FOXBORO - No team has ever wrung more offensive production from their slot receiver position that the New England Patriots.
Their reliance on the position predates Wes Welker's arrival in 2007 with the stylings of Troy Brown who, because he was the Patriots best offensive player from 2000 to 2003, forced the Patriots and Tom Brady to become slot-focused.
This week, the Patriots will deal with one of the best slot receivers not named Welker, Davone Bess of the Miami Dolphins.
Bess, who's signed through 2013 with Miami, is an intriguing player. At 5-10, 190, he's a little more solidly built than Welker. He's also a little faster. Bess is a player I used to think could be plugged into the New England offense in place of Welker and give identical production.
The 2011 season Welker submitted moved me off that stance, but I still wonder if slot receivers aren't virtually interchangeable. Could Bess do what Welker does if the Patriots part ways with Welker and court the 27-year-old Bess in 2014? Could Danny Amendola do what Welker does if the Rams slot receiver comes available after this season (speculation is, Amendola will be franchised)? Will the Patriots simply let Julian Edelman assume the slot and expand the position's "route tree" because of Edelman's superior straight-line speed (but inferior guile working the middle of the field)? Or do the Patriots find a way to make sure the 31-year-old Welker sticks around a while longer?
Bill Belichick spoke in-depth about the position Wednesday, stating plainly that slot receiver and wide receiver are wholly different positions.
"I think it’s a little bit of a different world in there (for a slot receiver)," Belichick said when asked if slot receiver was a simple position to fill. "There are a lot more people involved – you have linebackers, you have safeties, you have corners, sometimes defensive linemen coming out and blitzing on those."
Looking at the contracts of wideouts compared to slots, it's plain that - even though slots can generate more production and handle the ball more often - teams are willing to allocate more money to pay their best outside receivers than they are going to pay the slot.
That may be, in part, because teams can't teach the kind of speed, strength and athleticism players like Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald possess. Measurables matter and a player like Welker simply could not do the things Johnson or Fitzgerald does if you put Welker on the edge.
In the slot, guile and guts trump measurables. Most outside receivers probably COULD play slot at a serviceable level (although long-striders are a liability inside) but they wouldn't have the belly for it.
There's an incredible amount to process when you play in the slot.
"You have different combinations of coverage and it’s really important that that receiver and the quarterback see things exactly the same – when to keep going, when to slow up, when to stop, any kind of option routes, which way to break, when to come out of it. It definitely takes some work," Belichick explained.
"The visual communication between those two players is, I think, more difficult," Belichick added. "I’m not saying it’s easier outside; there are just more variables inside. Again, especially when you get into option routes and decision making, you’re just going to run five yards and run across the field and that’s fairly straight forward although there is some, ‘Do you go over? Do you go under? Do you slow down? Do you speed up? Do you stop? Do you throttle? What are your rules? What tells you to do what?’ Most importantly, it has to be exactly what the quarterback thinks you’re going to do so you don’t go behind the linebacker when he thinks you’re going in front of him and it’s a bad interception, that kind of thing. I think there’s a lot to that, yeah. I think it takes a lot to play that position.
If there were a slogan for slots it would be, "We try harder, do more stuff and take more risk for less!" Not really something you'd want your son to sign up for, but, indispensable.