Building the Perfect Receiver Scheme in Today's NFL

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMay 28, 2019

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 04: Wide receiver Calvin Ridley #18 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates with teammate wide receiver Julio Jones #11 after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter against the Washington Redskins at FedExField on November 4, 2018 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Great receivers come in all shapes and sizes, and the same can be said of complete receiver corps.

As the NFL evolves, the ability to create mismatches far outweighs the importance of scheme and offensive balance.

"From a team perspective, this is a pass-oriented league," Cleveland Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens said, per ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert. "You need to be able to throw the ball, and you need to be able to stop people from throwing the ball."

While Kitchens' statement seems obvious, two archaic ideas persist: The run sets up the pass, and good offenses are balanced with equal run and pass distribution. Neither is true. A passing attack opens the field and creates space for running lanes, while true balance is achieved through spreading the ball to all of the offensive weaponswhether they're wide receivers, tight ends or running backs.

To create mismatches, varied skill sets provide different looks to stress opposing defenses.

"You need guys that are at a certain area of expertise, and then it's our job as coaches to put those guys into position where they can showcase that skill set," Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said, per Mike Spofford of the team's official site. " … You're not going to go out and play with five point guards. You need a speed guy. You need a guy that's got short-area quickness … we'd like to have a couple guys that are versatile enough to do both of those things."

Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur
Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleurMorry Gash/Associated Press

Coaches can't be hardheaded. The best adjust their system to accentuate an individual's skill set, and these skill sets often project to certain roles.

In today's game, 11 personnel is king. The majority of snaps are taken with three wide receivers and a tight end, and how teams construct their groupings based on traditional alignments yet varying skill sets often determines whether they're successful.

An offense must have seven men at the line of scrimmage, and of course, five offensive linemen account for the majority. However, a typical offense features a wide receiver and a tight end up front, and the other two receivers must be at least a yard behind the line of scrimmage.

Letter designations are assigned to each of the receiver positions:

  • The X-receiver, or split end, lines up opposite the tight end in most cases, at the line of scrimmage and furthest away from the ball.
  • The Y-receiver is another name for the tight end. (A second tight is often referred to as an H-back.)
  • The Z-receiver, or flanker, is off the line of scrimmage and, usually, on the tight end's side. His alignment tends to change based on presnap motion calls.
  • The slot receiver is off the ball and often found between the split end and offensive tackle. He works the area between another receiver and the end of the offensive front.

The Los Angeles Rams used 11 personnel more than any other squad last season, and the following is an example of a traditional alignment from their season opener against the Oakland Raiders:

Los Angeles Rams in 11 personnel
Los Angeles Rams in 11 personnelNFL Game Pass

In the above look (going left to right), Brandin Cooks (12) lined up as the X-receiver, while Cooper Kupp (18) acted as the slot receiver. Tyler Higbee (89) is attached to the line of scrimmage as a Y-tight end, and Robert Woods (17) served as the Z-receiver.

Numerous looks are created through the same personnel groupings, and the previous example is the most basic, but it's where the foundation is built. From that point forward, what an offense can achieve is based on the available talent.

LaFleur mentioned he doesn't want five point guards, because like basketball, there are both general requirements for playing each position and different positions despite falling under the same designation.

A starting five can't all feature 6'0" guards handling the ball, as shooters, slashers, forwards with size and defenders are needed to balance a lineup. The same approach is necessary to feature a fully realized passing attack: A receiver corps should be built like a basketball team.

From a general perspective, each position demands something different.

The X-receiver is most often tethered to the line of scrimmage and regularly faces man-to-man coverage. Two requirements are necessary: The receiver must be physical or quick enough to consistently beat the jam since defensive backs get to line up directly across the line of scrimmage, and the X must provide an outside presence to effectively work the field's deepest and widest portions.

The Atlanta Falcons' Julio Jones (6'3", 220 lbs) is the standard for X-receivers, but the position doesn't demand such an impressive physical presence. At 5'11" and 198 pounds, the Browns' Odell Beckham Jr. is one of the league's premier X-receivers because of his suddenness at the line of scrimmage and vertical presence.

Whereas, a good-to-great Z-receiver doesn't require the same physical traits because he often gets a free release off the line. Flankers need to accelerate quickly off the line into their routes and work from multiple alignments based on motion calls.

The Indianapolis Colts' T.Y. Hilton excelled for years as a movable chess piece, as the four-time Pro Bowler posted five 1,000-yard campaigns in the last six seasons (and would have had a sixth if not for Andrew Luck's 2017 shoulder injury).

A slot receiver relies heavily on short-area quickness to create separation in small spaces on option routes and work through heavy traffic between the hashes, and two different types of slots are utilized in today's game.

Former New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker
Former New England Patriots wide receiver Wes WelkerElise Amendola/Associated Press

A typical slot is a smaller, shiftier target, and Wes Welker is often used as a comparison. On the opposite side of the spectrum, big slot receivers are being used more and more, with Marques Colston serving as the nexus.

Like slot receivers, tight ends are often separated into two entities. A traditional Y is a strong in-line option, where blocking is a necessity. "Move tight ends" (a term often used instead of H-backs or detached tight ends) are viewed as athletic receivers. Few transcend these designations—even some of the league's best.

Recently retired Rob Gronkowski was a rare commodity as a strong in-line blocker with the size (6'6", 265 lbs), speed and athleticism to continually threaten defenses as a receiving option. A tight end capable of excelling in both areas is extremely valuable, as the Detroit Lions proved when they drafted T.J. Hockenson with this year's eighth overall pick.

Some ambiguity does exist between all of these positions because versatility is a valued trait for formation flexibility.

Speed is always a sought-after commodity. Elite speed (anything below a 4.4-second 40-yard dash) isn't a necessity, but chunk plays create more scoring opportunities.

Someone on the outsideor even a tight end who can consistently threaten the seam (a vertical route run between a dropping linebacker and a defensive back playing over the top)—who can consistently outrun and stretch the defense as a downfield threat adds an entirely different dynamic, even if they're not the most well-rounded route-runner. The Los Angeles Chargers' Travis Benjamin and New Orleans Saints' Ted Ginn Jr. have experienced long careers in this exact role.

Size is another component to create mismatches. Tall receivers don't have to outrun defenders or run precise routes. Their size and larger catch radiuses allow them to make different types of plays, like high-pointing passes or bodying off defenders. Quarterbacks don't have to be as accurate and can trust those options, especially in the red zone.

Other teams prefer targets who create after the catch to operate in timing, rhythm schemes.

Big, small, fast, quick, precise or one-dimensional
all have their places in an NFL receiving corps. Using each trait to its fullest helps maximize a passing attack's efficiency.

If an organization were to build the perfect receiver corps, what would it look like?

In order for this to be a realistic exercise, parameters must be included. It's easy to say all of the best at their respective positions form the league's perfect receiving corps. It's different to operate in realities.

On average, franchises will spend 11.6 percent of their 2019 salary cap on wide receivers, according to Spotrac. The number decreased to 4.5 percent for tight ends, and the projected salary cap is set at $188.2 million. As such, the perfect receiving corps can spend $21.83 million on its wide receivers and $8.47 million for its tight ends.

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas
New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael ThomasJason Behnken/Associated Press

Through a combination of elite talent with some help from rookie deals, here's the best the NFL can offer as a fully realized wide receiver corps:

  • Julio Jones is the standard-bearer at X-receiver and a logical starting point.
  • The Kansas City Chiefs' Tyreek Hill brings dynamic speed to Y-receiver, even though he plays both outside and inside the slot.
  • The Pittsburgh Steelers' JuJu Smith-Schuster can be the full-time slot receiver.
  • Depth consists of the New Orleans Saints' Mike Thomas (a physical target to play multiple positions), the Falcons' Calvin Ridley (a precise route-runner with 4.43-second 40-yard-dash speed) and the Detroit Lions' Kenny Golladay (6'4", 213 lbs).

Final price this season: $21.6 million.

  • At tight end, George Kittle is a true Y, and he set an NFL record last season with 1,377 receiving yards.
  • Zach Ertz, who serves as the second option, is more of a slot receiver than inline tight end.
  • Finally, the Arizona Cardinals' Maxx Williams is a surprise inclusion, but he's cheap and counted among the league's best all-around blocking tight ends.

Final price: $7.66 million.

Each brings something different and addresses preferences at multiple positions to form a complete group. Definitive archetypes aren't necessary, as the right skill set can excel as long as individuals are showcased in today's version of basketball on grass.


Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.


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