PHOENIX – There has long been a school of thought that NFL slot receivers must be of a certain size and height in order to operate efficiently in the middle of the field.
The 2019 Packers may very well test that ideology.
The departure of veteran Randall Cobb in free agency has left a vacancy in Green Bay’s slot, a position that figures to be pivotal in new Head Coach Matt LaFleur’s offense.
Yet, neither LaFleur nor General Manager Brian Gutekunst is of the opinion the Packers’ next slot receiver must have the same makeup and measurables as the 5-foot-10, 192-pound Cobb.
“Any receiver it starts with their ability to separate, that’s one thing we’re always looking for,” said LaFleur at this week’s NFL Annual Meetings. “But I think a slot, especially with what we want to do, has to have some good instincts, and really you want a smart player that you can call choice routes with and it takes smart players to do that.”
LaFleur has learned slot receivers come in all shapes and sizes during his decade in the league. Mohamed Sanu (6-2, 210) was a dynamic force in the middle of the field in Atlanta when LaFleur was an assistant for the Falcons in 2015-16.
As the offensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams in 2017, LaFleur led the NFL’s highest-scoring offense with 6-foot-2, 208-pound Cooper Kupp lining up in the slot. The rookie third-round pick caught 62 passes for 869 yards and five touchdowns.
Last year in Tennessee, LaFleur had big plans for 6-foot-2, 248-pound Delanie Walker in the middle of the field before they needed to be shelved when the four-time Pro Bowler suffered a significant leg injury in the opener.
Over the past three years, the Packers have filled their receiving corps with tall and lengthy prospects Geronimo Allison (6-3, 202), Equanimeous St. Brown (6-5, 214), Marquez Valdes-Scantling (6-4, 206), J’Mon Moore (6-3, 205) and former UW-Whitewater standout Jake Kumerow (6-4, 209).
Speaking with reporters at this week’s NFL Annual Meetings, LaFleur singled out Allison as a versatile receiver with “a lot of flexibility to play inside or outside.” Gutekunst added the overriding similarity of successful slot receivers is skill and durability.
“There’s a little bit more of a skill set you have to have in there; the ability to kind of separate and create in space,” said Gutekunst of slot-receiver play. “Obviously, inside there, you have to be able to hold up and take the pounding that comes with that job. So there’s probably a body type moving forward that’s able to separate and stay healthy.”
Allison, entering his fourth season after signing a one-year deal with the Packers earlier this month, had 20 catches for 303 yards and two touchdowns in five games last season before a core muscle injury ended his season prematurely.
The former undrafted free agent ran away with the No. 3 job behind Adams and Cobb last summer despite the Packers investing three draft picks at receiver in the draft.
Allison had at least 60 receiving yards in each of his four September starts and caught a 64-yard touchdown pass in the Packers’ Week 3 matchup with Washington. It turned out to be the Packers’ second-longest passing play of 2018.
“I’m a big fan of Geronimo,” Gutekunst said. “I’m really glad to have him back. I think he’s a really good football player. It’s unfortunate what happened to him last year. He does things the right way. He works hard. He’s a true professional and he’s very gifted.”
With Allison already on injured reserve and Cobb missing seven games last year due to a hamstring injury and late-season concussion, the Packers were forced to try new options in the slot.
The ace up their offensive sleeve was the two-time Pro Bowler Adams, who began lining up more inside as the season wore on.
He finished with 111 catches for 1,386 yards and 13 touchdowns. According to Pro Football Focus, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound receiver caught 27 passes for 317 yards and three touchdowns from the slot last season.
Rookies Valdes-Scantling (18-283-1) and St. Brown (5-97) also dabbled inside a little, while tight end Jimmy Graham led Green Bay with 36 catches for 383 yards and a touchdown when lining up in the slot.
LaFleur believes the best slot receivers take what a defense gives them and capitalizes on mismatches. If the defense shows zone, they can sit down in coverage and make the opposition pay. If defenses go man with inside leverage, they can break outside, and vice versa.
LaFleur wants to attack all three levels of the defense and the slot position plays a big part in that execution. Looking at Green Bay’s WR depth chart, LaFleur sees the required skill sets to get that job done.
“We’re always trying to stretch the field vertically with our three-level throws,” LaFleur said. “Not necessarily throwing the top level, but you’ve got to have somebody with speed to get down there and make sure you’re clearing out the defense to open up those deep crossing routes and try to get those explosive plays. There’s a lot of versatility within our receiving corps that we have already.”
A lot can change between now and next month’s NFL Draft. Gutekunst has 10 picks at his disposal and could add another receiver or two. The Packers have drafted 12 over the last six years, after all.
While he doesn’t believe the Packers will need to draft skill-position players any differently for LaFleur’s offense than they did for Mike McCarthy’s, Gutekunst also understands the importance finding the right fit in the middle of the field.
“I think the slot receiver is maybe something that’s a little more prominent in his offense than what Mike’s was,” Gutekunst said. “But yeah, big, tall and fast, that’s a good thing.”