BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski
The Buffalo Bills front office had mentioned as early as December the possibility of moving leading receiver Stevie Johnson to the slot. When training camp began just a few days ago, the team made good on that promise. Johnson lined up primarily from the inside position during the opening days of training camp, according to Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News.
Moving Johnson to the slot gives the Bills offense a whole new look in the process. It’s a move Johnson has referred to as “easy money,” according to Gaughan, but the key discussion is how it will impact the team’s passing attack.
When many people think of slot receivers, the image that immediately comes to mind is that of an undersized, quick pass catcher who can make people miss in the open field. It’s a connection that has more to do with the success of Wes Welker over recent years than anything else. During his last six seasons with the New England Patriots, Welker caught 672 passes, which is more than all but 42 receivers have had in their entire NFL careers. With Seahawks receiver Percy Harvin and Packers receiver Randall Cobb emerging as similarly explosive slot threats, the image of the undersized speed threat in the slot is becoming more cemented in the minds of football fans.
The slot receiving position, however, is utilized differently in a variety of offenses. In 2011, when the Saints passing offense was breaking all kinds of records, they were using 6’4” wideout Marques Colston as their primary slot receiver. As a big target with a wide catch radius, he was a constant threat for Brees over the middle of the defense.
That is the opposite of the way that the Giants used Victor Cruz last year, even though he too started primarily inside. Technically lined up inside as the slot receiver, Cruz was still used mainly as a deep threat, albeit on more complicated routes and against the opponent’s weaker cornerbacks. All of that suggests that NFL coaches are starting to use the slot receiver position to set up the matchups they want against the opposing defense, not solely based on the skill set of the receiver.
So how will the Bills use Johnson?
One of the reasons that the Bills view Johnson as a slot receiver is because of the unorthodox ways he runs his routes. Not blessed with top-notch speed, Johnson has been successful in the NFL by running precise routes, using a variety of head fakes and constantly keeping cornerbacks guessing as to which direction he’s actually headed in. It’s a strategy that worked for Kevin McHale in basketball, and Johnson has proved that some craftiness can go a long way in making up for an athleticism disadvantage.
His savvy has enabled him to create quick separation, which will be even more valuable in the slot. Since Johnson doesn’t have top-notch speed, his one-step separation is only effective on the outside if the corner isn’t quick enough to close the gap, or if the quarterback can put the ball in the window Johnson has created before it closes. Since quarterback play is another question mark for the Bills this offseason, nobody knows how likely that is. In the slot, throws to Johnson will be far easier for a quarterback to make, which will make Johnson’s consistent one-step separation incredibly hard for defenders to stop.
Johnson’s lack of top-end speed is amplified by the amount of speed threats the Bills have added around him. T.J. Graham and Marquise Goodwin are both track-level burners, and even Da’Rick Rogers possesses the wheels necessary to get free over the top of the defense. With those receivers being more suited to the deep routes associated with the X-receiver spot, Johnson’s move to the slot can help open up the entire offense. His transition will allow the Bills to use their best deep threats in their natural positions, instead of trying to make Graham a slot receiver. Johnson’s presence inside might help attract the attention of opposing safeties and give the Bills’ speed threats more room to get free in the back of the defense.
It’s also Johnson’s hands, however, that make him such an asset in the slot for the Bills. What guys like Welker and other elite slot receivers do better than most is simply hang onto the ball. Over his career, Welker has a 71.2 percent catch rate (percentage of catches made on deemed catchable passes) . Randall Cobb caught 77 percent of catchable passes last season; Brandon Stokley caught 76 percent, Jason Avant caught 70 percent and Percy Harvin caught 73 percent, to name a few. Although Johnson’s career catch percentage is lower than that, watching Bills games suggests that those numbers have less to do with Johnson’s hands and more to do with mediocre quarterback play and his inability to maintain enough separation on deeper routes.
With the Bills set to unveil an unconventional new offense, having their unconventional leading receiver in a position to see more targets seems to be an effective strategy. Yet, that strategy may need a cautionary back-up plan after Johnson strained his hamstring in practice on Friday, which could cause him to miss the entire preseason.
Missing the preseason will likely do nothing to effect Johnson’s comfort level in the slot, since he won’t be asked to do much differently. However, it will stop quarterbacks Kevin Kolb or EJ Manuel from continuing to build chemistry with him. That is an especially important factor since trust is key for quarterbacks and receivers over the middle of the defense, where the turnover risks are much higher. Moreover, with a back injury and groin injury in his recent past, the Bills have to be a little worried about Johnson’s ability to hold up for an entire season.
If Johnson were to miss any time during the regular season, the Bills could rest easy in knowing that Robert Woods would be a more than adequate replacement. Another receiver known for precise route running and solid hands, Woods would be a great target over the middle for the Bills. He has been impressing onlookers ever since he was drafted and is scheduled for a heavy dose of snaps on the outside this season, but he could also be a factor in the slot. This would allow Graham, who is poised for a breakout season, to see more time on the outside and would also allow Rogers to see time in three-wide receiver sets. It’s not as potent an offense as a Johnson-led one, but for once the Bills seem to have options on the outside.
In the high-tempo offense the Bills plan to run, options could spell trouble for opposing defenses.