ON A CRUCIAL third-and-10 play in the fourth quarter of a Week 2 matchup against the Browns, Bengals receiver Andrew Hawkins remembered something Andy Dalton had said the night before. "Andy talked about wanting to make big plays on the scramble drill," Hawkins says. So after the snap, when he saw the quarterback scrambling to his right to avoid Cleveland's blitz, Hawkins broke off his seam route, crept back toward his QB and found a soft spot in the heart of the defense. "Andy found me right away," Hawkins says. Dalton threw an 11-yard bullet down the middle, and with two quick moves -- first toward the sideline, then back to the middle -- the second-year receiver was gone, weaving through the secondary for a game-clinching 50-yard touchdown.
The play was no fluke. One week later, Hawkins ran a similar seam route for a 59-yard score to put away the Redskins. Then, late against the Dolphins on Oct. 7, he made a leaping one-handed grab of a Dalton pass for a 24-yard
It's already been a whirlwind season for Hawkins, who's the best example of one of the NFL's biggest storylines: This is the year of the slot receiver. According to ESPN Stats & Info, through the first five weeks of the season, the leader in receptions for 13 teams was their most targeted slot receiver. The trend toward no-huddle offenses that focus on first downs is ever expanding. As a result, offensive coordinators looking to counteract blitzing defenses and create mismatches over the middle are making stars of players who, 10 years ago, wouldn't have had a spot on NFL rosters. "Today's slot receivers are like the lug nuts on a car," the Rams' Danny Amendola says. "Without them, the car might work, but eventually the wheels would fall off."
It takes a special player to line up in the slot knowing there will be more first downs than touchdowns and more bruises than glory, as Amendola learned the hard way when he fractured his clavicle trying to make a diving catch in Week 5 against the Cardinals. Long considered a position reserved for a team's third- or fourth-best wideout, the slot is now prime territory for playmakers. Slot receivers often are smaller than the guys who line up wide -- Hawkins is all of 5'7" -- yet have to be tough enough to make key blocks in the running game, snag a shallow pass over the middle and, most important, hang on to the ball when hit by linebackers and safeties. Slot guys generally have more lateral quickness than speed, making them weapons on shovel passes, bubble screens and, of course, short option routes. Hawkins has even run end arounds out of the slot. Facing man coverage, the best slot receivers are confident that the linebackers and safeties lined up across from them simply can't match their quickness. And their ability to cut and change direction on option routes makes them a QB's best friend when the pocket collapses, as Dalton well knows.
But it's not just the little guys who are lining up in the slot these days. Calvin Johnson, Reggie Wayne and even Jimmy Graham now do some of their damage from the inside position. Offensive coordinators are lining them up in the slot because in today's spread-out formations, more and more defenses shift coverage toward the outside. That creates openings up the middle, where a quick seven-yard dig route in the throat of a defense can turn into a 50-yard catch-and-run. "The best cover guys are still playing on the outside," an NFC scout says. "So any time you can sneak in one of your best receivers to the slot, you have a huge advantage. You're talking about Calvin Johnson one-on-one with a linebacker or the third-best cornerback on the other team."
Former Colts president Bill Polian, now an ESPN analyst, says receivers like Hawkins, Harvin and Welker are especially effective blowing through open holes in the middle of zone coverages designed to shut down big plays. In Week 5 against the Broncos, Welker never ran a route longer than eight yards on any of his 13 catches, yet he finished with 104 yards and a touchdown. The slot spot has become so specialized that some colleges, including Notre Dame, have an assistant specifically assigned to coach it. "That position didn't exist 10 years ago," Polian says. "But today, it's necessary to have a slot coach. Great college slot receivers used to be rare. Today, there's one on every team in Division I."
NFL general managers have taken notice. When San Francisco used a first-round pick in this year's draft on undersize Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins (six feet, 192 pounds), even he was surprised. But the 49ers believe that Jenkins has all of the qualities to succeed in the slot. "We drafted A.J. for his versatility," 49ers GM Trent Baalke says. "It's the evolution of the game." The jury is out on Jenkins, who has had trouble cracking the 49ers' rotation because of the offseason additions of Randy Moss and Mario Manningham. Still, says an AFC scout: "We identify the position now. Slot receivers are a big part of offenses, and you're going to see them drafted more and more."
Aside from Harvin, the Vikings' first-round pick in 2009, all of the top slot-first receivers -- Welker, Amendola, Hawkins and the Giants' Victor Cruz -- started out as undrafted NFL driftwood. The 26-year-old Hawkins graduated in 2007 from Toledo, where he played receiver and occasionally cornerback. Despite 4.44 speed, his 5'7", 180-pound frame landed him in the CFL. He caught 41 passes in two years with the Montreal Alouettes. He tried to win a roster spot with the Cowboys on Michael Irvin's 2009 reality show, 4th and Long, but finished second. Hawkins then bounced from the Rams to the Bengals' practice squad before earning limited playing time last season, when he caught 23 passes for 263 yards. His incredible quickness, diminutive stature and soft hands made Baby Hawk a Cincinnati fan favorite. Now he looks like the next Cruz.
And here's where the future gets tricky. Explosive slot men are beginning to hit the free agent market, and it's still to be determined whether teams will pony up for them. The Patriots kicked the can down the road with Welker by placing the franchise tag on him for 2012; he'll likely test the open market this offseason. The Giants certainly will try to sign Cruz to a new deal next spring, no doubt at a significantly higher salary than his current $490,000. Amendola is a pending free agent who was on pace for 102 catches and 1,264 yards before he was injured. Then there's Hawkins, who's making just $465,000 this season yet sounds like the most grateful man in football.
"I'm in awe of the whole situation," Hawkins says. "Hopefully they will have me back."
If he's as tough in negotiations as he is going over the middle, he's got nothing to worry about.