2020 Slot vs Wide: Jared Goff, Derek Carr and Other Notable Passers
Our annual look at slot/wide splits in the passing game continues thanks to the charting efforts from our friends at Sports Info Solutions. Last time, we looked at wide receivers, where we saw that the days of the full-time wide receiver appear to be behind us. Today, we’re flipping over to quarterbacks to see which passers continued to occasionally look outside the numbers.
The following table shows the data for the 36 qualified passers from 2020. Each player’s DYAR, DVOA, and number of targets are shown on passes to receivers both in the slot and split wide. The table is sorted by descending Slot%, which is passes thrown to players who were lined up in the slot as a percentage of passes thrown to players at wide receiver positions (i.e., slot and wide are included, but not at tight end or in the backfield). That does include passes to tight ends and running backs if they lined up in traditional wideout positions. Note that the charting labels come from players’ locations on the field regardless of the positioning of their teammates. A receiver on one side of the formation who was a few feet away from the offensive line was considered to be in the slot even if he was the widest receiver on that side.
In addition, the difference in DVOA from slot to wide is shown.
And they’re going … going … gone! For the first time since we began looking at this data, no quarterback threw wide more often than they threw to the slot. Leaguewide, we only saw a slight uptick from 60.7% to 61.3%, but that was enough to drag the last stragglers over the line. When we first ran this data in 2016, there were still quarterbacks who threw wide more than 60% of the time; we even saw Deshaun Watson top 70% in as recently as 2017. No more—as the league continues to explore the advantages of moving their receivers inside the hashmarks, every passer is looking inside more than outside. If the QB vision cone from Madden 06 was still around, you could leave it locked permanently down the center and be alright in the modern NFL.
It’s scheme that really dictates most of a quarterback’s slot percentage, as opposed to personal quirks of individual passers; you can’t throw the ball to a receiver who isn’t there. Both the passer who saw the highest increase in slot percentage from 2019 (Teddy Bridgewater, going from 56.8% to 65.9%) and the one who saw the biggest decrease (Tom Brady, going from 63.3% to 56.4%) switched teams in 2020. Other significant swings can be chalked up to changes in coaching, as Baker Mayfield, Dak Prescott, and Kirk Cousins all saw their slot percentage jump by at least five points last season with new playcallers in the building.
Other large changes come from personnel shifts. In 2019, Deshaun Watson’s top three slot targets were DeAndre Hopkins (36%), Will Fuller (21%), and Kenny Stills (17%). Well, Hopkins played 2020 in Arizona, Fuller was suspended for the last five games of the season, and Stills was released in November after disappearing from the offense; adding Randall Cobb didn’t really offset those losses. It’s not at all surprising that Watson would look outside more to Brandin Cooks under these circumstances, but it was the Fuller suspension that was really the straw that broke the camel’s back. Watson’s slot percentage fell from 72.2% to 65.0% after Fuller was exiled; by that point, Keke Coutee was the last man standing as a slot target for the Texans and the team was in full-on quit mode.
Health also played a part around the league. Michael Thomas’ injuries led the Saints to using more of Emmanuel Sanders in the slot than perhaps they expected, which affected Drew Brees’ slot percentage. In Jacksonville, Dede Westbrook’s injury opened room for Keelan Cole in the slot, explaining Gardner Minshew’s rise. In Philadelphia, Zach Ertz fell off a cliff and Greg Ward isn’t exactly the most tempting replacement, so Carson Wentz’s slot percentage dropped accordingly.
Really, there are only two passers who saw significant changes in their slot/wide usage that can’t be easily dismissed. Sam Darnold’s slot percentage jumped by 6.1%; explaining Adam Gase’s offensive philosophy is more fit for a graduate-level seminar on whether or not an offense can truly be “designed” rather than a quick leaguewide survey. And then there’s 2020 slot leader Jared Goff, who actually fell from 78.0% to 72.9% in 2020; we’ll get to him in just a few moments.
Same Team, Different Results
Of course, that’s not to say that all aspects of a quarterback’s target selection are based on the situation they find themselves in, with the Washington Football Team serving as an excellent Exhibit A. Since we started tracking this stat in 2016, Alex Smith has always been near the top in slot percentage when he has qualified, and his reliance on inside players stretches back long before that—remember when he went all of 2014 without throwing a touchdown pass to a wide receiver? Yeah, that was always Smith’s game, and it became more and more prominent as his never-impressive arm strength waned. Smith’s bread and butter were the outs, curls, and drags from tight ends and inside receivers, and heck, 23 of his 58 wide throws in 2020 were screens or quick slants. That’s just who he was throughout his career, only moreso. It’s not at all surprising that Dwayne Haskins’ Football Team would look both deeper and wider than Smith’s, considering Haskins’ lead in arm strength and greater willingness to take risks, whether or not those risks were worth taking.
The other team with a quarterback split was the Bears, with Nick Foles at 58.7% and Mitchell Trubisky at 67.5%. That’s less a quarterback split as it is the shuffling of roles in Chicago’s receiving corps. In his first three games, Trubisky had a slot percentage of 62.5%; a little higher than Foles but not by enough to really be worth remarking on. When Trubisky came back from the bench later in the season, that jumped up to 70.0%. In Trubisky’s absence, slot receiver Anthony Miller had gotten somewhat in Matt Nagy’s doghouse, with Darnell Mooney jumping him on the depth chart. Rookie tight end Cole Kmet saw more playing time too as Jimmy Graham was slowly phased down. Both Foles and Trubisky saw their slot percentage rise as the season went along as Mooney and Kmet saw more playtime; most of what you’re getting in the difference between their percentages is the fact that Trubisky got all the late-season work while Foles was under center in the middle of that transition.
It may look like Aaron Rodgers and Josh Allen tied for most DYAR in the slot, but I’m sorry, Buffalo fans; the MVP pips Allen to the line by a tenth of a point. Clearly, Allen needed to throw 280 passes to lead the league; one more shot to Cole Beasley would have helped. Allen will have to settle for being second in DYAR both to the slot and out wide with just a 3.7% DVOA difference between the two.
Rodgers was significantly more effective going to the slot. That’s not an Aaron Rodgers trend—he was better out wide from 2016 to 2018. It changed in 2019, which is when Matt LaFleur took over, and there’s your trend. Nearly every passer working out of that Shanahan offense ends up with significantly higher DVOAs in the slot. You’ve got Rodgers (+20.1% under LaFleur), Joe Burrow (+20.8% under Zac Taylor, the highest slot/wide gap in the league), Kirk Cousins (+19.7% under Gary Kubiak, thanks in part to a league-leading 27.5% DVOA throwing to the slot), Nick Mullens (+13.4% under Kyle Shanahan)—these offenses are built from the inside out, and their passers nearly always have notably better numbers targeting players working out of the slot. That’s almost everyone.
Almost. The one name glaringly missing from that list is Jared Goff, who led the league with a 72.9% slot percentage one year after leading the league with a 78.0% slot percentage. As we talked about some in the receivers article, no offense was more predicated on throwing to the slot than Sean McVay’s Rams … which means the fact that Goff wasn’t overperforming when targeting inside receivers had to be worrisome. In fact, Goff has had a better DVOA out wide in every season under McVay, spitting in the face of that trend. This despite the Rams having Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, quite possibly the best slot duo in the league.
I don’t believe that it’s a matter of the Rams throwing to the slot so much that Goff’s wide throws serve as sort of a changeup, either. There’s a very, very, very slight trend of a passer’s DVOA difference shifting in favor of wide DVOA as they throw more slot passes, but it’s mostly noise, and didn’t stop passers as distinct as Lamar Jackson and Nick Mullens from looking better in the slot than out wide. You can see why McVay would be tempted by someone like Matthew Stafford—and, for the record, Stafford has had a better slot DVOA than Goff in four of the past five seasons.
The other really interesting name here is Justin Herbert. There are a few passers with a positive DVOA in one split and a negative one in the other, but Herbert’s splits are the starkest. In fact, it’s worth splitting it out even a little further than the table above: Herbert’s receivers had positive DVOAs working out of the slot (8.0%), lined up as running backs (6.4%), and lined up at tight end (2.3%), but split wide? Bottom-15 in the league at -6.6%. This may be a case of the previous coaching staff using their receiving corps incorrectly, however. Herbert had a positive DVOA targeting Mike Williams out wide, but the 76 targets he gave to Keenan Allen and Jalen Guyton out wide tanked his DVOA—a -23.6% targeting them out wide, and a 7.6% DVOA targeting them out of the slot. New offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi might be able to help Herbert avoid a sophomore slump by letting him use Allen and Guyton more inside.
In 2019, only one passer topped 300 DYAR out wide, which was unprecedented. Four topping the 300-DYAR mark in 2020 is a more normal spread, though only Patrick Mahomes really threatened the 400-DYAR threshold that top passers have hit in years past. That’s not to say Mahomes’ total was pedestrian or anything, considering he had a healthy league lead on only 132 passes. In fact, Mahomes’ 25.5% DYAR out wide ties 2018 Drew Brees for the highest we have ever recorded, and he did it without a really elite wide player. His top connection split wide was Tyreek Hill, and Hill, of course, was used more in the slot. After him, we’re talking Sammy Watkins and Demarcus Robinson—good players, but not exactly world-beaters on their own. I don’t think the world needed more stats that show how amazing Patrick Mahomes is, but just in case you did, there you go.
Of course, Mahomes still had more DYAR to the slot than out wide, as did nearly everyone else in the league last year. There are only five passers who produced more DYAR to wide targets, and it is a motley crew. You have both Chicago passers in Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles, you have the tattered remains of Alex Smith, you have the plummeting Carson Wentz, and you have Drew Lock’s sophomore slump. This is not a particularly flattering group of passers, and 60% of them have been rightfully relegated to backup jobs for 2021 (or retired)—and neither Wentz (due to injury) nor Lock (due to a competition with Teddy Bridgewater) are locks to start Week 1, either.
The fact that no good passer was more successful throwing out wide is a first. Sure, most passers who end up with more wide DYAR end up getting there due to particularly poor slot performances, but there have always been at least a handful of talented passers crashing that group—Matt Ryan and Ryan Fitzpatrick were in that group in 2019 with positive passing DYARs, and Fitzpatrick joined Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, and Jameis Winston in that group in 2018. The closest we got in 2020 was Derek Carr, who was 16 DYAR short…
And while we’re at it, this is the second of these offseason stat review articles where I have to ask: what the heck were the Raiders doing on offense? Carr was second to only Goff in slot percentage, but had the third-highest DVOA in the league targeting receivers out wide. Nelson Agholor, Darren Waller, Bryan Edwards, Henry Ruggs—every receiver Carr targeted more than five times out wide had a double-digit DVOA; only Agholor repeated that feat among Carr’s top slot targets. Carr and the Raiders only threw 11% of their passes to their No. 1 receiver (in most weeks, Henry Ruggs), the lowest total in the league by leaps and bounds. Instead, they leaned on slot passes and multiple-tight end sets to make up the bulk of their offense. This isn’t anything new—Goff and Carr were one-two in slot percentage in 2019 as well, and Carr hasn’t thrown more than 100 wide passes since 2018—but considering the success Carr was having throwing to Agholor and the rest lined up outside, the lack of outside throws was a headscratcher.
If there has been a knock on Carr throughout his career, it has been a conservatism and carefulness that limits the high end of the Raiders’ potential on offense. Carr has a tendency to take the small gains, the minorly positive play—and yet, when he pushed himself last season, he ended up producing some fantastic deep balls. The Raiders offense could benefit from leaning into that more going forward, spreading the field more and encouraging Carr to look outside the numbers in his progressions.