As more and more NFL teams spread the field with multiple-receiver sets, slot receivers have become increasingly valuable. To that point, many people I talk to in scouting circles are now evaluating slot guys and perimeter receivers as separate groups.
Players like Wes Welker, Percy Harvin, Danny Amendola and Victor Cruz are some of the top slot receivers in the league, and you only need to look at their production to see how important they are to their teams.
Harvin was a first-round draft pick because of what he brought to the table in terms of versatility on offense and contributions in the return game, while the other three were undrafted free agents. However, now that teams are seeing the benefit of creating mismatches against the opponent's third or fourth cornerback with a quality slot receiver, the draft value of the position is rising.
For example, A.J. Jenkins (49ers), Ryan Broyles (Lions), T.J. Graham (Bills) and T.Y. Hilton (Colts) were all taken in the first three rounds of the 2012 draft. All came into the league with experience in spread sets, showing the ability to catch short passes in space, hit a crease and find yards after the catch.
Three traits stand out when evaluating slot receivers, who don't necessarily have the great combination of size and vertical speed you see in top perimeter receivers.
The first is quickness, that burst off the line to get into routes and to a spot as soon as possible, then the quickness to transition upfield after the catch.
The second is toughness. Slot guys are often the smallest receivers in the huddle, and they need the mental toughness to run across the middle knowing they will take big hits, plus the physical toughness to battle bigger defenders at the line and for the ball and hold up to the punishment.
Finally, slot receivers have to be smart. They must be able to recognize what defenses are doing and know the best way to find a hole in that scheme.
Finding the soft spot is key, but they also have to know how to get there quickly and create a window when they do, whether that means sliding to create an opening low or throttling down to create a passing lane. Slot receivers have to be on the same page as their quarterback, and they also have to think like him.
So who from the 2013 draft class projects as an impact slot receiver at the next level? Here are the five guys atop the list, and a list of other slot guys to watch.
Robert Woods, USC* (Grade: 89)
Woods is capable of being a starter on the outside and that has him in the first-round mix, but he also possesses a lot of the qualities of a good slot receiver. He's a smart, efficient route-runner who is quicker than fast, and he's shown this season that he can make a lot of things happen after the catch. It's not a knock on Woods (6-foot-1, 190 pounds) that he's on this list, because teams have shown a willingness recently to take slot types in the first round.
Tavon Austin, West Virginia (84)
One of the quickest players in the class at any position, Austin (5-8⅜, 173) is undersized and will have to prove he can hold up physically in the NFL. However, he's used to catching the ball in traffic, and he gets from zero to 60 in a flash. His vision and elusiveness in the open field are good, but that burst is what separates Austin -- and that kind of acceleration can mean plenty of extra yards in the NFL.
Denard Robinson, Michigan (81)
Yes, Robinson is a college quarterback, but his passing skills are not ideal and he could be a difference-maker with the ball in his hands in space. His quickness and top-end speed are obvious, but given his instincts and vision in the open field, Robinson (6-foot, 195) could thrive as a slot receiver in the NFL. He also has the skills to be a weapon in the return game.
Markus Wheaton, Oregon State (80)
Wheaton (5-11.5, 182) is quick and appears to have good top-end speed, and he's a competitive guy who's willing to go over the middle and make tough catches. He's also been productive this season when plucking the ball on the run and making things happen after the catch.
Kenny Stills, Oklahoma* (76)
Another player on this list with the size to play outside, Stills (6-foot, 190) shows the ability to drop his weight and get in and out of breaks quickly. That versatility is valuable, but what I like most is his toughness. Stills doesn't flinch when making grabs over the middle, and he's held on to several passes this season while taking big hits.
And while Stills isn't likely to string together multiple moves in space, he's shifty enough to make the first guy miss and get some run-after-catch production.
Others to watch
Stedman Bailey, West Virginia* (73)
Josh Boyce, TCU* (67)
Chad Bumphis, Mississippi State (57)
Conner Vernon, Duke (56)
Theo Riddick, Notre Dame (55)
Ryan Swope, Texas A&M (53)
Marquise Goodwin, Texas (50)