Football today is dominated by pass-first offenses. Quarterbacks are putting up ridiculous numbers in terms of touchdowns and passing yardage. This increasing number of passing plays has changed the way offenses look by utilizing three or four receivers in nearly every formation (fig 1).

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Due to that change there are a greater number of notable wide receivers in every level of football. Historically, teams were more likely to use two or even just one receiver in their offensive formations (fig 2).

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That trend led to the powerful and celebrated QB-WR duos of the past, names like: Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swan; Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin; Joe Montana and Jerry Rice; and Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison. While quarterbacks will always have their preferred guy that they depend on, the new receiver-laden formations provide more opportunity for quarterback to spread the ball and keep defenses guessing.

Football has universal terms. For the most part the following terms describe the different wide receiver positions being used in today's formations:

X Receivers:

An ‘X Receiver’ is the Split End - in other words, the receiver away from the strength of the formation (fig 3). The ‘X’ will usually line-up on the line of scrimmage and is the receiver most likely to see press coverage.

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The X is generally the largest and most physical of all the different wide receiver positions. The way defenses usually play forces the X to have a great release into his route despite physical play near the line of scrimmage. Defenses generally put a cornerback on the X receiver in press coverage and by pressing the receiver at the line of scrimmage plays and passing routes develop slower, making the pass rush more effective. Notable X receivers in the NFL include: Calvin Johnson, Michael Crabtree, and Anquan Boldin.

Z Receivers:

A ‘Z Receiver’ is the Flanker - the receiver lined up to the strong side of the offensive formation. The Z lines up off the line of scrimmage to allow the tight end (the last man on the line of scrimmage) to become eligible. Z’s are often a smaller receiver than the X, however, they typically compensate for a lack of size with speed. The Z is normally a team's best deep threat and one of the fastest players on a team (fig 4). Notable Z receivers in the NFL include: Desean Jackson, Percy Harvin, and Brandon Marshal.

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Y Receivers:

Most often the ‘Y Receiver’ is the tight end (fig 5). If the Y is on the line of scrimmage he is not eligible unless he is the last man on the line of scrimmage. So, by making him a blocking threat as well as a receiving threat, he is more difficult to cover. Y’s are generally used to catch passes in the middle of the field, in heavy traffic. Notable NFL Y’s (in the receiver sense of the word) include: Jimmy Graham, Tony Gonzales, and Jason Witten.

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A Receivers:

When a team runs a four wide or five wide set, the receivers’ roles change slightly. Teams don’t always have a great receiving tight end so the Y becomes a slot receiver. Offenses that utilize a tight end as well as three receivers will call the slot an 'A receiver’ (fig. 6).

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The A receiver's role is similar to the tight end. Routes are most often times in the middle of the field or in the flats to the sideline. A’s and slot receivers are commonly expected to make things happen after they catch the ball. Notable A Receivers or Slots include: Wes Welker, Pierre Garcon, and Victor Cruz.
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