The slot receiver in football is now more widespread and important to offenses than ever before. With teams making 11 personnel their base offense, slot receivers are on the field more often as well. Nowadays, those slot receivers can be the classic small, quick guy, a burner who stretches defenses, or even a big-bodied, physical mismatch. All of them are around the NFL and prevalent in passing offenses. The best slot receivers in the 2021 NFL Draft continue to make that ring true.
2021 NFL Draft: Finding the best slot receivers available
Jaylen Waddle, Alabama
Waddle is an extremely fun football player. With blazing speed and a knack for burning people after the catch, Waddle already has a terrific baseline as a wide receiver. In fact, he may be the fastest player in the class. Still, with the stacked wide receiver room Alabama had, Waddle was primarily a slot threat that split zones and took the top right off the defense.
While it has remained to be seen if he can properly function outside, even though I believe he has the traits to do so, Waddle’s speed and explosiveness from the slot are an immediate problem. He faces little to no press coverage, and he eats up cushions in a hurry. He’s sudden and can freeze defensive backs to leave them in the dust. Even if Waddle showcases that boundary ability, he is such a potent weapon from the slot.
With the ability to make contested catches and extend out of his frame to haul in passes, Waddle can be a great deep threat up the seam and a respectable middle of the field target. He can attack all three levels of the field from the slot. That is what makes him valuable and such a unique, but great fit in the slot.
Tutu Atwell, Lousiville
I am a firm believer that size often does not matter in the NFL, but Atwell is so, so small that it does in his case. At 5’9″, 175 pounds, Atwell carries a thin and less than compact frame at the moment. Make no mistake, this young man is a good football player, but those size limitations will hurt him no matter his role in the NFL.
Atwell’s speed and shiftiness make him a potent gadget player. Expect offensive coordinators to heavily mix in Atwell on motions, jet sweeps, mesh plays, and misdirection because he is a threat with the football in his hands. Even with the light frame, his contact balance is elite. Still, he has some trouble fighting through contact and press coverage. Allowing him to face man coverage and get free releases with his speed and quick feet out of the slot would only benefit the talented receiver.
Devonta Smith, Alabama
Devonta Smith is a unique case on this list. While he can be a potent boundary receiver in the NFL with crisp feet, violent hips, and delightful route running ability, Smith also has quickness and suddenness to be a dangerous weapon from the slot. Never will he be a full-time slot receiver, but he can thrive in a role that asks him to cook guys from this spot.
More than ever, elite receivers are moving into the slot occasionally. They play off the line of scrimmage and use their route-running skills to eat up the free releases and create easy separation over the middle of the field. Guys like Smith will draw the attention of safeties in the middle of the field and can create an impact around him. That is why for Smith, who has such a polished ability to create separation, he will be effective here. Smith is thus one of the best slot receivers in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Amon-Ra St. Brown, USC
In terms of a player who may play as a pure slot in the NFL, St-Brown may be the best of them all. The traits St-Brown possesses showcase everything a team would in a slot receiver. The suddenness, vice-grip hands, and yards after the catch ability are terrific in the case of St-Brown. With football bloodlines, St-Brown is going to be a guy with his stock through the roof.
All of those traits are just the base of St. Brown’s game, however. He has elite body control and delightful ball skills in addition to that. If a team wrote up an ideal middle of the field target, St. Brown could be that guy. With those route-running skills, St. Brown threatens all directions of the field and all levels as well. This young man will hear his name called early in the 2021 NFL Draft, as he deserves.
Rondale Moore, Purdue
If I were to mesh Atwell and Waddle together, Moore is the guy you would somehow come out with. He is one of the most dangerous gadget players I have seen in recent memory, but he is a much more refined route runner than Atwell is at this stage. This is a guy that is a legitimate playmaker with the ball in his hands on manufactured touches, but he can torch the defense deep from the slot too.
It is Moore’s toughness through contact that makes him so special. He can put guys on skates, but he is a tough football player who will take the shots to make those tough catches over the middle of the catch. I think Moore still can project on the boundary at times, but from the slot with his speed, free releases, and manufactured touches, he could be devastating for defenses. All those come together to make one of the best slot receivers in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Elijah Moore, Ole Miss
Moore has a massive issue of being horrific against press coverage, and that is why he lands on this list easily. The hand-fighting just is not there with his light frame. However, what he does have working in his favor is smooth route running and quickness. From the slot where he will be aligned off the ball, Moore thrives in the Ole Miss offense.
Moore works against off-man coverage with ease. He is not the fastest guy out there, but he has great route deception and attacks leverage as well as anyone on this list. Moore routinely won using those skills, but also elite body control and awareness along the sideline. He will not shake guys out of their shoes after the catch, but he creates a lot of separation and does so reliably.
Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Iowa
Smith-Marsette is one of the most graceful route runners I can remember watching at the wide receiver position in a bit of time. He moves in the open with fluidity and crisp footwork. As a route runner, he has quick feet and loose hips, which allows him to run sharp routes and stems. He can get separation with those skills.
The real issue is when Smith-Marsette is contacted at the line of scrimmage and must fight through press coverage. He has not shown the strength to beat that just yet, even if he plays with a physical side to his game. Listen, Smith-Marsette is a playmaker with the ball in his hands and can make guys miss as well. At his size and with his physicality, playing in the slot and using his size and fluidity to create separation would be a perfect match for Smith-Marsette.