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Sizing Up The Texans’ Slot Receivers

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Taking a look at the battle for the slot in Houston.

Houston Texans v New England Patriots Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

We are in a pseudo-dead period for the NFL, with nothing really occurring between now and the start of training camps (not that anyone is telling the NFL Network that). So it’s a good time to take stock and see just where the Texans’ roster is and where the key starting position battles are located on the Texans’ roster this year.

Houston’s receiving corps has for the most part been comprised of DeAndre Hopkins and not much else for the past two seasons. Even with the addition of Will Fuller V, the Texans have struggled to get consistent production from anyone outside of Hopkins. Fuller had a target-to-catch ratio of just over 50% last season and managed to surpass 50 yards receiving in only three games. Fuller isn’t going to be the focus of this post because he has shown enough to warrant his place as WR2 even if the numbers aren’t entirely there. The real question is what will the Texans do with at slot receiver.

This question begins and ends with Braxton Miller. I haven’t fully discussed Braxton Miller before, but his career with the Texans has been weird. Originally drafted as a 6’2” slot receiver/athlete, Miller’s best quality was what he could do with the ball in his hands. The idea was essentially to use Miller has an steady outlet for screens, outs, and the occasional jet sweep. These are all designed as ‘‘easy’’ plays to generate quick yardage. However the NFL isn’t really a place where ‘‘easy’’ yards exist, and if it does, it usually doesn’t exist for too long.

Once these easy touches are taken away from Miller, he must rely on his route running. This is where the problems begin. He really struggles to separate with any degree of consistency. It’s been even more of a struggle when he’s been placed on the outside, like he was for the first three games of last season. During these three games, Miller was targeted eight times and caught just three of those targets for a mere 25 yards. This is perhaps why Miller sat as a healthy scratch for the next three weeks and didn’t take another snap until the Week 6 game against the Browns.

Miller’s absence was also fueled by the rise of Bruce Ellington. Ellington started the season as the Texans’ slot receiver with Will Fuller still recovering from injury. Over those three games, Ellington demonstrated enough to warrant further playing time; even when Fuller returned to the lineup, Ellington remained in the slot and clocked over 60% of the offensive snaps in ten of the twelve games he played last season. While Ellington’s target-to-catch ratio was none better than Braxton Miller’s, Ellington seemed to be a favorite target of Deshaun Watson and was one of the main cogs in the Texans’ makeshift play-action machine. Ellington would frequently motion into the backfield from the slot to create the possibility of a triple option play. From that position in the backfield, Ellington often appeared as a receiver on a screen or as another blocker to protect Watson after a play-action fake.

What begins to become apparent from just examining the skill sets of both Miller and Ellington is a very clear blueprint for what the Texans are looking for from a slot receiver. They are looking for a flexible ball carrier who can create yards after the catch from shorter, faster throws that take more strain off the quarterback. The Texans’ recent fourth round draft pick, Keke Coutee, fits this mold. Coutee comes from a Texas Tech system that uses short, quick throws in tandem with fast and elusive ball carriers to generate quick yardage on low risk throws.

While this is nice in theory, in practice it can prove quite difficult, as we’ve seen with Braxton Miller. When teams work to stop those easier options, the question become whether any of any of the possibilities can succeed as more traditional slot receivers.

Of the three current options available to the Texans, I do believe that Bruce Ellington is most likely to start come Week One. The fact that the Texans re-signed him this offseason indicates that he’s the most likely candidate to hold down the slot position. Keke Coutee might develop into a potential option in the slot, but that could be primarily based on how he performs in a limited number of snaps and his play as a special teamer.

Another possibility available to the Texans, though quite likely a remote one, is to move Will Fuller into the slot and put Sammie Coates on the outside. Coates is more of a boundary receiver whose skill set closely mirrors Fuller’s. Speed and the ability to stretch the defense’s coverage scheme in order to create space for others are both Fuller and Coates’ best assets. This is what Fuller does for the Texans right now, so Coates could theoretically just replace Fuller; Fuller would take his 4.3 speed and better route-running into the slot.

It’s going to be interesting to see how Bill O’Brien manufactures touches for his slot receivers in order to keep them involved. Too often slot receivers have been left isolated to try and win on their own, and too often they could not do it. If the Texans want to develop their receiving corps outside of DeAndre Hopkins, they have to find ways to get these players more involved.