In the 2019 NFL season, per Sports Info Solutions, there were 19,933 total quarterback dropbacks. Against those dropbacks, NFL defenses put four defensive backs on the field just 18% of the time (3,579 snaps), while nickel defense (with five defensive backs) ruled the league by far with 59% of all snaps (11,780). And if you want to know how much the NFL isn’t a base defense league anymore, consider this: Defenses lined up in dime coverage (six defensive backs on the field) on 20.9% of total dropbacks (4,091), which means that teams played more dime defense than base defense. The Seahawks were the only team to play base defense more than 50% of the time (67%), and the Cardinals finished second at 37%.
Below is a list of the NFL's top five slot receivers through 13 weeks of NFL action. Coming in at number five, we have the Jacksonville Jaguars ‘ second-year receiver, Dede Westbrook. Westbrook has taken 90% of his snaps from the slot, which is the most of any receiver, and he has racked up 525 slot receiving yards. In 2019, Jarvis Landry was one of those special weapons from the slot. Only two receivers produced more big plays from the slot than Landry did for Cleveland last season, per Pro Football Focus. “Juice” squeezed out an impressive 19 gains of 15 yards or more while operating from the slot.
In the 2019 NFL season, per Sports Info Solutions, there were 19,933 total quarterback dropbacks. Against those dropbacks, NFL defenses put four defensive backs on the field just 18% of the time (3,579 snaps), while nickel defense (with five defensive backs) ruled the league by far with 59% of all snaps (11,780).
All this is to say that unless you’re the Seahawks, you’d better have some top-level slot defenders if you want to put a credible pass defense out there in a league where offenses are implementing more kinds of receiver sets and route combinations than ever before.
And it’s not as if the skill sets required to be a slot defender are the same as those for an outside cornerback. You might be up against a 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end on first down who can body you right out of the paint, and on the next play, you may have to deal with a small, speedy option-route receiver whose job is to juke you right out of your shoes. And as Richard Sherman once told me in his Seattle days, the thing about playing outside cornerback is that the boundary is your friend. That’s not the case when you’re in the slot, where you’re defending in space pretty much all the time.
So, which slot defenders were the most effective and valuable to their teams in 2019, and thus should be set up to do the same in 2020? With help from Pro Football Focus’ metrics, and a whole lot of tape study, here’s one list. To avoid small sample-size results, each of these defenders played at least 50% of their snaps in the slot.
Mike Hilton Chris Harris Jr. Jourdan Lewis Tramon Williams Mackensie Alexander Nickell Robey-Coleman Marlon Humphrey D.J. Hayden Brian Poole K’Waun Williams Tyrann Mathieu
Even a decade ago, your average slot defender was just that — average. A smaller guy without the speed to take outside receivers up the post routes and down the sideline. But as NFL offenses have defaulted to three- and four-receiver sets, the nickel and dime defender has not only become a de facto starter, but also as important as any other defensive back on the field.
Imagine you’re a slot cornerback in today’s NFL. One week, you have to deal with Minnesota’s Adam Thielen and his array of precise routes — not to mention his ability to streak downfield for a huge play if you make any hint of a mistake. The next week, you’re up against the Eagles’ Zach Ertz, getting bodied out by a 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end in devilish route combinations. The next week, you may have to face Antonio Brown in a week when his coaches decide to make him a primary slot receiver. Good luck with that.
But hey, at least Rob Gronkowski retired, so that’s one slot nightmare out of the way.
The point is, slot defenders are tested in new and vicious ways in the modern league, and their skill sets to defend speed, option routes and increased uses of receiver space are unique. Most great outside cornerbacks want to stay outside for those exact reasons. As Richard Sherman once told me, the boundary is your friend, and if you have open space on both sides of your coverage, it isn’t a lot of fun.
So, here are the best slot defenders in the business coming into the 2019 season, and what makes each one of them special.
Top Slot Receivers Nfl 2019
Losing Bryce Callahan to the Broncos in free agency was a blow for Chicago’s defense, but it would have been far worse had McManis not established himself as an estimable slot cornerback in his own right. The 31-year-old veteran doesn’t have top-end speed, but he understands defensive spacing and placement — he’s one of those guys who always seems to be around the ball. In 2018, McManis allowed just 12 receptions on 22 slot targets for 80 yards, 42 yards after the catch, no touchdowns and an opponent passer rating of 62.7. You want to see a larger sample size of targets before moving him up this list, but 2018 was a step in the right direction.