Playing the Slots: Stevie Johnson Edition February 4, 2013  |  C.D. Carter

It’s tough to convince fantasy owners that Stevie Johnson’s impending move to the slot position in the Buffalo Bills’ offense is as fantasy relevant as Reggie Wayne’s 2012 slot success and Larry Fitzgerald’s anticipated slot usage under new head coach Bruce Arians in 2013.

The case for why more slot routes for Stevie Johnson could be a major value boost is complicated, in large part because he hasn’t ripped out fantasy footballers’ hearts and stomped on the vital organ, like Fitzgerald did in 2012 and Wayne the season before.

Owners who drafted Johnson last August couldn’t have expected a whole lot more than what they got: A top-25 wide receiver who caught 73 passes for 935 yards, both slight drops from his 2011 numbers, and a considerable fall from his 2010 stats, which, of course, were artificially inflated by a fluky 10 touchdowns.

Johnson was the 23rd highest scoring receiver – perhaps a few slots below where we thought he might finish, but far from disastrous.

Within a few days of taking the Buffalo reigns, new Bills’ head coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett stressed that the team’s No. 1 receiver would be allowed to continue his “stop-and-start” route running. Even more important though: Johnson will be moved around Buffalo’s offensive formation in 2013, running more routes from the slot despite his relatively small stature.

Like Arians hopes to do with Fitzgerald, Marone and Hackett want to keep defenses guessing as to how the dynamic Johnson will be deployed on a weekly – and even play-by-play – basis.

“I think first and foremost Stevie is a dynamic player,” Hilliard said in an interview with the Bills’ official website. “We’ll have to find ways to get him the ball and other guys in our receiving corps. Stevie has a game that’s unique. He’s had a lot of success with it. We have a system in place that we’re going to implement and we’re all going to learn at the same time, and he’s going to be able to have the freedom to play his game within the system.”

There were 42 wide receivers who ran more slot-based routes than Johnson in 2012, as Johnson lined up in the slot in a quarter of his offensive snaps. Johnson’s success in his limited slot usage bordered on astounding.

On 39 targets from the slot position, he caught 27 passes for 359 yards and four of his six total touchdowns, posting a stellar 70 percent catch rate and dropping precisely zero passes. The Bills seemed to use Johnson in the slot most often in or around the red zone. His reliably excellent – if not untraditional – route running technique against defense’s second, third, and fourth cover men proved excellent matchups that Chan Gailey and company, for reasons unknown to observers, didn’t seem to notice.

Bills’ general manager Buddy Nix has made no secret of the team’s desire to add a big outside receiver through the draft or free agency this offseason (think Dwayne Bowe), which would be more than welcome news to Johnson owners. Using Johnson in more varied ways while a new (hopefully decent) receiver attracts primary cornerbacks, I think, would make Johnson a threat to move up the WR2 ranks in 2013.

Probably Johnson’s quarterback will leave quite a bit to be desired; he could still be catching passes from the popgun-armed Ryan Fitzpatrick, whose support among teammates has collapsed this offseason, and rightfully so. Even a cursory look at 2012 game footage shows Fitzgerald underthrowing Johnson on a number of out routes and deep shots after Johnson had created plenty of space between himself and his defender.

At best, Johnson will have a surprisingly adequate rookie quarterback throwing the rock in Buffalo in 2013. Whoever bumbles into the starting quarterback role, the new regime’s willingness to get creative with Johnson — and Johnson’s proficiency in limited slot usage — is an instant boon for his fake football value, especially in the season after a down year.


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