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How Many WRs Do NFL Teams Actually Need to Carry?

  • Carmen Vitali
  • May 20, 2022
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Three wide receiver sets have become a league-wide preference in the NFL as of late. When you hear the term ‘pass-happy,’ that’s essentially where it comes from. Teams are favoring aerial attacks out of 11 personnel, stressing the back levels of defenses and pick-your-poison scenarios. Add in the rise of the ‘F’ or ‘stretch’ tight ends who are essentially big-bodied receivers and hybrid running backs that are just as dangerous catching passes out of the backfield as they are on the ground, and you’ve got a heck of a task if you’re an NFL defense these days.

But it isn’t just a stress on the opposing defenders. If we’re talking wideouts specifically and taking the liberty of assuming most teams have at least three on the field for a majority of their offensive snaps… that’s a lot of work.

No. 1 wide receivers are often playing at least 90% of the team’s offensive snaps. Mike Evans in Tampa Bay had seven games in 2021 where he played at least that amount. Against the Washington Football Team in Week 10, he played 100% of the team’s offensive snaps. The former Green Bay Packer Davante Adams had six games where he topped 90% and seemed to hover in the high 80s for most every other full game he played. For anyone that wants to label the Rams’ Cooper Kupp as ‘just a slot receiver,’ consider that Kupp played 100% of his team’s offensive snaps five times in the regular season last year. He played 90% or more 13 times.

Even if a player doesn’t actually catch the ball, they are doing their best to sell the route they’re given. Or, as is the case in offenses like the Buccaneers, wideouts are required to help block on run plays and sometimes even on passing downs.

Most teams carry four-to-six receivers on their active gameday roster. It depends on the scheme, of course. But it can also depend on if rostered receivers can pull double-duty as punt and kick returners. Though, returners can come in multiple shapes and sizes. Running backs are well suited. As are defensive backs more and more. It could be due to a rising number of cornerbacks and safeties being converted from wide receivers in the developmental phases of their football careers, but that’s another feature for another time.

But if you have four receivers on the roster, that means all but one are essentially seeing the field quite a bit. You could also have them on a four-man rotation but it’s not often teams have four quality wideouts that are interchangeable like that.

Even in the best case, teams have six receivers – assuming one is being utilized in some way shape or form on special teams. You have a little bit of depth there, but it’s still slim.

Given this increased workload pretty much across the league for wideouts – should teams consider carrying more than six on any given week?

In theory, it almost seems like a no-brainer. Given how multiple defenses continue to become, keeping them guessing with as many weapons with different skill sets is ideal, right? 

But ok, say you decide to carry seven or eight… which position do you take away depth? League rules only allow 48 active players come gameday (in normal times – this has varied in COVID times). 

I can’t seem to figure out where I would take players away. Teams often carry seven offensive linemen and when the same five need to be on the field at all times together, seven hardly even seems like enough.

What about on the other side of the ball? Do you need five or six corners? Considering teams are often in their nickel package these days to contend with all these receivers more often than their base formations, and the fact that cornerback in particular is a position that can thrive on a rotation, taking a defensive back away hardly seems fair.

You’re kind of stuck.

Let’s circle back to those ‘F’ tight ends and hybrid backs now. It’s no wonder they’ve become such a thing now, right? These positions are already some of the most versatile on the field – especially for the offense. Think about it. Tight ends can act as an extension of the offensive line (if they’re a complete tight end, which is a dying breed in itself – especially in college), in addition to being receiving threats. Not only are hybrid backs dual threats as far as the ball is concerned, but in pass protection, they’re essential at times. That’s a huge difference in the NFL game versus the college game. 

Wideouts (except if you’re in Arians’ offense and maybe a few others) are kind of the last one-trick-pony position. Teams simply can’t afford to carry more than they are already. So while you may have thought a rise in passes and more receivers on the field means an evolutionary uptick in the number of receivers you’ll see on rosters, you’d be mistaken.

Wideouts are just going to have to shoulder the ever-increasing load.

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Carmen Vitali