Ah, modern day football. Advancements in offensive scheme has bucked previous traditions and trends and forced the game to adapt. Through all levels of football, the game looks much different than what we saw 40, 30 or even 20 years ago.
I always think back to the sectional championship game scene in the cult-classic movie “Varsity Blues.” Filmed and based in Texas in 1999, it’s a tale as old as time; senior football players coming of age, struggling with the balance of cherishing precious moments and looking ahead to life beyond high school.
In that sectional championship game, star quarterback turned play-caller Lance Harbor, portrayed by the great Paul Walker, hatches a halftime plan to “spread out the defense” with extra wide receivers. When they get into formation, a fan is seen counting the number of wide receivers using his fingers “1, 2, 3, 4, 5?” Five wide receivers? Twenty years ago, this was an anomaly.
Flash forward to today, and spread offenses have become the norm. Not only at the NFL and NCAA level, but even throughout high school and youth football. Players are developed to fit into spread systems. That’s not to say that wing-t or triple-option football doesn’t still exist, but a lot of it has been adapted.
What does that mean for the wide receiver position? Versatility is valued, unique roles and skill sets are being utilized, and players are tasked with varied alignments. Five wide receivers won’t be utilized on every snap, but you’ll see offenses forcing defenses to defend space horizontally just as much as vertically. This means more trips sets, motions, and hybrid type players.
The positions that wide receivers used to operate in have become a bit muddy. In the past, when teams were operating out of 21 personnel as their “base,” wide receivers were set into their alignments. Now, it’s not uncommon to see receivers moving all across the formation and into different positions. However, the majority of snaps will still come from their “position,” and when crunch-time comes, their roles need to be defined.
I am here to breakdown how the wide receivers entering the 2019 NFL Draft fit by position and role. While, as I’ve mentioned, players can and will fill multiple spots, these are the positions that I see these receivers fitting in best at in the NFL. This is based on traits seen on film study and where I believe the NFL will value their skill sets. It should be clarified that this does not necessarily mean the position that they filled while in college, but where I can see them projected to at the next level.
The “X” receiver, or “split-end,” will generally align as the furthest receiver away from the tight end, usually on the opposite side of the formation. This means that the X receiver will more often than not be on the line of scrimmage. Aligning on the line of scrimmage means the player isn’t allowed to go in pre-snap motion, which defenses take advantage of by incorporating more press or bracketed coverage against them.
X receivers in the NFL need to be able to defeat press coverage, maintaining a clean frame throughout the contact window. On top of that, almost all of the routes on the vertical plane will be covered by the cornerback, whether in man coverage or as apart of a cover 3 or cover 4 scheme. This requires the X receiver to have the speed to separate along the sideline.
When you think of X receivers, the image should be that of your traditional “number 1” wide receiver. A player gifted with size and strength, who mostly operated along the boundary and was successful down the field. The prime example in recent memory would be Calvin Johnson. In 2019, think Mike Evans.
Here are the wide receivers in the 2019 NFL Draft that I believe project as an X receiver in the NFL:
The “Z” receiver, or “flanker,” traditionally aligns on the same side as the tight end. The Z receiver will be set back from the line of scrimmage to keep the tight end eligible for passing routes, which also means that the Z receiver can be utilized more in motion. While still a “wide” receiver, the skill set of a Z receiver will differ from that of an X receiver.
With the ability to go in motion, the Z receiver’s alignment will vary more than the X. This generally means more routes that break over the middle, and a more diverse route tree. The easiest example of a Z receiver skill set in today’s NFL would be Stefon Diggs.
In a sense, the Z receiver is a bit of a hybrid between the X receiver and the slot receiver, and will be used as such. In two wide receiver formations, if the X and Z receiver remain on the field and to the same side of the formation, it’s the Z receiver who will assume the slot duties. Once again, the wide receivers entering the league in 2019 will be asked to be multiple in their alignments and roles. I view Z receivers in two different ways, ones that I would prefer to stay on the outside of the formation and ones that can and will spend a few extra reps in the slot.
Here are the wide receivers in the 2019 NFL Draft that I believe project as a Z receiver in the NFL:
Here are the primary Z receivers who I believe should take on extra reps in the slot:
“Slot” and “Big Slot” Receiver
One recent evolution seen in the NFL is that of the “slot” receiver. It’s almost as if two roles now occupy the slot, the traditional role and the “Big” slot.
Generally, slot receivers will operate with a free release. Because they have either side of the field to work with and are constantly going in motion, nickel corners or overhang defenders won’t press the slot receiver as often as the wide receivers on the outside. Slot receivers are relied on the change direction quickly, taking advantage of the natural spaces in the defense. They’re expected to find holes in zone coverages between linebackers and safeties, a completely different challenge than beating cornerbacks in man coverage. In today’s NFL, think of players such as Cole Beasley.
The “big” slot is a recent trend that has manifested itself from the natural mismatches that tight ends usually benefit from. Receivers who are “too fast for linebackers, but too big for safeties” can take advantage of a lot of different man or zone coverage looks that are thrown their way because of natural athletic gifts. That position has evolved, and now players such as JuJu Smith-Schuster have become stars in that role. The position acts as a hybrid between slot receiver, tight end and Z receiver, so their skill set needs to be unique enough to beat a whole variety of defenders and coverages.
Here are the receivers in the 2019 NFL Draft who I believe project as a slot receivers in the NFL:
“Big” Slot Receivers