When you think of the best receivers in the NFL, the guys at the top of the list are athletic freaks. They're 6' 4" and over 200 pounds—guys like Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, A.J. Green, Brandon Marshall and Roddy White.
They're prototypical NFL receivers in the modern era. Steve Smith is the exception not the rule, except that may be changing.
NFL teams are finding that the best way to use your best receiver is to move him around the formation—let him go in motion and work the middle of the field from the slot. That way, the corner can't use the boundary as a helper, and the most dynamic player is given a wider swath of field to work.
Andre Johnson is having a comeback season and MegaTron could break Jerry Rice's yards record. Brandon Marshall has invigorated the Chicago offense, A.J. Green might be the best in the game and Julio Jones isn't far from being on that level as well.
But there's something different about this season. Whether it's the rise of cover two to stop teams from getting deep or just a function of the players in the league right now, the slot receiver—a smaller, quicker and more versatile player—has made a comeback in a big way.
Victor Cruz helped the Giants win a Super Bowl last year, coming from obscurity to become perhaps the best slot receiver in football. But he's not third on the depth chart like Steve Breaston was for those dynamic Kurt Warner Cardinal offenses. He's a legitimate No. 1 receiver.
Randall Cobb, officially listed on Green Bay's depth chart as the fourth receiver, leads the league in end-zone targets and has exploded onto the NFL scene as a Victor Cruz-type impact player.
Before he got injured, Percy Harvin was getting MVP buzz over the way he was playing for the Vikings, leading them to early season victories and a playoff push.
In New Orleans, Lance Moore is the key cog to that passing attack along with the equally diminutive Darren Sproles.
Even in lesser passing offenses like Jacksonvillle and Miami, players like Devone Bess and Cecil Shorts are shining.
In a league where everyone seems to be getting bigger, faster and stronger, teams are finding wide receivers who are just faster and stronger without the bigger part.
Both the Vikings and the Packers use their pint-sized playmakers as returners, running backs and wide receivers. Younger players like Steve Johnson and Kendall Wright have flashed the ability to be playmakers despite their size limitations as well.
In recent years DeSean Jackson and Steve Smith, along with Wes Welker, have carried the torch for the vertically challenged receiver, but they were always the exception, not the rule.
But when you watch the NFL this season and see so many teams now employing these smaller shifty receivers who can line up in the backfield, return kicks, even run the wildcat, it's becoming clear that offensive coordinators are looking for this type of versatile playmaker.
Ironically, this has always been part of the college game where sheer athleticism was often good enough. Perhaps 15 years ago Darren Sproles would have simply been a returner and third-down back in the image of Dave Meggett.
Today, he's one of the most explosive and versatile players in the league thanks to wide open offenses and creative offensive minds like Sean Payton and Mike McCarthy.
It should be no surprise that a player like Tavon Austin, who appears to be Percy Harvin 2.0, is getting recognized as a potential first round pick with the success of similar players in the league right now.
Teams will still covet the monstrous, vaguely human species of wide receivers who are 6' 4" and run 4.4 40's,but if you look at the best offenses in the league, they have a special player in the slot. Green Bay has two (Greg Jennings, once he gets healthy).
When Peyton Manning can revive the career of Brandon Stokely, you know something special is happening with slot receivers as the game evolves. Stokely is no longer a dying breed but rather the beginning of an evolutionary chain.
Slot receivers no longer have to be second, third or even fourth on the depth chart. They can be at the top of the depth chart despite their short statures because there's one thing that makes a player stand tall in the NFL: being an impact player.
When it comes to making big plays, this new generation of slot receivers rarely come up short.
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