The slot receiver has been a staple in the New England Patriots offense for the past two decades. The 2020 season will not be a typical season in Foxboro by any means. Could we see a glimpse at what the future may hold for a position that has been more valuable to the Patriots than any other team in the NFL?
It’s no secret that former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady loved himself a quick-not-fast, sub six-foot slot receiver. Aside from quarterback, the slot receiver is the offensive position that has the biggest question mark moving forward in this new-look Patriot offense.
Not many teams around the league during Brady’s tenure in New England have prioritized slot receivers like the Patriots have — so much so that New England has always had a difficult time just trying to figure out what to pay their slot receivers.
Contract disputes with the Pats between Wes Welker and Julian Edelman seemed to always come down to the receivers wanting to be paid comparably to other receivers in the league, even though their skill set wasn’t exactly comparable to a receiver who played primarily on the outside.
Slot receivers in New England, even though they were often viewed as the number one threat on the offense, have been rarely asked to take the top off a defense, line up outside and beat the defense’s lock-down corner 1-on-1, or make a contested jump ball catch. Their role is more predicated on finding the soft spot in the zone defense or beating a linebacker in coverage, using their vision and quickness to exploit holes in the defense with short to intermediate routes.
Let’s face it: Troy Brown, Wes Welker, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman are all players who became household names in New England, but with other franchises may have never been seen as more than just the third receiver on the depth chart. Neither Brown nor Welker ever cracked 100 receptions or 1,000 receiving yards in a single season until they got to play with Brady. If they’d never been given that chance, who knows how their careers would have gone?
Edelman’s legacy is already cemented in franchise history, and his growing chemistry with new quarterback Cam Newton certainly guarantees he will finish his career strong.
As for the younger receivers on the team like Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski, will either of them be able to keep the slot position a staple in New England’s offense after Edelman’s days in town are over?
Newton never had a threat in the slot like he does now in New England. However, he did exploit the middle of the field with his favorite target during his time in Carolina: Greg Olsen.
Olsen, who is obviously a bigger target than Edelman, works the middle of the field in a similar manner to a slot receiver. That’s something that will help Newton’s transition to New England, especially without an established tight end.
However, Edelman can’t play forever. The question is, when Edelman exits New England, does he bring along the slot receiver tradition with him? With a new era at quarterback, will the offensive focus shift from smaller and shifty receivers who work between the numbers, to bigger and more athletic perimeter receivers like N’Keal Harry? Newton has obviously had success throughout his career without an Edelman, Amendola, Welker or Brown, so maybe there won’t be a need for one moving forward in New England.
There’ll always be tight ends and running backs to mismatch on safeties and linebackers between the hash marks. And as we’ve seen with Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Thomas, big and physical receivers can also have success when operating in the slot.
And even if this season is only a one-and-done situation with Newton, the door will be wide open for Belichick and McDaniels to tailor-make an offense for whoever the QB of the future is.
Was it Brady that highlighted the slot position, or has it been Belichick’s system the whole time? We’ll find out this season with Newton taking the leg up in the quarterback battle this camp. It’ll be interesting to see how much the offense adjusts to Newton’s skill set and how much stays the same as it has been for the past two decades.