Wide Receiver Mental Processing through a Continuum


The following article will run as apart of Brad Kelly’s Wide Receiver Draft Guide.

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Importance of Mental Processing

Route running is a fluid process that needs to be able to change depending on outside factors. For a wide receiver to be a successful route runner, he needs to understand defensive alignments, coverages, and leverages. The ability for a wide receiver to adjust to different defenses and change his routes based on them, while making slight adjustments throughout length of a play, comes down to a receiver’s mental processing speed.

A continuum is defined by a sequence or progression of elements varying by minute degrees. In route running, qualifying outside elements can include whether the defense is playing man or zone coverage, the type of zone coverage and accompanying leverage being played, whether a defensive back is attempting to contact the receiver, the wide receiver’s timing progression of his steps, and the timing of the route break corresponding with the quarterback.

Pre-snap, a wide receiver needs to check the alignment of the primary defensive back in coverage on him, as well as the closest safety over the top of him. This will give the wide receiver an idea as to what coverage is being played and from which angle a safety could play a vertical or in-breaking route. During the snap count, wide receivers are expected to account for the defensive back in case of a late shifting alignment. They are taught to “keep one eye on the ball and keep one eye on the defensive back.” While this is unrealistic, it speaks to the idea that a wide receiver needs to be aware of the secondary alignment during the entirety of the pre-snap process.

Operating Through a Continuum

There are two main ideologies when it comes to consistent timing progression between quarterback and receiver: routes being run at yard lengths or on pace of steps. For example, some offensive coordinators will teach a receiver to run a post route with the break coming at ten yards, while others will teach a receiver to break on their fifth step. Multiple air raid systems have timing progressions of routes that expect the quarterback’s drop to come within a certain amount of time and route breaks to come simultaneously.

No matter the ideology, route timings need to be on a certain pace in order to correspond with the quarterback releasing the ball before a potential sack. A wide receiver needs to generate separation within the timing and structure of his route. This requires his mental processing to come second nature so he’s not slowed down by an enlarged thought process during the play.

Operating within the structure and timing of his route, a wide receiver’s natural mental processing needs to account for those outside elements in the continuum of the play. There are innumerable ways a play can happen, and in turn, the progression of defensive back movements that a wide receiver must process, and consequently dictate his route.

Route Running Mental Processing

During the stem of most routes, a wide receiver will press a defensive back vertically. If the wide receiver is operating against press coverage, the pressing onto defensive back’s toes will come much sooner. When this point of the route stem comes, a wide receiver needs to process whether or not they are on the proper time or yardage progression in their route. Whether or not to break on the route or to avoid and continue to press vertically will be presented simultaneously with a reaction to the defensive back if they opt to engage the receiver with contact. Ideally, a wide receiver will operate without contact from a defensive back that could potentially knock them off the timing or structure of their route. This generally means not engaging the defensive back with contact themselves, instead avoiding it. Because contact needs to be minimal, if a defensive back engages contact with a wide receiver, then it needs to be reactionary in avoiding it, generally done by matching their hands and knocking them away.

During the minimal time of a route stem and transitioning into a route break, a wide receiver needs to process the defensive coverage, contact engagement, timing, and proper angle of his route. In order to generate separation, mental processing on threatening defensive leverage needs to come simultaneously with the reaction to avoiding contact. Immediately after, breaking at the expected angle while remaining in the timing structure of the route is necessary. Running routes within the structure of the route, such as running three vertical steps before breaking on a 45 degree angle on a slant route, is an additional factor for mental processing, along with the timing progression.


Mentally processing the defensive structure and creative ways to threaten and attack leverage, all while remaining within the makeup of a route, requires second nature mental processing. In order to properly generate separation against a multitude of coverages, multiple varying elements need to be accounted for. Operating through a continuum and reacting to an innumerable number of potential sequences, necessary route progressions need to become impulsive and habitual. Once this level of ingrained mental processing is achieved, separation will generate more naturally and with more fluidity.