A receiver is a receiver is a receiver, right?
Well, kind of. But not really.
Let’s start this conversation with a disclaimer: every system is different. So the terminology referred to here is meant to be generally accepted information, not specific law for every NFL team.
With that said, let’s dive in and figure out who the receivers are and what they do!
Here’s a line up we’ve seen several times before:
(Bonus points for knowing which personnel group is on the field right now!)
So…aside from trying to advance the ball forward and score points, do all of these guys have the same job?
Wide Receivers run long routes and make big catches.
Tight Ends block, run, and catch – they are the multi-purpose components of the offense.
Running Backs run the ball after receiving a handoff from the quarterback.
Like all other aspects of football, none of these principles are set in stone. A running back can catch a pass in the backfield instead of being handed the ball. A tight end can run a long route usually run by a wide receiver. But in general, you’ll usually see them featured as described above.
In today’s conversation, we’re only going to focus on receivers – tight ends and wide receivers – and the different jobs they have. Let’s take a look at that lineup again, this time with new job descriptions:
So, what does each postion do?
The Split End (usually labeled the “X” receiver) is the wide receiver split farthest out from the offensive line. He is usually lined up on the line of scrimmage and opposite from the tight end. The split end is most often the team’s biggest and strongest wide receiver, since he will have to contend with the defensive back trying to “jam” him (keep him stuck) at the line of scrimmage.
The Tight End (usually labeled the “Y” receiver) is most often lined up on the line of scrimmage with the offensive linemen. Remember that 7 players are required to be on the line of scrimmage, and more often than not, the tight end is one of those players. The tight end really is the all-purpose player of the offense, and with the (now-defunct) evolution of a two tight end system in New England, the position continues to grow more and more. Tight ends block, run, and receive passes. This means they are well-rounded athletically: big enough to block, strong enough to run, and fast enough to catch a pass.
The Flanker (usually labeled the “Z” receiver) is the wide receiver opposite from the split end. He is usually lined up off of the line of scrimmage because he is beside the tight end. If he were aligned on the line of scrimmage, the tight end would be “covered up” and therefore be an ineligible receiver. Since the flanker is usually off the line of scrimmage, he has room to get away from the defensive back and run his route, or “beat the jam,” which is why flankers are usually smaller and faster than split ends.
The Slot Receiver (labeled in a bunch of different ways, but usually F, H, J, or even Y or Z), is the receiver in between the split end and the offensive line or in between the flanker and the offensive line – literally, in a “slot.” The slot receiver can be a tight end, but doesn’t have to be – like Wes Welker or Victor Cruz, who are both wide receivers. The slot receiver has similar characteristics to the tight end – a player who can block, run, and catch – but is usually more wide receiver in physique and play than tight end.
Do all receivers play the same positions all the time? It depends on the player and the system and the play in question. But seeing as how receivers are placed at each specific position because of their skill set (like having big, physical receivers at split end), it makes sense to keep them there most of the time.