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The NFL is in the era of the slot receiver

Long considered an afterthought, slot receivers are now taking over the game.

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AFC Championship - Baltimore Ravens v New England Patriots Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The fastest rising star in the NFL is the slot receiver. Long considered an afterthought, many prolific offenses are now built around pass catchers who primarily do their damage in the middle of the field.

Though the concept of a star slot receiver is relatively recent, Al Davis recognized the matchup advantages they can create as early as the mid-20th century. Davis introduced the "slot formation" as head coach of the Oakland Raiders, in which he lined up a tight end on one side of the field and two split receivers on the other side. One of them would run vertically down the field, while the other one would often come in on a "dig" route. The Raiders’ speedy, fleet-footed wideouts created problems for defensive backfields across the league.

In today’s NFL, entire offenses are centered around the slot receiver. This has long been the case in New England, with Tom Brady peppering the ball to Troy Brown, Wes Welker and Julian Edelman throughout his career. Brown, Welker and Edelman have combined for six 100-catch seasons with Brady (Welker reeled in 111 catches in 2008 with Matt Cassel under center).

With the proliferation of no-huddle offenses and three-receiver sets, quarterbacks now place an emphasis on getting rid of the ball quickly. Oftentimes, the best way to do that is to look underneath. The number of routes run from the slot last season jumped to almost 37 percent according to Pro Football Focus — roughly a 4 percent increase from 2009.

As spread offenses and shotgun sets continue to become more prominent at the professional level, the role of the slot receiver should only increase. The game’s best wideouts no longer do the bulk of their damage outside the numbers.

Slot receivers are explosive

As recently as 15 years ago, slot receivers were largely thought of as safety blankets for quarterbacks when a play had gone awry. Even Wayne Chrebet, who is widely viewed as one of the best slot receivers of his day, caught more than 75 passes in a season only twice.

But now, some of the most explosive plays on a weekly basis originate from the middle of the field. This was the case during the Divisional round of last year’s playoffs, when Arizona Cardinals wideout Larry Fitzgerald torched the Green Bay Packers for a 75-yard reception in overtime that set up the game-winning touchdown.

Though Fitzgerald ultimately caught the ball after Carson Palmer was flushed out of the pocket, his slant route took him from the left side of the field all the way to the right side. He was able to break free amidst the chaos, and dash toward the end zone.

Fitzgerald, 32, experienced a career resurgence when Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians decided to line him up in the slot on a more regular basis. He reeled in 52 catches from the slot for 606 yards and three touchdowns in 2015 — accounting for roughly half of his yards gained.

Other downfield threats lined up in the slot consistently last year as well. The New York Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr., known for his acrobatic catches, recorded 32 receptions in the slot for 467 yards and two touchdowns. Jeremy Maclin of the Kansas City Chiefs, a team that’s known to employ a conservative passing attack, caught six of his eight touchdowns while he was inside the numbers.

But perhaps the receiver who most exemplified the power of the slot last season was Doug Baldwin. The five-year veteran experienced a breakout campaign while running nearly 80 percent of his routes as a slot receiver, catching 12 of his league-leading 14 touchdowns from that spot.

Are the big paydays coming?

While the production of slot receivers has dramatically risen in recent years, their pay scale has been slow to catch up. Wes Welker, after averaging 112 catches per season in six years with the Patriots, only signed a two-year, $12 million free agent deal with the Denver Broncos in 2013. The man who replaced Welker in New England, Julian Edelman, is slated to make just $2.5 million this year and $3 million in 2017.

But this could be changing. Baldwin inked a four-year, $46 million extension with $24.5 million guaranteed in June and Randall Cobb — who ran 85 percent of his routes from the slot last season — agreed to a four-year contract worth $40 million with the Packers in 2015.

The line between slot receivers and downfield wideouts continues to become more blurred. Many star receivers, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Antonio Brown and Atlanta Falcons’ Julio Jones, line up both in the slot and outside on a regular basis. In the coming years, it’s possible there may no longer be a differentiation between slot receivers and their other pass-catching brethren.

The shelf life appears to be short

Every football player who takes the field is could suffer a career-altering concussion or head injury. But slot receivers, given the crippling hits they take over the middle of the field, seem to be at a greater risk.

Chrebet was forced to retire at 32 after suffering many concussions. Welker, who may have experienced at least 10 concussions over his 13-year career, experienced a rapid downfall in production. He caught just 13 passes in eight games with the St. Louis Rams last season — two years after reeling in 73 receptions with the Broncos.

Welker’s situation became so dire at the tail end of the 2013 campaign, that he was forced to wear a massive super-protection helmet during the playoffs that season. Former Broncos teammate Champ Bailey even called on Welker to retire last summer.

The punishment slot receivers endure was highlighted during Super Bowl XLIX, when Edelman took a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit from Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor in the fourth quarter. Edelman didn’t exit the game and wound up catching the game-winning touchdown on the next possession, and refused to say afterward whether he was tested for a concussion. (The Associated Press subsequently reported that Edelman did undergo proper protocol.)

Though that hit hasn’t appeared to hinder Edelman’s career, it was a harrowing reminder that slot receivers’ production may be fleeting. Going forward, the position may be dominated by an ever-changing group of players opposed to a select group stars.

Currently, Jarvis Landry, who set the Dolphins’ single-season reception record last season, and Jordan Matthews, who led the league with 81 receptions from the slot in 2015 for the Eagles, appear to be unstoppable. But given the demands of the position, they may not be able to continue their production for a lengthy period of time.

There’s little doubt that the use of the slot receiver will only continue to rise. But the physical toll that comes along with the playing the position may cost players valuable years from their playing careers.