One of the most popular debates in Cowboys nation this offseason is who will play the slot receiver role in 2012. The 'Boys have obviously already determined their top two wide receiver options, but the third receiver position is really up for grabs. Kevin Ogletree might be the frontrunner right now, but Dwayne Harris, Andre Holmes, Danny Coale, and even Cole Beasley have a shot at receiving significant snaps this season.
In searching for a third receiver, everyone is looking for a quick-twitch athlete, a la Wes Welker, who can consistently beat defenses underneath on digs, slants and smash routes from an inside position. I think a widespread misconception surrounding third receivers, however, is that they need to play the slot. In reality, Jason Garrett will search for the third-best receiver on the team, regardless of his skill set, and that player will fill the third receiver role for Dallas. However, it probably won't be in the slot.
That's all because the 'Boys actually already have their slot receiver pretty much set. His name is Miles Austin.
In three-receiver sets, the Cowboys have moved Austin into the slot more and more over the years. In 2009, I tracked Austin as playing 15.5 percent of his snaps in the slot. In 2010, it jumped to 32.4 percent. Last season, Austin actually played inside 44.0 percent of the snaps he was on the field. Of his 72 targets, 62.5 percent came when he lined up in the slot. That's full-time slot duty.
Austin isn't the prototypical slot receiver, but he gets the job done. Despite his 6-2 frame, he possesses the quickness and change-of-direction that characterizes successful slot receivers. Austin resembles a running back once he gets his hands on the football, dodging defenders just as effectively as he breaks tackles. He can take any play to the house, and that's a valuable asset to have in a slot receiver who touches the ball often.
Above, you can see Austin's ability to rack up yards after the catch. Austin turned in unreal yards-after-catch numbers in 2008 through 2010 before coming back down to earth last season. It doesn't take a stat geek like me to realize that, based on his career history, Austin will probably improve upon his 2011 YAC this year.
You can see evidence of Austin's dominance on underneath routes below.
Compared to Bryant, Austin thrived on both short (0-9 yards) and deep (20 or more yards) passes. The fact that the passer rating Austin has generated throughout his career on short passes is comparable to that on deep passes is remarkable because deep passes naturally result in more yards and touchdowns.
I think Bryant is a superior deep threat because he can attack the football and make highlight catches whether he is covered or not, but Austin really is more efficient underneath. He is quicker than Bryant and even has better run-after-catch ability (yes, I said it). Plus, there's no rule that says Austin can't go deep out of the slot.
We all know Austin had a down year in 2011, but I really think he's set to bounce back in a big way this season. With all the talk of Bryant's breakout potential, it is Austin who could surprise the most.
That takes us back to our discussion of the Cowboys' No. 3 receiver battle. Austin's versatility to play both inside and out means the team doesn't need to look for a third receiver with one specific skill set. Garrett & Co. can search for the player capable of providing the most big-play ability to the offense, whether he thrives in the slot or out wide.