Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Wide Receiver Positions Explained

by: Matthew Heuett

Flanker, split end, tight end, and slot; X, Y, and Z. What do all of these terms even mean? That’s what reader Hawksince77 would like to know, and since we’re in the middle of the offseason and he was kind enough to raise the question, this seems like as good a time as any for a quick refresher course on the various receiver positions. As I go through each position, I’ll also list the players Seattle has utilized in those roles over the last several seasons and who we can expect to man those same spots in 2009.

To understand where some of these position names originated we have to go back to the old Pop Warner days of football, when the running game was everything, the ball was round and stubby, and forward passes were few and far between. Back then, the most popular offensive formation was the single-wing, which used an unbalanced line and fakes to multiple backs in order to confuse the opposing defense.

To see my poorly drawn diagrams and get in on all the hot explanation action, click on

Single-Wing Formation (from Þe Olden Tymes)

In case you’re wondering, the snap from center went to either the tailback or fullback, the quarterback was a blocking back, and the wingback and ends were primarily blockers with some receiving responsibilities (the wingback less than the ends). While this formation fell out of favor by the 1950s as more teams began to emphasize the passing game, aspects of it can still be seen in the game today. For instance, the shotgun formation is derived from the long snap to the tailback or fullback utilized by single-wing offenses, and the wildcat formation that was all the rage during the ’08 season is just a modified single-wing with a shiny new name.

It’s important to note a few key features of the single-wing formation that still hold true for football offenses today. First of all, of the eleven players on offense, by rule seven must be lined up directly on the line of scrimmage and four must be lined up at least a yard or more behind it. In addition, only the players who line up in the backfield and the outermost players on the line of scrimmage (the ends) are allowed to catch passes. That way, the defense can tell at a glance who on offense is eligible to catch passes and who is just there to block, allowing them to key in on which offensive players might need to be covered downfield. Just imagine how maddening it would be to play defense if you had to worry about guarding against trick plays where a center, guard, or tackle slips out to catch a short pass in 4th and 1 situations.

Modern 4 WR 1 TE Formation

Tight End

In the modern game, the old style ends have been replaced by two different, more specialized positions: the tight end and the split end. The tight end, sometimes referred to as the “y” receiver, lines up “tight” with (i.e. directly next to) the rest of the offensive line, usually beside the right tackle. Although the tight end position still carries with it many of the same blocking responsibilities of the old end position, star players like Kellen Winslow and Mike Ditka helped popularize the increasing use of the tight end as a receiver in the passing game. In fact, many tight ends in the league today like Kellen Winslow, Jr. and Dustin Keller are used primarily as receivers rather than blockers.

After suffering through a revolving door of injuries (Itula Mili, Ryan Hannam), busts (Jerramy Stevens), and aging stopgap measures (Marcus Pollard) over the last several seasons, Seattle is finally set at the tight end position with returning starter John Carlson. John Owens will see playing time on running downs as a blocking specialist tight end (a position previously held by Ryan Hannam and Will Heller). Depending on what they show in training camp, either rookie Cameron Morrah or perennial practice squad member Joe Newton may see some action in two tight end formations on passing downs, although given Newton’s previous two failures to make the roster I’d say the likely choice here is Morrah.

Split End

The split end, or “X” receiver, lines up directly on the line of scrimmage, but is generally placed well away from (or “split” off from) the offensive line. However, unlike the old end position, the split end is primarily a receiver, running routes on the left side of the field. Because he lines up directly on the line of scrimmage, the split end is more likely to be jammed at the line in bump & run coverage, so receivers playing this position are usually bigger, more physical players who can muscle their way out of blocks. On running plays, the split end is responsible for blocking a cornerback or safety downfield (most running plays that go for big gains are due in no small part to a receiver making a good block in the secondary).

Over the last few seasons, Seattle’s split end position has been manned primarily by Nate Burleson, D.J. Hackett, and Koren Robinson, with Logan Payne, Jordan Kent, and Billy McMullen seeing some time at the position as injury replacements. For the 2009 season, Burleson, Ben Obomanu, and rookie Deon Butler appear to be the main candidates to start at this position. However, given the physical demands of the position, Butler may be better suited to play flanker or slot receiver than split end, but I defer to the coaches’ judgment on that matter.


Next up we have the flanker, or “Z” receiver, which evolved from “flexing” out (another term for lining a player up away from the offensive line) the wingback as a receiver on passing plays. Because the flanker lines up a yard or more behind the line of scrimmage, this position favors a smaller, quicker player who can take advantage of the space between him and the cornerback to avoid being jammed at the line, although a savvy cornerback will try to neutralize this by lining up on the inside shoulder of the flanker in order to force him to juke to the outside where the cornerback can then squeeze the flanker against the sideline.

Because of this advantage, the flanker position is typically manned by a team’s #1 receiver on every play (which, incidentally, is why a defense’s top cornerback almost always plays opposite the flanker). Like the split end, the flanker is typically responsible for blocking a cornerback or safety on running plays, although because of his size he isn’t generally expected to be as effective a downfield blocker as the split end.

Deion Branch and Darrell Jackson have been the two main starters at flanker over the past few seasons, with Courtney Taylor, Bobby Engram, and Keary Colbert seeing time as injury replacements. For the 2009 season, T.J. Houshmandzadeh appears to be the favorite to start at flanker, although Branch will likely man the spot when Houshmandzadeh moves inside to the slot position in three receiver sets.

Slot Receiver

Finally, we have the slot receiver, which just like the tight end position is also sometimes referred to as the “Y” receiver. This receiver lines up a yard or more off the line of scrimmage in the space (or “slot”) between either the offensive line and the flanker or the offensive line and the split end. Like the flanker, the slot receiver position appears to have developed from flexing out a wingback as a receiver, although in this case the wingback was not flexed out quite so far.

Since the job of this position is to catch short to mid-range passes in the middle of the field, the main trait teams look for in a good slot receiver is the ability to take a crushing hit from a linebacker or safety without either dropping the ball, getting intimidated, or breaking into a thousand pieces. Because of this, speed and size aren’t as important in selecting a slot receiver as durability, toughness, and a knack for finding open spaces out where the big hitters roam. A good slot receiver acts like a security blanket for the quarterback, giving him a possession receiver he can rely on to get open and help him move the chains in third down situations.

Engram has been Hasselbeck’s go-to man in the slot for Seattle for the last several years, with Darrel Jackson and Michael Bumpus filling in when Engram has been hurt. In 2009, expect to see a steady diet of Houshmandzadeh at this position when the team goes to three and four receiver sets.

Final Thoughts and Likely Personnel Groupings
Hooray, I Think He’s Almost Done Typing

Since you’ve read this far, I hope that you’ve found this explanation useful (or at least not too pedantic and grating). If nothing else, it’s fun to see how the various offensive positions have changed over time to meet the needs of newer game plans -- or, in the case of the wildcat offense, to see how well all these new personnel types are able to handle some stuff taken straight from the faded pages of Pop Warner and Knute Rockne’s dusty old playbooks.

If I had to make an educated guess (and even if I don’t, I will anyway), here’s the personnel I’d say we’re most likely to see used in some common formations in 2009:

2 WR, 1 TE
Flanker: Houshmandzadeh and Branch (to spell Houshmandzadeh -- the man is 32, after all)
Split End: Burleson
Tight End: Carlson

3 WR, 1 TE
Flanker: Branch
Split End: Burleson
Slot Receiver: Houshmandzadeh
Tight End: Carlson

2 WR, 2 TE
Flanker: Houshmandzadeh
Split End: Burleson
Tight End 1: John Carlson
Tight End 2: John Owens (on running downs) or Cameron Morrah (on passing downs)

4 WR
Flanker: Branch
Split End: Burleson
Slot Receiver 1: Houshmandzadeh
Slot Receiver 2: Obomanu and/or Butler

In the running for a possible sixth wide receiver spot: Taylor, Payne, and Bumpus