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Wide receiver positions: X, Y, slot explained

Baltimore Ravens v New York Giants Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

New York Giants fan and Big Blue View reader, Bob Brodman, posed this question to the Big Blue View mailbag:

“When WRs are projected to be “just a slot” what does that really mean? There is no WR in the NFL who specialize in playing the X, Y, or Z (slot) in the NFL, and all WR play inside and outside.

For example, class #1 outside WR AJ Brown, Davante Adams, and Justin Jefferson were aligned in the slot 36%, 42%, and 54% of the time in 2021. Or does the label “just a slot WR” really mean that they project as WR3, who usually comes off the field in 12 or 21 personnel?”

Thank you, Bob, for the question. The answer fits nicely into our growing Big Blue View glossary of terms, so here goes.

There must be at least seven offensive players on the line of scrimmage in every offensive formation. Eligible receivers must be on both ends of the line of scrimmage, and any player on the line of scrimmage between them must be ineligible receivers, which is why slot receivers are off the line of scrimmage if the outside receivers are on the line of scrimmage.

The importance of a quality slot receiver has grown ever since the innovative Sid Gillman started employing three wide receiver sets in the 1960s.

The thinking behind a slot receiver is typically associated with size limitations, although I don’t believe it’s consistent. Teams recently have found success aligning their premier receivers in the slot for a few reasons:

  1. Aligning in the slot gives them a less restricted release
  2. They have a two-way go (inside or outside) upon releasing - more space to operate
  3. The ball travels less distance to the slot than the outside receiver
  4. Mismatch reasons - slot cornerbacks tend to be smaller
  5. To take advantage of defensive strategy - quality outside CB, safety rotation, etc.

Also, with the recent proliferation of the RPO game, some offenses want their best receiver as the primary read; this includes quick slants, outs, or bubble screens, like the DaVante Adams’ Packers had so much success running. If the defense runs a lot of zone coverage, a mismatch with linebackers could be exploited as well.

Generally speaking, slot receivers understand how to read defenses, run routes, and where/when to be in certain places. They’re very smart, usually shorter players who are quicker than they are fast.

X wide receivers - also known as split-ends - are aligned on the line of scrimmage, so the space between them and a press defender is minimal. Strength and size are necessary for traditional X receivers. One-on-one matchups to the outside are best handled by bigger-bodied receivers. Smaller receivers on the outside - who may not be the fastest - could struggle to win one-on-one matchups on outside releases, which, sometimes lazily, earns them ‘slot’ labels.

A Z receiver is off the line of scrimmage and is typically the ‘move’ receiver, the flanker who is often in motion and can also be utilized out of the slot. The Z receiver is typically on the opposite side of the X, and on the same side as the Y (tight end), but not always, of course.

In 11 personnel, the Y is usually the tight end and may have to execute blocking assignments in pass protection. With the Z off the line of scrimmage, the Y can be inside of the Z and be on the line of scrimmage, rendering him an eligible receiver.

In modern offenses, these labels are somewhat more interchangeable and act as an easier way to generalize offensive personnel that is currently being employed by several teams with varying systems and approaches. There are 32 different teams in the NFL with 32 unique styles and strategies on how to best optimize their personnel.

I wouldn’t necessarily say that the slot wide receiver just means the third wide receiver to see the field. Players like Cooper Kupp, Chris Godwin, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Christian Kirk are best described as slot receivers, but they do play in 21 and 12 personnel packages.