Slot Options Set to Dominate Yet Another Deep WR Class for 2023 NFL Draft
Slot receiver has long been considered a starting spot in the lineup, and the position is often critical to offensive success. As such, its value has never been greater, particularly in relation to the 2023 NFL draft class and some of its top-rated wide receivers.
The days of some undersized target entering a contest only on third down have gone the way of the dinosaur. The league has featured at least three wide receivers on the field for over 60 percent of its snaps in each of its last four seasons, according to Sharp Football's Warren Sharp.
To be clear, most wide receivers can play in the slot or outside the numbers. They regularly cross-train at all three receiver designations. What matters is where they do the most damage based on their skill sets.
For example, the NFL ecosystem balked when the Jacksonville Jaguars signed Christian Kirk to a whopping four-year, $72 million free-agent contract. Yet he's been worth every penny as the team's leading receiver, even though he plays from the slot almost as much as any other receiver.
Value is based on the individual's talent and utilization.
Among the incoming draft class, TCU's Quentin Johnston is generally considered WR1 because he presents traditional X-receiver traits as a 6'4", 215-pound option with outstanding ball skills and the ability to gain yards after the catch. From there, arguably six of the next-best prospects can all be considered standout slot options and almost certainly future Day 1 or 2 selections.
Jordan Addison, USC
Two Biletnikoff Award winners are counted among this class. Jordan Addison received the hardware given to the nation's most outstanding receiver thanks to his 2021 efforts playing alongside quarterback Kenny Pickett with the Pitt Panthers.
Addison proved to be a menace for opposing defenses with 100 receptions for 1,593 yards and 17 touchdowns. The 20-year-old transferred to USC and didn't have quite the season many expected. His numbers tumbled to 59 catches for 875 yards and eight scores, though a slight ankle injury did hamper him to a degree.
At full tilt, Addison is nearly impossible to cover. The suddenness in his movements to snap off routes and create separation even in small areas give him a solid first-round grade despite a smaller frame at a listed 6'0" and 175 pounds.
"People have to see him in person," an anonymous scout told ESPN's Matt Miller. "He's not a lean 175 pounds. The dude is rocked up, plays very strong and is physical."
The receiver's playing strength allows him to excel when creating after the catch.
During the aforementioned breakout year at Pitt, Addison led college football with 12 touchdowns when working from the slot, per Pro Football Focus. The junior entered this season with the most receiving yards from the slot since the start of the '20 campaign. He also produced the highest quarterback rating from the alignment, according to Shaun Calderon of USA Today's Titans Wire.
This past season may not have gone according to plan, but Addison remains one of the class' most dangerous offensive weapons.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State
The lasting memory of Jaxon Smith-Njigba's career at Ohio State will be his record-setting 347-yard explosion against the Utah Utes in the Rose Bowl just over a year ago.
Unfortunately, Smith-Njigba didn't have much of a chance to build upon that momentum, because a lingering hamstring injury cost him the majority of the 2022 campaign.
He played in only three games this past fall and couldn't even compete in the Buckeyes' College Football Playoff appearance. His inability to do so brought questions about his priorities, which his father quickly squashed.
"Being (with) my son yesterday for his first day of rehab and seeing his limitations for myself gave me peace (with) our families (sic) choice to get my son healthy," he tweeted (h/t the Columbus Dispatch's Colin Gay. "Encouraging him (to) play would be selfish and abusive. I'm at peace (because) I know he's in the right hands (for) recovery."
Basically, the '22 campaign was a lost season. Thus, scouts must go back to what they saw a year earlier, when Smith-Njigba outproduced two future first-round picks in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson while playing almost exclusively out of the slot.
The then-second-year receiver had the highest career grade ever for a Buckeyes wide receiver during the Pro Football Focus era. As of August, his 90 percent contested catch rate in '21 ranked only second to Justin Jefferson's 2019 effort since the start of the '17 season.
At 6'1" and 200 pounds, Smith-Njigba is built a little differently than typical slot targets. He's not as fast or as shifty. However, his strong hands, route running and ability to create after the catch make him a fascinating evaluation—with the caveat that he has to stay healthy.
Rashee Rice, SMU
A slot designation can be broken down into two categories: The typical small, shifty option who works underneath and option routes, and the power (or big) slot who uses his size and physicality to work through traffic and contribute heavily in his team's ground attack.
SMU's Rashee Rice fits more of the latter as a 6'2", 203-pounder who helps in the run game with his blocking on the edge.
Rice can play all over the formation, and he elevated his game in each of his seasons with the Mustangs, to the point where he finished this past year with 96 receptions for 1,355 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The first-team All-AAC performer presents sudden start-stop capabilities in his route running to break off defensive backs. At the same time, Rice employs a physical brand of football that includes running through tacklers and lighting up cornerbacks at the point of attack.
The latter is becoming more important with each passing year since wide receivers aren't just asked to crack back, they're also asked to serve as lead blockers in some offenses.
Rice can also stretch the field while exhibiting extraordinary body control and strong hands to fight for passes. Still, inconsistency at the catch point is a potential hang-up for NFL evaluators.
"I like him a lot, but he dropped too many easy ones for me," an area scout told ESPN's Matt Miller. "You can argue he had more targets so it leads to more drops, but that's the one thing I don't think receivers can really clean up at the next level. It keeps a good receiver from being great."
Josh Downs, North Carolina
Josh Downs is the wide receiver with the most shimmy and shake among this year's class. He is the classic slot receiver and played 89 percent of his snaps on the inside, according to Pro Football Focus' Michael Renner.
North Carolina officially listed Downs at 5'10" and 175 pounds, and his size is a big reason some front offices won't view him in any other manner. That didn't limit him from being one of the nation's most productive receivers over the last two seasons.
As a sophomore and junior, the two-time first-team All-ACC performer caught 195 passes for 2,364 yards and 19 touchdowns. Downs will bring added value to his professional squad because of his punt return capabilities.
"He's not big, but he's muscled up," an anonymous NFL scout told ESPN's Pete Thamel. "He's got enough thickness to him. He's quick as a cat, can get open and can be a dynamic playmaker with the ball. All these NFL receivers are such playmakers now, it's changed the way that teams look at the position."
The speed and quickness with which Downs plans make him nearly unguardable in one-on-one situations. Coming out of this past regular season, he earned Pro Football Focus' highest grade against single coverage a season ago, he led all Power Five wide receivers with 95 slot receptions.
His lack of size isn't necessarily a detriment, though. Downs is fast and electric in space, having posted 754 yards after catch in 2021, which is an ACC-best since the start of the '15 campaign. He was also highly effective working in the red zone.
Zay Flowers, Boston College
When it comes to pure ability to separate from coverage, Boston College's Zay Flowers is right there with Addison and Downs and could be better than both.
"If I had to pick a favorite small speed guy, it would be Flowers. His ability to stop and start and accelerate is nice," at least one NFL general manager told ESPN's Matt Miller.
Despite playing with multiple starting quarterbacks and making no bowl appearances over the last three seasons, the two-time All-ACC wide receiver still caught 178 passes for 2,715 yards and 26 touchdowns during that stretch.
But like Addison and Downs, certain NFL organizations will view him in a certain manner because he's only 5'10" and 172 pounds. The mistake will be assuming that Flowers is pigeonholed into a role. Yes, he can be a dynamic slot receiver, although another comparison should come to mind.
Jahan Dotson measured under 5'11" and weighed 178 pounds at last year's combine. His performance didn't dictate his being a pure slot receiver after the Washington Commanders selected him with the 16th pick.
The same should be said of Flowers, who brings another gear and urgent style in his game. The slight receiver also displays excellent ball-tracking skills and the body control to make adjustments on poorly thrown passes.
Flowers caught a pass of 31 or more yards in nine of Boston College's 12 games this past year despite playing in the nation's 52nd-ranked passing offense. No other receiver on the Eagles roster managed more than 388 yards. Flowers should blossom in an NFL passing attack.
Jalin Hyatt, Tennessee
Tennessee's Jalin Hyatt is the other Biletnikoff Award winner in this class. He's a completely different prospect than Addison, though.
Vertical speed is always alluring. NFL franchises pine for the ability to take the top off any defense at a moment's notice, because chunk-play capability increases efficiency when defenses are trying to keep everything in front of them and force a quarterback into a game-changing mistake.
Hyatt is a burner who runs a sub-4.4-second 40-yard dash and is a record-holder at his high school with a 21.33-second 200-meter dash, per VT Scoop's Evan G. Watkins.
Tennessee took full advantage of Hyatt's speed. The Volunteers employ a vertical passing attack inspired by the old Baylor Bears offensive scheme. As such, its wide receivers aren't asked to run a wide variety of routes. But what they do, they do very well.
Hyatt torched opponents with 1,267 receiving yards and 15 touchdown grabs, doing most of his damage out of the slot. His 955 yards when working inside the numbers led the Power Five after the 2022 regular season, per Pro Football Focus. His average of 18.9 yards per reception led all FBS wide receivers with 55 or more catches.
The concern is how Hyatt's speed will translate since Tennessee's offense didn't ask of him what professional receivers are expected to do. His route tree is limited. Even his alignments will change. He'll have some concentration-related drops, too. Furthermore, he's not an overly physical receiver at 6'0" and 185 pounds.
Speed is Hyatt's primary selling point. For some team, that'll be good enough—especially if it has a plan to utilize him properly.