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Wide receiver numbering system explained

What do all those numbers mean when referring to certain wide receivers?

NFL: JAN 15 NFC Wild Card Playoffs - Giants at Vikings Photo by Bailey Hillesheim/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New York Giants, and the NFL world, are in the dog days of June. Big Blue View has published several glossary posts since the NFL draft. I wanted to clarify quickly and expound upon something that I frequently utilize throughout my in-season posts and YouTube videos during the season: the numerical application of receivers when referencing a play.

During the season, one may have seen me refer to receivers as the ‘Number (No.) 1 or No. 2 receiver.’ That isn’t me stating the receiver is the number one option, nor does it have anything to do with the specific receiver. It has to do with the pre-snap alignment of a receiver. The ‘ No. 1’ receiver means the outside receiver.


Receivers on the outside are always the ‘No. 1’ receiver, and every receiver inside of them sequentially goes up. It stops at the center. For example, the No. 1 receiver above is the ‘R,’ and he runs the fly route (9 route, streak, vert, etc.). The No. 2 receiver is the ‘H,’ and he runs the out route, and the No. 3 receiver is the ‘Y’ that runs the stick.

In a 3x1 set, one wouldn’t call the backside ‘L’ (above, but typically referred to as X) the No. 1 receiver, but just the backside receiver. However, in a 2x2 set, one may use the numerical system of identifying receivers and then add ‘boundary’ or ‘field’ side to it - more on that in a second. The ‘T’ above ends up being a No. 2 receiver post-snap to the backside of the play.

In the play above, the backside - where the ‘L’ is originally aligned - could also be referred to as the ‘boundary’ side or short side of the football field. Conversely, the front side - where the three receivers are - can be referred to as the ‘field’ side or wide side of the football field.

One may have also heard me refer to a player being a ‘fast three’ or a ‘fast four.’ Here’s an example of a ‘fast four’ from the Giants’ Week 13 tie against the Washington Commanders on a second-and-four:

The fast describes the motion, and the four relates to the number of receivers now on that side. Offenses gain an advantage by using this tactic for a few reasons. A lot of defenses run match-principled defenses that can switch assignments based on the motion. Motioning right before the snap can cause a communication error and result in a blown coverage assignment; it’s just one of the many advantages of pre-snap movement.

Another benefit that is displayed above is spatial and mathematical. There are three receivers to the field side as Saquon Barkley (26) moves in that direction before the snap. Only three Washington defenders are outside of the hash, and one is about 12 yards off the line of scrimmage.

The MIKE linebacker in the middle of the field - who is inside of the hash - can easily be accessed by the No. 3 receiver, with the other two receivers blocking the apex defender (over the No. 2) and the field-side cornerback. Theoretically, if the receivers can handle their blocking assignments, it’s Barkley with steam against a safety who has to pursue through traffic and depth in space to the field side. Barkley easily picks up the first down.

New York did a fantastic job down the stretch of the season using Barkley in motion before the snap to open up throwing windows for quick passes. When teams were in man coverage, the linebacker expanded with Barkley to the flat, and the throwing lanes became available for the Giants in the hook zone. I expect Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka to continue stressing defenses through the pre-snap portion of the play to maximize their success after the snap.