Article Ross Jackson

Manning the Slot: Who Steps Up Without Tre’Quan?

Last year throughout the 2018 season, the slot position was one that continued to plague New Orleans. They went out during the offseason and signed Cameron Meredith away from the Chicago Bears who was on an RFA tender. Unfortunately, though he managed to take most of his individual snaps from the slot (79.5%), in terms of the team, his six games of active roster time only yielded him 11.7% of the team’s slot snaps.

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Last year the slot was absolutely dominated by Michael Thomas who took 195 of the team’s 562 snaps from that position. But the focus in the slot behind him was UDFA then rookie Keith Kirkwood who saw 70.2% of his receiving snaps come from the slot.

This year however, Cameron Meredith was released before the season began due to a lack of availability throughout camp and Keith Kirkwood has been placed on Injured Reserve. To further complicate the issues, the team’s leader in slot snaps so far in 2019 and second in 2018, Tre’Quan Smith has been ruled out for the Saints’ Week 3 matchup at the Seattle Seahawks.

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As if things weren’t already complicated enough with Drew Brees missing his first significant chunk of time with a torn tendon in his throwing hand, now the Saints must find out how to replace Smith and his production from the slot. Although Smith wasn’t much of a go-to on the inside in 2018, he’s seen his slot snaps increase drastically early this season and with that so has his production.

Tre’Quan Smith Slot Stats
2018 (15 Games): 95 of 319 snaps, 7 catches on 15 targets for 72 yards and 2 TDs
2019 (2 Games): 37 of 55 snaps, 5 catches on 5 targets for 75 yards and 1 TD

A big hit on Tre’Quan Smith in his rookie season last year, understanding that he was thrown into the deep end rather quickly with Ted Ginn, Jr’s early injury, was his consistence. Now with adding the slot to his game, Smith has already shown he’s ready to take a step forward and be more involved and reliable in the Saints offense.

Unfortunately, the Saints will have to hold on developing Smith’s productivity for at least a week while he’s out with an ankle injury he sustained after being tackled awkwardly int he Week 2 game against the Rams. I’ll be keeping an eye on Smith’s continued development as it looks promising early this season, but for this week the big question I’ll be asking as how is going to step up in Seattle outside of Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn, Jr?

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We can certainly expect to see Micael Thomas get his work in the slot against the Seahawks who live in base defenses as opposed to nickel and dime packages. They were among the league’s most frequent base packages in 2018 running 34% of their defense in that personnel. This is good news for the Saints as there’s a likelihood of taking advantage of some mismatches with linebackers in 3 WR sets.

So who else gets to benefit from this? None other than three-year Saints Austin Carr and fellow UDFA Lil’Jordan Humphrey who is in his rookie year out of Texas. Humphrey and Carr played with this week’s QBs Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill heavily throughout the preseason. During that time, the pair each saw over 81% of their receiving snaps come from the slot.

2019 Preseason Slot Stats
Austin Carr: 18 of 22 snaps (81.8%), 3 catches on 4 targets for 25 yards and 1 TD
Lil’Jordan Humphrey: 39 of 48 snaps (81.3%), 3 catches on 3 targets for 85 yards and 1 TD

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Humphrey was just elevated from the practice squad this week and will leap into action immediately though you can expect Austin Carr to take most of the snaps, at least to start the game. This is an opportunity to see how effective the Saints’ depth at WR can be as the season continues. This is the game that could inform them to go out and pursue another player or hang tight with the roster they have. Keep in mind too that the Saints still have training camp darling Emmanuel Butler on their Practice Squad as well.

Look for Austin Carr and Lil’Jordan Humphrey to produce some plays from the slot, or at least for that to be the intent. A lot of this week will boil down to the Quarterback performances delivered by Bridgwater and Hill. But in the midst of that, the Saints get a look at some young talent in a position that they decided to forgo after missing out on Adam Humphries in free agency. Landing Humphrey as an Undrafted Free Agent was a big win for New Orleans though considering his college slot production.

Humphrey was in the top-five of his draft class with 77 receptions and 1,031 yards from the slot. Additionally, PFF also noted him with 365 receiving yards on 3rd down – most amongst FBS WRs.

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from @PFF

It seems likely that New Orleans will rely on a short passing game filled with easy reads and quick passes. This can help Bridgewater and Hill establish a rhythm in the passing game. With the Seahawks spending most of their time in a base look, some of the reads will be easier. Seattle isn’t out to trick you, they’re intent on overpowering you and controlling the run game. New Orleans can force them to back off by hitting a couple of big plays whether they be catch and run opportunities or a deep shot when the QBs are in rhythm.

Sean Payton and his traditional gameplans have been overhauled so this Sunday’s matchup could be a very exciting. Communication will be key and production outside of the usual suspects will be at a premium. Thankfully for this week’s signal callers, the guys they’ll hope can make plays from an important position will be the same guys they’ve spent ample time with heading into the season.

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