The space between the end of an offensive line and an outside receiver, commonly called the slot, decides more NFL games than ever before.

Cole Beasley lined up there on 85 percent of his snaps last season, and he led the Dallas Cowboys in catches and receiving yards. His ability out of the slot provided security and comfort for a rookie quarterback and made Beasley the engine of the Dallas passing game. And yet, Beasley wants to be known as anything but a slot receiver.

NFL offenses rely more than ever on the ability of shifty, explosive slot receivers to get open quickly and give quarterbacks a low-risk outlet. In contractual negotiations, though, players and agents resist the label of “slot receiver,” the football version of “middle reliever:” As the importance of the position on the field has increased, it has not translated, in most cases, to market value.

“If you’re not a slot receiver and you’re just considered a receiver, you got a chance to make a lot of money,” Beasley’s co-agent Justin Turner said. “Even if you’re the No. 3 receiver, it’s a hell of a lot better to be the backup No. 2 and catch 50 balls than be a slot receiver and catch 50 balls. You’re going to be docked at least $1.5 million on the just for being a slot receiver. It’s like the right tackle.”

Last season, according to Pro Football Focus, 25 wide receivers lined up in the slot on more than 50 percent of their plays. The group was more diverse than a casual fan might expect. It included veterans who had found life inside (Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin), young players made for the position (Jamison Crowder, Sterling Shepard) and No. 1 receivers (T.Y. Hilton, Jarvis Landry). It also included Julian Edelman and Beasley, stereotypical slot receivers.

Edelman lined up outside 47 percent of the time, barely qualifying him for the slot label. Edelman runs the rapid-fire patterns for the New England Patriots that have helped Tom Brady remain so good and so durable into his age-40 season. Despite his value and versatility, Edelman agreed to a two-year, $11 million deal – less per year than, for a couple examples, Kenny Stills and Robert Woods.


Edelman’s market was hurt by factors unique to him. He wanted to play with Brady, teams were likely skeptical he could maintain his production without Brady’s precision and at age 31 he may be starting to decline. Still, the best receiver on the Super Bowl champions had a limited market.

The increased reliance on slot receivers can be traced, in part, to changes in the latest collective bargaining agreement. Shrunken practice time gives defensive fronts an advantage over offensive lines, which are more reliant on cohesion and coordination. The diminished quality and consistency of pass protection makes intermediate and long passes both harder and more dangerous for quarterbacks.

To solve the problems presented by defenses throttling linemen, offenses have increasingly turned to shorter throws. Quarterbacks can protect themselves with quick drops and short passes to a receiver able to burst off the line, change direction and come open in a flash. Quick passes to a slot receiver, maybe behind a pulling tackle, can augment, or even replace, a running game.

Teams ran 38.1 of their pass patterns from the slot last season, and quarterbacks threw it to receivers lined up in the slot on 35.5 percent of their attempts, both highs for the past 10 years. As a result, quarterbacks chucked shorter passes than in any recent season, averaging 8.25 yards in the air per pass, the lowest number over the past decade.

While slot receivers may not possess the size and athleticism of outside receivers, their skills are seen as no less important.

“It’s a different game in there,” Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said during last year’s playoffs. “It’s a game within a game. People that are good in that area like Logan (Ryan) or Julian (Edelman) that play that spot, a lot of it is physical characteristics.”


Slot receivers, then, play a crucial and growing role. But wide receivers do not want to be considered slot receivers when they enter the market. Beasley has two years remaining on a four-year, $13.6 million deal. If Beasley reaches free agency, he’ll seek to be viewed as a receiver, period.

Last year, Doug Baldwin lined up in the slot 73.6 percent of the time, and yet he clearly emerged as the Seattle Seahawks’ No. 1 wide receiver for the second straight season. Before the season, Baldwin signed a four-year, $46 million contract, the largest deal for a wide receiver signed that offseason. By leading Seattle’s receiving corps, Baldwin transcended the stigma of the “slot” label.

The growing use of slot receivers has also had a business-side effect on the other half of the matchup. Teams now routinely use five backs in their base defenses. Nickelbacks and slot corners, once considered interchangeable, can now become star-level players by shutting down the slot. Ryan signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the Tennessee Titans this offseason after playing primarily in the slot.

“A lot of it is the feel and instinct and quick reaction, recognition to all of the things that are happening in there, and they happen a lot faster than they do out on the perimeter,” Belichick said. “I’m not saying it’s easier or harder or better or worse. It’s just different.”

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