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?