I recently wrote an article detailing eight lessons we learned about the Miami Dolphins based on the team's 2013 preseason. One of the lessons I explained in the piece was that the Miami Dolphins prefer an unconventional prototype to man their slot receiver position.
The most common prototype for the slot receiver at the NFL level are players like Wes Welker. These players are usually quicker than fast, often with size limitations, but also possessing fantastic ball skills, great balance and the ability to transition seamlessly from the catch to the run-after-catch.
From 2008 to 2012, receiver Davone Bess fit this mold perfectly for the Miami Dolphins. He wasted very few steps in running his routes, created separation easily on underneath routes, had very good ball skills and could transition perfectly from the catch to the run-after-catch.
However, this type of player has limitations. When asked to run routes that are more vertically oriented, the smaller stature and/or lack of pure speed tends to put the ball at risk. That is why sometimes you will find slot receivers who are much bigger, with more athletic prowess. Two examples of this kind of player are Miles Austin of the Dallas Cowboys and Marques Colston of the New Orleans Saints. Both players work out of the slot a large percentage of the time, and both players have big frames with impressive athletic ability.
One common misconception is that the Miami Dolphins prefer a less conventional prototype of slot receiver because they want every receiver to be able to play every receiver position. There has been very little evidence of this, whether it be in Green Bay, in Miami during the 2012 season or during the 2013 preseason.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), this preseason Mike Wallace took 52 snaps on the perimeter versus only one snap in the slot. Brian Hartline similarly took 50 snaps on the perimeter versus only five in the slot. When Brandon Gibson, Wallace and Hartline were all on the field together at the same time, Gibson only took one snap on the perimeter as opposed to the slot.
These players' roles have been established pretty clearly with very little crossover, which should not surprise those familiar with Joe Philbin's time in Green Bay. In Green Bay, the data points to certain receivers taking the overwhelming majority of their snaps from the perimeter, versus other receivers who were almost always designated to move into the slot on plays where a slot receiver was required.
Even so, the Dolphins showed they prefer the bigger, more unconventional prototype that looks like a boundary receiver, as opposed to the smaller prototype. They showed this a number of other ways during the preseason. In the previous piece on lessons learned in the preseason, I focused on the pattern of personnel maneuvers and snap allocations to certain players that represented different prototypes.
In this piece, I wanted to go beyond the trail of circumstantial evidence and show what the Miami Dolphins are actually doing on the football field with their slot receivers that makes them prefer players such as Gibson, Marvin McNutt and Armon Binns over the likes of Bess and Chad Bumphis.
The 2013 preseason game against the New Orleans Saints serves as an excellent case study for a number of reasons.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), receivers Bumphis and McNutt ran 34 of the 35 routes that were run by Miami wide receivers from the slot that night. Each player perfectly represents a different prototype for the slot position. Bumphis is a short strider, much quicker than fast, with good overall ball skills and excellent run-after-catch abilities. He is a natural receiver with a lot of experience catching passes in the SEC. However, he is only 5'10".
McNutt is more of a long strider, a straight-line type of player who does not necessarily possess great run-after-catch skills. His ball skills are still a bit raw as he converted from quarterback to wide receiver in college and still has a tendency to lazily catch the ball with one hand when it is placed outside his frame. However, he is 6'3" and presents a much bigger target for quarterbacks.
I have diagrammed all the routes run by McNutt and Bumphis on plays in which the two players were targeted by their quarterback. The numbers next to the route do not represent the route number designation on the route tree. Rather, they represent the order in which the routes were thrown during the game. You will notice that one route has both a "1" and a "6" next to it. This is because the Dolphins threw this route twice during the game.
What I find interesting about this set of routes, all of which were run out of the slot, is that four of the eight targeted routes were vertical in nature, while the other four broke horizontally.
As a rule, I find that horizontally breaking routes require quickness, the ability to create separation, and provide the potential for the player to show off his run-after-catch skills. Vertically breaking routes require more in the way of physical, athletic prowess. Therefore, it is interesting the Dolphins took equal advantage of both types of routes as the receivers made their sight adjustments based on the coverage.
A great example of putting a square peg in a round hole happened on the interception quarterback Pat Devlin threw while trying to hit Bumphis over the middle. The route in question on the previous diagram is labeled "4" as it was the fourth ball thrown to a slot receiver during the game.
As you can see this route involved the receiver slanting hard to the inside and defeating the jam against press coverage, then slanting toward the inside of the hashes while breaking vertically up the seam. The slot corner in man coverage jumped underneath the route and it was ultimately Devlin's job to either recognize the coverage was too tight and move to a different option, or to throw the receiver open using ball placement and touch.
Devlin could not accomplish the latter, and the defender was able to tip the ball up into the air, leading to an interception. Close inspection of the captured still frame shows it would have been very difficult for Devlin to throw Bumphis open on this play, because Bumphis' frame does not provide a very big target with which to work. This is the primary reason why Philbin and Mike Sherman seem to prefer size in their slot receivers.
All of that said, the preference is not completely cut-and-dry. As the diagram shows, half of the routes thrown to the slot receiver are the kinds of routes where a Bumphis or Bess would excel better due to their quickness and run-after-catch abilities, as opposed to a McNutt or Gibson.
The Dolphins, therefore, had to prioritize which roles were most important to them, and decide their personnel accordingly.
They seem to have made that choice.