ABCs of X, Y, Z receivers
March 21, 2007
My crowning achievement as a second grader at Mariemont Elementary School was being named "Mr. Math-o." I won the honor by correctly completing 50 math problems in 55 seconds, which was a record for the class. As you can see by my current profession, that also was the high point of my math career.
Since that time, I zoned out through high school algebra, never made it to calculus and completely avoided math in college. (It was one of the perks of majoring in journalism.)
You could say that with the exception of that brief moment in second grade, I haven't been much of a numbers guy. But that was before I became a fantasy writer, where numbers are king. Still, I'm not willing to sell my soul to the stat sheets like the drones of Moneyball.
I believe there is more to being a good fantasy owner than looking at a player's numbers. You also have to understand a player's role on his team. Knowing some X's and O's can be useful in fantasy leagues -- sometimes it's as valuable as studying three-year stat splits.
Let's begin today's class, so to speak, talking about X, Y, Z and slot receivers. Grab your Trapper Keeper and wipe that glazed look off your face. At least we're not discussing X to the power of 31, divided by Y and multiplied by a factor of Z. Now that would be boring.
Do slot receivers give big payouts?
Drew Bennett signed with the Rams earlier this month, and the team announced he would become its new slot receiver. What does that mean for his fantasy value? First, we have to understand a little bit about the slot receiver's role and what kind of player is a good fit.
The slot receiver usually comes onto the field in third-down passing situations or anytime a three- or four-receiver set is needed. He will line up between an outside wide receiver and usually the tight end (referred to as the Y receiver). He usually stands back from the line of scrimmage, allowing for a free release, and he often is matched up with a nickel cornerback, linebacker or safety.
Good slot receivers can do one or two of the following things: They are shifty enough to work the underneath routes and rack up yards after the catch, they are tough enough to catch passes in the middle of the field, or they are speedy enough to bolt down the seam of the defense for occasional long passes.
Brandon Stokley, who in 2004 enjoyed one of the best seasons for a slot receiver in recent memory, could do all three of those things well. Stokley's slot work that year produced a jackpot of 1,077 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns for his fantasy owners. He teamed with Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne as part of the first receiving trio in history where each guy surpassed 1,000 yards and had at least 10 touchdowns.
Stokley recently signed with the Broncos, where he will be insurance for Rod Smith, who had hip surgery and might not be ready in time for the season. But don't expect Stokley -- or any other slot receiver, for that matter -- to duplicate what he did with the Colts in 2004. That was a unique season in which Peyton Manning threw a record 49 TD passes.
Stokley will be his team's third-best receiver (at best), and that's often the case with slot receivers. That limits their fantasy value because they take a seat on the bench while the split end (X receiver) and flanker (Z receiver) get to work in standard formations.
Back to Bennett -- what does moving to the slot mean for him? After all, coaches occasionally will line up star receivers in the slot to gain mismatches and confuse the defense. Will Bennett be that guy? It's not likely. Torry Holt is St. Louis' star receiver, and that's not going to change with the arrival of Bennett. And Isaac Bruce still is productive and was able to hold off Kevin Curtis last season. (Incidentally, Curtis is now in Philadelphia where he could become a star fantasy receiver.)
Notable slot receivers
1. Chris Henry, Bengals
2. Matt Jones, Jaguars
3. Drew Bennett, Rams
4. Kevin Curtis, Eagles
5. Wes Welker, Patriots
Bennett (6-5, 206 pounds) is big and quick enough to work the middle of the field effectively as a slot receiver. I envision him being used frequently on inside routes on third-down and goal-to-go situations. Since St. Louis' red-zone offense struggled at times last season, expect Bennett to get plenty of looks near the end zone.
Bennett's yardage numbers could tumble from the 737 he posted last season because he probably won't be on the field as much as he was in Tennessee. Still, his touchdowns should increase (from the three he scored in '06) in the new role. If his yardage total dropped to 500 but he scored seven touchdowns, he'd still be slightly more valuable than last season (92 fantasy points to 91.7 in standard scoring systems). At that scoring rate, we can conclude that he's still worthy of being a No. 4 fantasy receiver after his move to St. Louis.
Where Bennett's addition could be felt most is in Bruce's stats, as a decrease in yardage and touchdowns appears likely. Forget about any of the Rams' tight ends, including newcomer Randy McMichael, becoming major fantasy factors this year. Bennett will likely take away a lot of their work in the middle of the field.
But Bennett could be more valuable than most slot receivers if coach Scott Linehan decides to mix and match him with Holt and Bruce. Bennett definitely gives the Rams a different dimension (height) to their receiving corps, and Linehan has proved in the past that he will work at finding ways to use his players' strengths.
In general, though, it is difficult for fantasy owners to draft slot receivers and expect a big payoff. Most offenses can't support enough passing stats for three wide receivers; some can't even support two. (Hear that, Texans?) Slot receivers can help in a pinch, but they aren't likely to be long-term producers for your fantasy team.
While you should be somewhat concerned if your fantasy receiver gets moved to the slot, moving from split end to flanker isn't as big of a deal in today's game. Why? Talented receivers can line up all over the field and still be successful. Sometimes, matchups and play calling are more important than position. Plus, the positions will allow a receiver to play to his strengths.
For example, the split end (X receiver) usually lines up on the side opposite the tight end, and he is positioned smack dab on the line of scrimmage. So split ends must be adept at breaking through a cornerback's jam at the line. That's why you often see big, physical receivers like Terrell Owens lined up here.
Meanwhile, flankers (Z receiver) are positioned behind the line of scrimmage in standard sets. They frequently are stationed on the same side as the tight end. This helps the flanker get a free release at the line and into his route more quickly. Flankers are usually good at getting in and out of their cuts and working intermediate routes, so a player strong in those traits is going to do well there.
With coaches mixing in some deception, you're liable to see your favorite fantasy receiver lined up all over the field on any given Sunday. The important thing is that they are one of two starting receivers and not relegated to that No. 3 (or slot) role.
Senior Editor George Winkler is a fantasy football expert for Sporting News.
He seems to be down on Drew Bennett, but I like his fantasy outlook better as the #3 WR in St. Louis, with defenses focusing on Jackson, Holt, and Bruce, and veteran QB Marc Bulger less likely to run, than as the #1 WR in Tennessee, who currently have no stud RB or WRs to draw attention from the defense and a green 2nd-year QB in Vince Young who is more prone to run than throw.