Slot receivers taking center stage

Fresh off a week of scouting college players, former All-Pro wideout Torry Holt rattled off the attributes of a perfect slot receiver the way singles explain their laundry list of must-haves in a potential mate.

In both circumstances a good one is hard to find. Or the property of someone else.

“Those guys have to be tough. They have to be sure-handed. Strong. And they have to be athletic,” said Holt, now working for the NFL Network. “I’m sure there’s executives and scouts that are looking for the next Victor Cruz. There may not be another Victor Cruz out there, who knows?

“Wes Welker’s tough [too]," Holt added. “He has all the intangibles.”

Welker and the Cruz are two of the NFL’s finest wide receivers, and success stories. Both went undrafted, and amidst their pass-grabbing journeys to Super Bowl XLVI, have helped transform the no-frills slot position into something more glamorous. They are their respective team’s top targets, starring out of a once-unheralded spot.

“I hope they’re not [scouts looking for another Cruz],” Cruz joked after a Giants practice this week. "I don’t want a bunch of Victor Cruzes running around. Then my stock plummets.”

At the moment, the slot is the hot stock. The position was once the domain of slower, sure-handed players making a living off underneath routes into the teeth of a defense. On a 3rd-and-7, the slot man would find the open spot eight yards downfield. Wayne Chrebet of the New York Jets, Ernest Givins of the Houston Oilers and even Cris Carter late in his career with the Minnesota Vikings were all top-caliber slot receivers — dependable, crafty and possessing sticky fingers.

Today, Welker and Cruz are every-down players out of grip-it-and-rip-it, three-and-four receiver sets. They can turn 8-yard curls into 99-yard touchdowns. If one of their teammates are double-covered or drawing the opponent’s best cornerback, they tear up the nickel backs or safeties assigned to them.

“We ran three receivers, four receivers, five receivers sets, and teams were looking at us like we were crazy,” said Holt, a member of the St. Louis Rams “Greatest Show on Turf” offense. “Like, what they hell are they doing? Now, three wides is not too big of a deal . . . the key in the slot is to confuse you, create mismatches.”

The slippery, 5-foot-9 Welker may be the best slot receiver in league history, making 554 catches in his five seasons with the Patriots, including an NFL-high 122 receptions this year. His 1,569 receiving yards were second only to Detroit Lions superstar Calvin Johnson, who is the prototypical 6-5 high leaper on the outside.

Perhaps Welker’s most admirable trait is fearlessness. He rarely works the sidelines away from the heavy hitters.

“When you catch over 100 balls in this league, you’re going to take your fair share of hits and different things like that,” said Welker. “Each year, you have to train harder, faster and longer.”

“He has a big heart,” said Giants safety Deon Grant. “He takes on any matchup, any challenge, he has great hands, very quick, and he runs good routes.”

Cruz, listed at 6-feet, was a comet in his second pro season — possessing deep speed and an array of stutter steps and double moves. The receiver finished the regular season with 82 receptions for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns. According to Pro Football Focus, he picked up more yards per routes run (3.08) than any receiver.

“He makes moves on a dime, and gets separation better than anyone I’ve seen,” said Giants tight end Jake Ballard.

After spending the majority of his rookie season on injured reserve, Cruz saw his first real action against the rival Philadelphia Eagles in Week 3. He wasted no time making an impression, scoring off a 74-yard catch and run in the first quarter, and then out-leaping corner Nnamdi Asomugha and safety Jarrad Page for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth.

“Huge,” Cruz said. “I just wanted to make sure I caught every thing that came my way . . . in the next game, he [Eli Manning] was looking for me a little bit more.”

By season’s end, Cruz set team highs in receiving yards, 100-yard games (7) and longest touchdown — a 99-yarder against the New York Jets on Christmas Eve — out of the slot. It didn’t come naturally.

As the season progressed, Cruz admitted he had difficulty reading coverages inside and reacting, which differs greatly from the one-on-one matchups outside receivers like teammates Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham see each week. Welker is a master technician at doing exactly that (he also had a 99-yard grab this season).

“The defense may line up some way, and when the ball snaps, then they line up somewhere else, so you have to see all that,” said Cruz. “You have to understand what your route is gonna be, according to their depth. It’s definitely tough, especially learning it at the start. It takes time.

“I know how he good he is,” added Cruz of Welker. “I try to steal a few things from his repertoire.”

Now NFL general managers will attempt to locate and snatch up the next talented slot man. Holt watched several Senior Bowl practices last week in Mobile, and noted Arizona’s Juron Criner and Florida’s Chris Rainey are excellent prospects. At face value, both seem ill-suited to the role — the 6-foot-2 Criner has the height and playmaking ability to be an outside guy, while Rainey is actually a running back — but the game is now on watch for the next superstar up the middle.

“It’s a copycat league,” said Holt. “And what they’ve done from the slot position is pretty damn good."