Wide receiver

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Calvin Johnson (pictured here during his college tenure at Georgia Tech), a three-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowl receiver who starred for the Detroit Lions Calvin Johnson midair pass cropped.jpg
Calvin Johnson (pictured here during his college tenure at Georgia Tech), a three-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowl receiver who starred for the Detroit Lions
An example of a wide receiver's positioning in an offensive formation: split end (SE) (now wide receiver), slotback (SB), tight end (TE), wingback (WB), and flanker (FL) position Wide receiver.svg
An example of a wide receiver's positioning in an offensive formation: split end (SE) (now wide receiver), slotback (SB), tight end (TE), wingback (WB), and flanker (FL) position

A wide receiver (WR), also referred to as a wideout, and historically known as a split end (SE) or flanker (FL), is an eligible receiver in gridiron football. A key skill position of the offense, WR gets its name from the player being split out "wide" (near the sidelines), farthest away from the rest of the offensive formation.


A forward pass-catching specialist, the wide receiver is one of the fastest players on the field alongside cornerbacks and running backs. One on either extreme of the offensive line is typical, but several may be employed on the same play.

Through 2022 only four wide receivers, Jerry Rice (in 1987 and 1993), Michael Thomas (in 2019), Cooper Kupp (in 2021), and Justin Jefferson (in 2022), have won Offensive Player of the Year. [1] In every other year it was awarded to either a quarterback or running back. No wide receiver has ever won MVP. Jerry Rice is the leader in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns on the all-time list for receivers, along with being a 3-time SB champion and 10-time All-Pro selections.


An Air Force Falcons wide receiver (foreground) lines up close to the sideline while the linemen and backs (background) line up near midfield before a snap during a 2023 game. Army vs Air Force NCAA Football Game (8139377).jpg
An Air Force Falcons wide receiver (foreground) lines up close to the sideline while the linemen and backs (background) line up near midfield before a snap during a 2023 game.

The wide receiver's principal role is to catch forward passes from the quarterback. On passing plays, the receiver attempts to avoid, outmaneuver, or simply outrun the cornerbacks or safeties typically defending him. If the receiver becomes open on his pass route, the quarterback may throw a pass to him. The receiver needs to successfully catch the ball without it touching the ground (known as a 'completion') and then run with the ball as far downfield as possible, hopefully reaching the end zone to score a touchdown.

Especially fast receivers are typically perceived as "deep threats," while those with good hands and perhaps shifty moves may be regarded as "possession receivers" prized for running crossing routes across the middle of the field, and, ideally, converting third-down situations. Taller receivers with a height advantage over typically shorter defenders tend to play further to the outside and run deep more often, while shorter ones tend to play inside and run more routes underneath the top of the defense.

Don Hutson was a two-time NFL Most Valuable Player and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who played his entire career with the Green Bay Packers Hutson-Don-1940-grainfix.jpg
Don Hutson was a two-time NFL Most Valuable Player and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who played his entire career with the Green Bay Packers

A wide receiver may block his or another defender, depending on the type of play being run. On standard running plays they will block their assigned defender for the running back. Particularly in the case of draws and other trick plays, he may run a pass route with the intent of drawing defenders away from the intended action. Well-rounded receivers are noted for skill in both roles; Hines Ward in particular received praise for his blocking abilities while also becoming the Pittsburgh Steelers all-time leading receiver and one of 13 in NFL history through 2009 with at least 1,000 receptions. [2] [3]

Occasionally wide receivers are used to run the ball, usually in plays seeking to surprise the defense, as in an end-around or reverse. All-time NFL receiving yardage leader Jerry Rice also rushed the ball 87 times for 645 yards and 10 touchdowns in his 20 NFL seasons. [4]

In even rarer cases, receivers may pass the ball as part of an outright trick play. Like a running back, a receiver may legally pass the ball so long as they receive it behind the line of scrimmage, in the form of a handoff or backward lateral. This sort of trick play is often employed with a receiver who has past experience playing quarterback at a lower level, such as high school, or sometimes, college. On Super Bowl XL, Antwaan Randle El, a four-year quarterback at Indiana University, threw a touchdown pass at the wide receiver position playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Seattle Seahawks, the first wide receiver in Super Bowl history to do so, along with Jauan Jennings on Super Bowl LVIII.

Wide receivers often also serve on special teams as kick or punt returners, as gunners on coverage teams, or as part of the hands team during onside kicks. Devin Hester, from the Chicago Bears, touted as one of the greatest kick and punt returners of all time, was listed as a wide receiver (after his first season, during which he was listed as a cornerback). Five-time All-Pro and ten-time Pro Bowler Matthew Slater was a gunner for the New England Patriots who was likewise listed as a wide receiver, however much he had only one reception in his career.

In the NFL, wide receivers use the numbers 0–49 and 80–89.

A "route tree" system typically used in high school and college employs numbers zero through nine, with zero being a "go route" and a nine being a "hitch route" or vice versa. In high school they are normally a part of the play call, but are usually disguised in higher levels of plays. [5] [ clarification needed ]


The wide receiver grew out of a position known as the end. Originally, the ends played on the offensive line, immediately next to the tackles, in a position now referred to as the tight end. By the rules governing the forward pass, ends (positioned at the end of the line of scrimmage) and backs (positioned behind the line of scrimmage) are eligible receivers. Most early football teams used the ends sparingly as receivers, as their starting position next to the offensive tackles at the end of the offensive formation often left them in heavy traffic with many defenders around. By the 1930s, some teams were experimenting with spreading the field by moving one end far out near the sideline, drawing the defense away from running plays and leaving them more open on passing ones. These "split ends" became the prototype for what has evolved into being called today the wide receiver. Don Hutson, who played college football at Alabama and professionally with the Green Bay Packers, was the first player to exploit the potential of the split end position.

As the passing game evolved, a second de facto wide receiver was added by employing a running back in a pass-catching role rather than splitting out the "blind-side" end, who was typically retained as a blocker to protect the left side of right-handed quarterbacks. The end stayed at the end of the offensive line in what today is a tight end position, while the running back - who would line up a yard or so off the offensive line and some distance from the end in a "flank" position - became known as a "flanker".

Lining up behind the line of scrimmage gave the flanker two principal advantages. First, a flanker has more "space" between themselves and their opposing defensive cornerback, who can not as easily "jam" them at the line of scrimmage; second, flankers are eligible for motion plays, which allow them to move laterally before and during the snap. Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch is one of the earliest players to successfully exploit the potential of the flanker position as a member of the Los Angeles Rams during the 1950s.

While some teams did experiment with more than two wide receivers as a gimmick or trick play, most teams used the pro set (of a flanker, split end, half back, full back, tight end, and quarterback) as the standard group of ball-handling personnel. An early innovator, coach Sid Gillman used 3+ wide receiver sets as early as the 1960s. In sets that have three, four, or five wide receivers, extra receivers are typically called slot receivers, as they play in the "slot" (open space) between the furthest receiver and the offensive line, typically lining up off the line of scrimmage like a flanker.

The first use of a slot receiver is often credited to Al Davis, a Gillman assistant who took the concept with him as a coach of the 1960s Oakland Raiders. Other members of the Gillman coaching tree, including Don Coryell and John Madden, brought these progressive offensive ideas along with them into the 1970s and early 1980s, but it was not until the 1990s that teams began to reliably use three or more wide receivers, notably the "run and shoot" offense popularized by the Houston Cougars of the NCAA and the Houston Oilers of the NFL, and the "K Gun" offense used by the Buffalo Bills. Charlie Joiner, a member of the "Air Coryell" San Diego Chargers teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s, was the first "slot receiver" to be his team's primary receiver.

Wide receivers generally hit their peak between the ages of 23 and 30, with about 80 percent of peak seasons falling within that range according to one study. [6]


The designation for a receiver separated from the main offensive formation varies depending on how far they are removed from it and whether they begin on or off the line of scrimmage. The three principal designations are "wide receiver"/"split end", "flanker", and "slot back":

Related Research Articles

In gridiron football, not all players on offense are entitled to receive a forward pass: only an eligible pass receiver may legally catch a forward pass, and only an eligible receiver may advance beyond the neutral zone if a forward pass crosses into the neutral zone. If the pass is received by a non-eligible receiver, it is "illegal touching". If an ineligible receiver is beyond the neutral zone when a forward pass crossing the neutral zone is thrown, a foul of "ineligible receiver downfield" is called. Each league has slightly different rules regarding who is considered an eligible receiver.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lineman (gridiron football)</span> Player in American or Canadian football who specializes in play at the line of scrimmage

In gridiron football, a lineman is a player who specializes in play at the line of scrimmage. The linemen of the team currently in possession of the ball are the offensive line, while linemen on the opposing team are the defensive line. A number of NFL rules specifically address restrictions and requirements for the offensive line, whose job is to help protect the quarterback from getting sacked for a loss, or worse, fumbling. The defensive line is covered by the same rules that apply to all defensive players. Linemen are usually the largest players on the field in both height and weight, since their positions usually require less running and more strength than skill positions.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cornerback</span> Position in gridiron football

A cornerback (CB) is a member of the defensive backfield or secondary in gridiron football. Cornerbacks cover receivers most of the time, but also blitz and defend against such offensive running plays as sweeps and reverses. They create turnovers through hard tackles, interceptions, and deflecting forward passes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tight end</span> Position in American football

The tight end (TE) is an offensive position in American football, arena football, and Canadian football. It is a hybrid that combines the characteristics and roles of both an offensive lineman and a receiver. As part of the receiver corps, they play inside the flanks (tight), contrasted with the split end who plays outside the flanks (wide). Like offensive linemen, they are usually lined up on the offensive line and are large enough to be effective blockers. On the other hand, unlike offensive linemen, they are eligible receivers and potent weapons in a team's offensive schemes.

Strategy is a major part of American football.

American football positions have slowly evolved over the history of the sport. From its origins in early rugby football to the modern game, the names and roles of various positions have changed greatly, some positions no longer exist, and others have been created to fill new roles.

A formation in American football refers to the position players line up in before the start of a down. There are both offensive and defensive formations and there are many formations in both categories. Sometimes, formations are referred to as packages.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Starting lineup</span> Official list of players set to participate upon the beginning of a sporting event

In sports, a starting lineup is an official list of the set of players who will participate in the event when the game begins. The players in the starting lineup are commonly referred to as starters, whereas the others are substitutes or bench players.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sweep (American football)</span> Running play in American Football

A sweep is an outside running play in American football where a running back takes a pitch or handoff from the quarterback and starts running parallel to the line of scrimmage, allowing for the offensive linemen and fullback to get in front of him to block defenders before he turns upfield. The play is run farther outside than an off tackle play. Variants of the sweep involve the quarterback or a wide receiver running with the ball, rather than a running back. When a wide receiver runs with the ball, it is known as a jet sweep.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Single set back</span> American football offensive formation

Single set back is an offensive base formation in American football which requires only one running back lined up about five yards behind the quarterback. There are many variations on single back formations including two tight ends and two wide receivers, one tight end/three wide receivers, etc. The running back can line up directly behind the quarterback or offset either the weak side or the strong side.

A trick play, also known as a gadget play, gimmick play or trickeration, is a play in gridiron football that uses deception and unorthodox tactics to fool the opposing team. A trick play is often risky, offering the potential for a large gain or a touchdown if it is successful, but with the chance of a significant loss of yards or a turnover if not. Trick plays are rarely used not only because of the riskiness, but also to maintain the element of surprise for when they are used.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">American football positions</span> Specific roles that players take in American football

In American football, the specific role that a player takes on the field is referred to as their "position". Under the modern rules of American football, both teams are allowed 11 players on the field at one time and have "unlimited free substitutions", meaning that they may change any number of players during any "dead ball" situation. This has resulted in the development of three task-specific "platoons" of players within any single team: the offense, the defense, and the so-called 'special teams'. Within these three separate "platoons", various positions exist depending on the jobs that the players are doing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Slotback</span> Position in gridiron football

Slotback, also called S-back or A-back, is a position in gridiron football. The "slot" is the area between the offensive tackle and the wide receiver. A player who lines up between those two players and behind the line of scrimmage fills that "slot".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Safety (gridiron football position)</span> American and Canadian football defensive position

Safety is a position in gridiron football on the defense. The safeties are defensive backs who line up ten to fifteen yards from the line of scrimmage. There are two variations of the position: the free safety and the strong safety. Their duties depend on the defensive scheme. The defensive responsibilities of the safety and cornerback usually involve pass coverage towards the middle and sidelines of the field. While American (11-player) formations generally use two safeties, Canadian (12-player) formations generally have one safety and two defensive halfbacks, a position not used in the American game.

In American football, a play is a close-to-the-ground plan of action or strategy used to move the ball down the field. A play begins at either the snap from the center or at kickoff. Most commonly, plays occur at the snap during a down. These plays range from basic to very intricate. Football players keep a record of these plays in a playbook.

The following terms are used in American football, both conventional and indoor. Some of these terms are also in use in Canadian football; for a list of terms unique to that code, see Glossary of Canadian football.

In American football, a back is a player who plays off of the line of scrimmage. Historically, the term "back" was used to describe multiple positions on offense and defense, although more descriptive and specific position naming is now common. Thus, "back" can refer to positions including:

A play calling system in American football is the specific language and methods used to call offensive plays.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Route (gridiron football)</span> Pattern or path run by receivers in American football

A route is a pattern or path that a receiver in gridiron football runs to get open for a forward pass. Routes are usually run by wide receivers, running backs and tight ends, but other positions can act as a receiver given the play.


  1. Hope, Dan (July 7, 2013). "Ranking the Top 25 NFL Offensive Player of the Year Candidates". Bleacher Report. Retrieved May 26, 2017. The award is typically given to the league's most productive quarterback or running back. Of the 41 times it has been given, it's been won. The exception is San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice, who won the award in both 1987 and 1993.
  2. "Hines Ward, Pittsburgh Steelers, NFL's dirtiest player, peers say". Sports Illustrated. November 5, 2009. Archived from the original on 2009-11-05.
  3. "NFL Players Poll: Dirtiest Player". Sports Illustrated. Archived from the original on 2010-03-29.
  4. "CNN/SI - Jerry Rice". August 18, 2000. Archived from the original on 2000-08-18.
  5. "WR Basics: Routes and the Passing Tree". Shakin the Southland. SB Nation. March 22, 2010. Retrieved October 14, 2020.
  6. "The Peak Age For An NFL Wide Receiver". Apex Fantasy Football Money Leagues. 2021-05-21. Retrieved 2021-05-21.
  7. "Football 101: The Split End". September 17, 2004. Archived from the original on 2004-09-17.
  8. "The Flanker/ Slot Receiver". phillyburbs.com. Archived from the original on 2004-09-17.