This will be the second edition of this article, as I similarly detailed the 2019 NFL Draft during the previous draft cycle. I always like to reference a scene from the football movie Varsity Blues to explain advancement in offensive scheme.
The West Canaan Coyotes have made their way to the district championship on the back of former second-string quarterback Jon Moxon. After a halftime episode that resulted in former QB1 Lance Harbor calling the offense, the Coyotes huddle on the sideline. Harbor, played by the legendary Paul Walker, comes up with a plan to spread out the defense with extra wide receivers.
When the Coyotes get into formation, a fan is seen counting the number of wide receivers on the field. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5?” Five wide receivers? Back in 1999 when the movie was filmed, this was a surprise tactic.
1999, West Cannan, TX…
Lance Harbor & Mox create the modern spread offense… pic.twitter.com/wulxCqkQa2
— Dub Maddox (@CoachDubMaddox) July 24, 2019
Looking at football offenses in 2020, the “spread” has become the norm. While this doesn’t mean that running backs and tight ends are extinct, we see more formations with three, four or five wide receivers than ever before.
What does that mean for the wide receiver position? For some teams, versatility is valued. For others, specific roles have evolved from traditional norms. Offenses try to stretch defenses both vertically and horizontally, which means more trips sets and motions. That breeds more hybrid-type players at receiver.
Back when teams played with two wide receivers in their base offense, the receivers were pretty set in their alignments. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see receivers varying their alignment throughout the formation and in different positions. However, the majority of their snaps will still come in their natural “position.”
Today I’ll break down the differences in wide receiver positions, both in alignment and skill-set. On top of that, I’ll break up the wide receiver prospects in the 2020 NFL Draft into those positions. While a lot of prospects can fill different roles, these are their “best fit.” The prospects are broken up based on the traits seen through film study and where I envision the NFL valuing them.
It should be clarified that this does not necessarily mean the position that the prospects filled for their college offenses, but how their skill-set should project to the NFL 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 set up 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 using more press or bracketed coverage against them.
Due to their alignment, it’s a necessity for X receivers to be able to run their routes while facing press coverage. The main goal while facing press coverage is defeating the jam by the cornerback, so the route isn’t slowed because of contact. With cornerbacks being the main coverage, the speed necessary to separate along the boundary is paramount for X receivers.
Traditional passing offenses would run through the X receiver, meaning the image of them is the true, old-school “#1” wideout. While the focus of passing offenses have shifted, a clear image of an X receiver skill-set in the NFL would be Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans.
Here are the wide receivers in the 2020 NFL Draft that I believe project as an X receiver in the NFL:
CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma
Denzel Mims, Baylor
Tee Higgins, Clemson
Michael Pittman Jr., USC
Collin Johnson, Texas
Isaiah Hodgins, Oregon State
Antonio Gandy-Golden, Liberty
Quintez Cephus, Wisconsin
Gabriel Davis, UCF
Lawrence Cager, Georgia
Aaron Parker, URI
Hasise Dubois, Viginia
Nick Westbrook, Indiana
Binjimen Victor, Ohio State
Dezmon Patmon, Washington State
Cody White, Michigan State
Marquez Callaway, Tennessee
Juwan Johnson, Oregon
The arm bar by Denzel Mims to hold Troy Pride Jr. away from the catchpoint was one of the most advanced WR techniques we’ve seen in Mobile this week pic.twitter.com/7brMzdZDiQ
— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) January 23, 2020
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 in motion. While still a “wide” receiver, the skill-set of a Z receiver differs from that of an X receiver. With the ability to go in motion, the Z receiver’s alignment will vary more often and therefore face a lesser amount of press coverage. This means more routes that break over the middle, and a generally more diverse route tree.
Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs is a prime example of the skill-set of a Z receiver.
If a two wide receiver formation calls for both the X and Z receiver to line up on the same side of the formation, generally it is the Z who will assume the slot position. Therefore, the Z receiver is almost a hybrid between the X and Slot receiver.
There are essentially two different types of Z receivers, those who project best on the outside of the formation and those who would benefit from a few extra reps in the slot.
Here are the wide receivers in the 2020 NFL Draft that I believe project as a Z receiver in the NFL:
Henry Ruggs III, Alabama
Van Jefferson, Florida
Bryan Edwards, South Carolina
Isaiah Coulter, URI
Tyrie Cleveland, Florida
Kalija Lipscomb, Vanderbilt
Tony Brown, Colorado
Henry Ruggs III – bottom of the screen
• Low pads down during his stem to limit wasted motion
• Avoids traffic out of his break
• Knifes through crease and stays upright despite contact
WR1 #NFLDraft pic.twitter.com/dAEN8EtUdd
— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) February 20, 2020
Here are the 2020 NFL Draft primary Z receivers who I believe should take on extra reps in the slot:
Jerry Jeudy, Alabama
Brandon Aiyuk, Arizona State
Jalen Reagor, TCU
Donovan Peoples-Jones, Michigan
John Hightower, Boise State
Quez Watkins, Southern Miss
Aaron Fuller, Washington
Omar Bayless, Arkansas State
Austin Mack, Ohio State
Jerry Jeudy has elite explosiveness and flexibility, but his technique matches his athletic traits. Stays light on his feet, defined cuts and sells his double moves with his eyes.#KellyClips pic.twitter.com/yFyml1MYvU
— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) April 16, 2019
“Slot” and “Big Slot” Receiver
As NFL offensive schemes continue to evolve, the position that may have gone through the most changes in preferred skill-set is the “slot” receiver. Multiple roles now fill the slot, and we’ll focus on the traditional role and the “Big” slot receiver.
Generally, slot receivers will run their routes with a free release. Because they have space to either side of the field to work with and are constantly motioning and shifting their alignment, nickel corners or overhang defenders won’t press the slot as often as the outside receivers.
In order to take advantage of this extra space in their alignment, slot receivers are relied on to change direction quickly and create passing windows. They’re expected to regularly find space in zone coverages between linebackers and safeties, a completely different challenge than beating outside cornerbacks in man coverage.
In 2020, think of the skill-set of Buffalo’s Cole Beasley.
Some NFL offenses have recently relied on their slot receivers to stretch the middle of the defense. Due to being afforded space to build up their speed, they’re more likely to take the top off of coverage by pulling a safety on a vertical route. Just think about how defenses react when Tyreek Hill aligns in the slot for an idea.
Another recent NFL trend has been the “Big” slot, a role designed to take advantage of the natural mismatches usually afforded to tight ends. The old adage of a receiver that is “too fast for linebackers, but too big for safeties” is the type of player who fills the “Big” slot role. The position acts as a hybrid between the slot receiver, tight end and Z receiver, so the skill-set of the prospects needs to be unique enough to beat different defenders and coverages.
Players who have recently thrived in this type of role include Keenan Allen and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Here are the receivers in the 2020 NFL Draft who I believe project as a slot receivers in the NFL:
KJ Hamler, Penn State
Devin Duvernay, Texas
Lynn Bowden Jr., Kentucky
K.J. Hill, Ohio State
Quartney Davis, Texas A&M
James Proche. SMU
Jeff Thomas, Miami
Malcolm Perry, Navy
Chris Finke, Notre Dame
KJ Hamler has rare explosiveness out of route breaks. Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile #NFLDraft pic.twitter.com/V37bbsRXWv
— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) February 6, 2020
“Big” Slot Receivers:
Justin Jefferson, LSU
Jauan Jennings, Tennessee
Tyler Johnson, Minnesota
Joe Reed, Virginia
Just a ridiculous rep from Justin Jefferson. With the play-action, he doesn’t get a zone dropper to his inside, so he starts working his stem off the free safety. Top of route rocker step gets the FS to take an extra leverage step, creating extra space for his break. Hands / YAC pic.twitter.com/S6aB2LE7eH
— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) January 30, 2020
X / Z / Slot / Backfield / H-back – Laviska Shenault Jr., Colorado
“Move” Tight End with boundary WR reps – Chase Claypool, Notre Dame
Austin Ekeler Role – Antonio Gibson, Memphis
Defensive back wanted no part of tackling Laviska Shenault pic.twitter.com/XXpx22iMUd
— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) January 29, 2020