t until Edelman went down that the quarterback’s play began to suffer. Without Edelman last season, Brady’s completion percentage dropped 1.5 percent, his average per completion fell by 1.4 yards, his passer rating fell by 11.4 points, and he threw 14 touchdowns to five interceptions compared to the 27 he threw against the same five turnovers with Edelman in the lineup.”
Edelman ranks as the 4th best slot receiver in these listings, behind top ranked and new 7-figures Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin, Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry, and Packers WR Randall Cobb.
The Patriots wide receiver is one of QB Tom Brady’s best friends on and off the field and their connection is vital for the offensive success. Hopefully Edelman can return to full strength from his serious foot injury.
Other than Edelman, PFF also believes that the second-best slot player in the NFL is on the Patriots. It’s not S Patrick Chung, like I might have expected (he doesn’t feature on the list).
Coming in 2nd place is TE Rob Gronkowski.
“Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in the game – by a distance – and is also one of the league’s best slot weapons,” PFF writes. “For a while now elite receiving TEs have been deployed in the slot to cause havoc in defenses that don’t have players that can adequately match up with them. They are too big for defensive backs and too athletic and polished as receivers for linebackers. Gronkowski is the height of that philosophy, and has gained more than 2.0 yards per route run from the slot in each of the past three seasons. Only 6 TEs have topped that mark in any of those three seasons, and Gronkowski is the only one to do it twice, let alone three years running.”
Gronk is truly the most versatile offensive player in the NFL and is without a peer. The Patriots can put Gronk inline when defenses play with five or more defensive backs or they can flex him into the slot when defenses use more linebackers.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Patriots have invested in two of the best slot options in the NFL. Plays in the middle of the field have higher percentage success rates and the entire Patriots offense revolves around efficiency.
Personally, I’m interested to see how the Patriots offense lines up in 2016. Gronk, Edelman, Bennett, Amendola, and Chris Hogan are set to be the top options and all have strengths in the middle of the field. This could be a pretty congested offense, unless someone steps up as a sideline option.
I’m not even talking about a deep threat. If Edelman or Hogan or even Aaron Dobson or Malcolm Mitchell can force defenses to respect plays outside of the hashmarks, then the offense is going to shred the league. But someone will have to own that role.