Sakamoto: 49ers Slot Role “Toughest Position” To Learn In Chip Kelly Offense

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Why the slot receiver remains to be an afterthought is anyone’s guess. Often known as the team’s third-option, the slot receiver doesn’t seem to garner the same level of respect compared to split-end or flanker. A position that continues to receive a negative connotation when it comes to the assumption that the slot is primarily a possession receiver, the position often gets diminished and overlooked in comparison to their counterparts.

But why?

I always viewed the slot receiver as an offense’s most valuable playmaker. Why? Because on the “money downs [third-down],” it’s the quarterback who often looks to the slot receiver first when going via his progressions. He is the closest receiver [lined up] to the quarterback, while often displaying the best short-area quickness of anyone on the field.

It’s what makes New England Patriots WR Julian Edelman, New Orleans Saints WR Brandin Cooks, and Green Bay Packers WR Randall Cobb game-changers.

I had the opportunity to speak with San Francisco 49ers WRC Bob Bicknell, and he was very candid with me in our one-on-one interview, as he agreed that with me that the slot is vastly under-valued.

“It’s amazing that if you line up 12 yards different, that everyone makes it as such a different position, and somehow a slot receiver shouldn’t be as respected as much as an outside receiver [split-end and flanker]. That’s ridiculous,” Bicknell said.

For those of you who don’t know, the flanker [z-receiver] is often times the team’s featured wide receiver, who lines up on the strong-side of the formation [right side] slightly behind the line of scrimmage. The split-end [x-receiver] is lined up on the weak-side of the formation [left side] on the line of scrimmage.

However, despite the perceived negativity for the position, Bicknell revealed to me the position is the toughest to play under HC Chip Kelly’s offense.

“The slot position is the toughest position to play out of the receiver group. You have to be ready to read inside backers [inside linebackers], safeties over the top, guys that are playing you man [press or off man coverage], being able to double ya! You go on the outside, a lot of times you’re one-on-one,” Bicknell explained.

In lament terms, Bicknell explains the slot role requires a high-cerebral aptitude for reading defenses pre-snap.

So with that being said, who are the slot candidates as the 49ers enter training camp in late July? I straight up asked Bicknell if rookie sixth-round pick (No. 213) WR Aaron Burbridge can be that guy. [Read full Burbridge story here]

“I think he could,” Bicknell said.

But don’t count out third-year WR Bruce Ellington, as I believe he will have a breakout campaign while winning the slot role, if not starting.

Ellington is fast, explosive, and versatile. He can be used on inside double moves, short crossers, or end-arounds. He is by far the team’s most versatile player on the offensive side of the ball, and Kelly will take advantage of his skill set. Kelly’s M.O. [method of operation] has always been to put the best 11 players on the football field. Ellington is one of those 11, I can assure you.

So far in camp, Ellington has proven his worth. His route-running is bar-none and his ability to get open with little real-estate to work with has been encouraging.

“Bruce has got real suddenness to him and ability to get open,” Coach Bicknell said. And I have to agree. This is by no means a smoke-screen, folks. Ellington is looking every part of a player who will thrive under Kelly’s offense just like Philadelphia Eagles WR Jordan Matthews. [Read: Why 49ers Should Draft WR Jordan Matthews At No. 30]

Could this be the reason why the team is shying away from re-signing WR Anquan Boldin? I believe so.

As the 49ers continue to shape up their depth chart, I would say Ellington will be one of their featured players. An athlete who checks all the boxes, while understanding how to gain separation [basketball background], look for Ellington to be a nice fantasy sleeper stud in 2016. In a breakout season, I expect Ellington to have a stat line around 50 catches for 550 yards and 5 touchdowns.

In 26 regular season games, Ellington has recorded 19 catches for 215 yards and 2 touchdowns.

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Ryan is the Founder/CEO of, 49ers Beat Writer, Live Game Day Correspondent for Bleacher Report and member of Pro Football Writers of America. Born and raised in San Jose, he also graduated from San Diego State University. His work has been featured on NFL Network, 95.7 The Game, National Football Post, Sports Illustrated, FanSided Network, ESPN Radio, CBS Sports 810, and NBC Bay Area News. For more information, please contact him via email at or call him at (408) 622-0996.