Wide receivers get a lot of attention in today’s game, but they aren’t all created equal. They each have unique attributes, skill sets, and roles when on the football field. While most people are enamored by the X and Z receivers, the slot receiver is beginning to garner a lot of attention in the modern era.
So, what is a slot receiver in football?
A slot receiver is often considered the No. 3 receiver on the field. They line up in the ‘slot,’ the area between the outside receiver and the tight end/offensive tackle. Slot receivers are smaller and faster than their outside counterparts, but they also have great hands and run precise routes.
Without a quality slot receiver, quarterbacks have a difficult time stretching out the field and attacking all three levels of the defense. They give the quarterback a versatile and reliable option when throwing the ball, but also give the offense an extra blocker when running the ball outside.
With the slot receiver becoming a necessity in today’s game, we’ll break down everything you need to know about the position below — including what their role is, what routes they run, how they differ from a wideout, and more.
The History of the Slot Receiver Position
Before 1960, the slot receiver position didn’t exist. Instead, most offenses used just two wide receivers on the outside. Even the tight end was more of a blocker and didn’t have much use in the passing attack. Of course, that all started to change with Sid Gillman’s San Diego Chargers.
Sid Gillman was a revolutionary head coach that stretched the field horizontally and vertically with the use of five ‘receivers.’ This included two wide receivers, a tight end, and two running backs. This gave the quarterback more options than ever before, often confusing the defense.
In 1963, one of Sid Gillman’s assistant coaches — Al Davis — took over as head coach of the Oakland Raiders. Davis adopted Gillman’s strategies but took them to another level with the invention of the slot area. This is what gave way to the slot receiver position as we know it today.
The slot formation allowed Davis to set two wide receivers on the weak side of the defense — one on the outside and one on the inside. With the running back acting as a third receiver, Davis attacked all three levels of the defense — the line of scrimmage, linebackers, and secondary.
The second wide receiver, the one on the inside, is what we now know as the slot receiver. Davis wanted them to have a lot of speed, have great hands, and be precise with their routes and timing. He found great success with this strategy while coaching the Raiders.
Davis eventually became the AFL Commissioner in 1966 before rejoining the Raiders as principal owner and general manager, the same year John Madden joined the Raiders as an assistant. Madden was the team’s head coach from 1969-1978 and followed through with Davis’ vision by utilizing the slot formation — winning a Super Bowl in 1977.
Since then, the slot receiver has only become more important and more versatile as players perfect the role and skill set needed. A football team isn’t complete unless it has a receiver that can play out of the slot.
Slot Receiver Role
The slot receiver is responsible for lining up in the slot area, which is the area between the outermost tackle (or tight end) and the wideout. They line up a few yards behind the line of scrimmage and are a threat to do virtually anything when on the football field.
Starting behind the line of scrimmage is crucial for several reasons. First, it opens the door for easy motions and shifts in formation, which helps the quarterback read the defense. Second, it increases the distance between them and the defender, allowing more space to make a move.
When on the field, a slot receiver has three main roles — wide receiver, running back, and blocker. Their role changes depending on what play the offense runs, which usually depends on how the defense is lined up. Let’s take a closer look at each role:
- Wide Receiver – lining up in the slot area gives slot receivers more routes to run, since they can go up, in, or out. They catch a lot of short passes and passes behind the line of scrimmage. Due to their versatile nature, they need to have good chemistry with the QB.
- Running Back – there are times when the slot receiver is asked to run the ball. The quarterback usually hands them the ball after sending them in motion as the ball is snapped. Since the receiver is already running fast, they can quickly outrun the defense.
- Blocker – when a slot receiver isn’t running or catching the ball, they’re likely blocking for the running back or wideout. They often pick up blitzes from linebackers or secondary players, but also provide protection on outside run plays, giving the RB more space.
Football teams are required to have a minimum of seven players on the line of scrimmage each play, but most teams normally have eight — five offensive linemen, two wideouts, and one tight end. Add in the quarterback, running back, and fullback, which equals the allowed 11 players on the field.
To make room for the slot receiver, offenses today often elect to do away with the fullback. That’s a big reason why the fullback is almost non-existent in today’s game — along with the versatility of the tight end position.
Slot Receiver Skill Set
Slot receivers are drafted and signed as wide receivers, but generally earn the title of slot receiver due to their unique and specific skill set. They can do things that most wideouts can’t do, giving the offense a secret weapon that they unleash often throughout the football game.
Here are five of the most prominent skills a slot receiver should have:
- Speed: a slot receiver uses their speed to fly past the secondary, usually the safety, when running a go route. It also helps them when running with the ball.
- Hands: slot receivers need to be reliable with great hands. Not only do they receive a lot of targets, but they absorb a lot of contact when catching the ball in the slot area.
- Route Running: a slot receiver runs just about every route you can think of. The more routes they perfect, the better. This also means being precise with their timing.
- Chemistry: having good chemistry with the quarterback is crucial for any receiver, but especially a slot receiver. When they can sync up with the QB, success is inevitable.
- Blocking: to be an effective slot receiver, you must know how and when to block. Without a fullback or extra tight end on the play, they need to fill in for that spot well.
The more versatile a slot receiver is, the better off the offense is. They’ll not only see a lot of playing time, but they’ll become a crucial part of the offensive playbook. Some slot receivers see more targets and gain better stats than the No. 2 and No. 1 receivers on their teams.
Slot Receiver Size & Number
Slot receivers normally don’t look like your typical wide receiver. They look more like a running back than anything else. They’re shorter, stockier, and tougher. For example, the average slot receiver is around 6’0’’ tall (sometimes smaller) and weighs around 180-190 lbs.
With that said, it’s not a requirement that slot receivers are small and stocky. Some slot receivers are taller, around 6’3’’. As long as they’re tough enough to absorb contact in the middle of the field and fast enough to blow past incoming defenders, they can find success in the slot.
As far as the number they wear, it’s no different than any other wide receiver. They’re allowed to wear any number between 1-49 or 80-89. This is different from the year’s past, which allowed them to wear 10-19 or 80-89. The NFL relaxed their restrictions leading up to the 2021-22 season.
Slot Receiver Routes
Due to their positioning on the football field, slot receivers can run a variety of routes. This is why you’ll often see slot receivers catch the ball all over the field. The more routes they perfect, the more versatile they are and the harder it is to defend them. They become a QB’s best friend.
Here are some of the more prominent routes a slot receiver should know:
- Flat: the receiver runs around five yards downfield before breaking towards the sideline.
- Slant: the receiver runs a few yards before breaking inside towards the middle of the field at a slant.
- Comeback: the receiver runs around 10 yards downfield before breaking out towards the line of scrimmage.
- Curl: the receiver runs around 10 yards downfield before breaking in towards the line of scrimmage (opposite of comeback).
- Out: the receiver runs around 10 yards downfield before breaking out towards the sideline.
- In: the receiver runs around 10 yards downfield before breaking in towards the middle of the field.
- Post: the receiver runs around 10 yards downfield before breaking in towards the middle of the field at a slant.
- Corner: the receiver runs around 10 yards downfield before breaking out towards the corner of the field at a slant.
- Fly: also known as the ‘go’ route, the receiver uses his speed and runs straight towards the end zone.
- Bubble: the receiver catches the ball behind the line of scrimmage and utilizes a screen to gain extra yardage after the catch.
- Drag: similar to a slant, but it’s a rounded in-breaking route.
- Wheel: the receiver starts to run a flat route but breaks upfield into a corner or post route before reaching the sideline.
In today’s game, coaches are extremely creative with their use of slot receivers. When combining their route with a wideout’s route, they effectively attack all depths of the defense — short, medium, and long. As long as the QB makes the right read, the offense will most likely succeed.
Slot vs Wideout
Despite both being receivers, the most striking difference between a slot receiver and wideout is where they line up on the field. Slot receivers line up behind the line of scrimmage and closer to the offensive linemen, while wideouts line up on the line of scrimmage and next to the sideline.
Another difference is in the routes they run. While a slot receiver can run any route given to them, wideouts can only run fly routes and in-breaking routes. Since they’re next to the sideline, they don’t have enough room to run out-breaking routes unless they line up in the slot area.
The final difference between a slot receiver and wideout is the size. Where a slot receiver is smaller and stockier, a wideout is typically taller and skinnier.
Best Slot Receivers in the NFL
The slot receiver is a hot commodity in the NFL today. Every team has at least one receiver that thrives in the slot, though certain teams utilize this player more than others. Those teams are extremely difficult to defend, making them some of the most successful teams in the league.
Below, we’re going to detail some of the most prominent slot receivers in the NFL today, in no particular order (all stats given are from the slot in 2020, not total receiving stats):
- Tyreek Hill: 56 receptions, 831 yards, 9 touchdowns from the slot.
- Cole Beasley: 80 receptions, 960 yards, 4 touchdowns from the slot.
- Keenan Allen: 64 receptions, 662 yards, 8 touchdowns from the slot.
- Tyler Lockett: 67 receptions, 756 yards, 7 touchdowns from the slot.
- Robert Woods: 64 receptions, 590 yards, 2 touchdowns from the slot.
- Juju Smith-Schuster: 85 receptions, 738 yards, 9 touchdowns from the slot.
- Tyler Boyd: 71 receptions, 781 yards, 4 touchdowns from the slot.
- Cooper Kupp: 68 receptions, 742 yards, 2 touchdowns from the slot.
- CeeDee Lamb: 67 receptions, 909 yards, 5 touchdowns from the slot.
- Justin Jefferson: 51 receptions, 882 yards, 3 touchdowns from the slot.
- Davante Adams: 75 receptions, 788 yards, 9 touchdowns from the slot.
Keep in mind, there are plenty of No. 1 and No. 2 receivers that line up in the slot from time to time. For example, Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, Stefon Diggs, and Odell Beckham Jr. all spend time in the slot area. Of course, they aren’t considered true slot receivers in the NFL.
Best Slot Receivers of All Time
Despite the slot receiver position becoming much more popular in recent years, the position has been of great importance for several decades. Over that time, several players have exemplified what it means to be a slot receiver and have paved the way for the position as we know it today.
Let’s take a look at some of the best slot receivers of all time, in no particular order:
- Wayne Chrebet: 580 receptions, 7,365 yards, and 41 touchdowns over his 11-year career.
- Wes Welker: 903 receptions, 9,924 yards, 50 touchdowns over his 12-year career.
- Charlie Joiner: 750 receptions, 12,146 yards, 65 touchdowns over his 18-year career.
- Julian Edelman: 620 receptions, 6,822 yards, 36 touchdowns over his 11-year career (still active).
- Andre Rison: 743 receptions, 10,205 yards, 84 touchdowns over his 12-year career.
- Hines Ward: 1,000 receptions, 12,083 yards, 85 touchdowns over his 14-year career.
- Ernest Givins: 571 receptions, 8,215 yards, 49 touchdowns over his 10-year career.
- Larry Fitzgerald: 1,432 receptions, 17,492 yards, 121 touchdowns over his 17-year career.
The NFL is currently in the golden era of slot receivers, so don’t be surprised if you see this list grow with some modern players as they continue their careers. Players like Tyreek Hill, Cole Beasley, and Juju Smith-Schuster are certainly names to keep an eye on in the future.