Understanding the 5 Yard Contact Rule In The NFL

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Before we get started on the 5 yard contact rule, there’s a few things we need to establish.

What is the 5 yard contact rule? Defensive backs are not allowed to make any contact with a wide receiver past 5 yards.

The college game is a more neutral, and allows defensive backs to be a bit more physical with both wide and slot receivers.

As the spread game became more prominent in both the college and NFL, defenses needed to keep up. Wide receivers started to evolve to taller and more athletic vertical threats.

Defensive coordinators began to align their cornerbacks on the wide receivers roughly a yard apart, also known as press coverage. On the snap, the cornerback would jam with either one hand or two hands to disrupt the route.

This physical style of play threw off the quarterback’s timing and prevented receivers to get into their routes.

Defensive Coordinators also started to design zone and man schemes from the press coverage. Corners now play Cover 2, Cover 3, or Cover 4  from a pressed position. This helps slow down the route, but also gives a leg up to the defensive back as he’s able to retreat back to his zone coverage.


Rule committee’s on both the college and NFL level decided to take matters into their own hands regarding contact with a wide receiver.

The rule is different, depending on which game you’re watching:

  • College
  • NFL

As mentioned at the beginning of the post, the college game is a bit more neutral in the eyes of the rulebook. Defensive back’s are able to be a bit more physical in the college game.

Each level has it’s own set of rules. The NFL game is a bit more offensive favored, so the rules are geared toward the quarterbacks and receivers.

College 5 Yard Contact Rule

To put it simply, there isn’t one. College football has specific rules that allows contact of any receiver, as long as the ball isn’t in the air. Read more about the rule here.

According to the NFHS handbook, a player may not make contact with a receiver if the ball is in the air. It does not matter how far down the field it, the point of emphasis is on the fact that there is no open attempt to catch the football. Here is a visual to help you understand from gejfa.org

Looking at the NCAA rulebook, they also allow contact of a receiver at any point past 5 yards. The two states that play by NCAA rules are Texas and Massachusetts. Below is an excerpt from the NCAA 2017 handbook which describes the illegal contact rule.

Coaches often teach linebackers to “clean up” any receivers that cross the middle. This is something that can be dangerous for receivers who are not looking, but technically falls within the scope of the rulebooks.

5 yard contact

I’m sure you’re wondering, why don’t players in the college or high school ranks just hit receivers when they’re not looking or when they are farther down field. The top answers are:

  1. Fair Play – Hitting a player when he’s not looking, in a violent manner may also result in a 15 yard penalty for an unnecessary roughing penalty.
  2. Position – If a team is playing zone coverage and they come out of of their zone to purposely hit a receiver and miss , they vacant their zone. This opens up better throwing lanes for the quarterback and receivers.


NFL 5 Yard Contact Rule

The known defensive back rule states that you may only make contact with a receiver within 5 yards (otherwise known as the 5 yard contact or 5 yard shuck rule).

That’s true – if you’re part of the select few that play on Sunday. As we often see it in the NFL, defensive backs are forced with the daunting task of trying to cover receivers without contacting them. What about high school rules? College? Can you hit the receiver whenever you want?

First let’s take a look at the 5 Yard Contact Rule. The NFL implemented what we call a “5 yard contact” or “5 yard shuck” rule.

This rule stated that a defensive back or any linebacker can not make contact with a receiver after 5 yards. Any contact made after 5 yards results in a “illegal contact” 5 yard penalty and an automatic first down.

This rule is largely because of the physical dominance from Mel Blount and the Pittsburg Steelers.

Mel would jam receivers off the line of scrimmage, often throwing them to the ground or pushing them so far out of bounds they were rendered useless.

For more on Mel Blount – feel free to watch this video from NFL films on one of the greatest defensive backs of all time!



5 yard contact

The NFL prohibits this from making ANY contact past 5 yards “illegal contact”. This was largely in part because of how physical corners, like Mel Blount, were dominating receivers off the line of scrimmage. In today’s high powered offenses, we rarely see much bump and run coverage –  as receivers are too fast in and out of their routes.

What’s Your Take?

In closing – the NFL is the only league that implements the “5 Yard Illegal Contact” rule. Every other league requires the ball to be thrown in the air for any penalty to take effect.

This rule (for the NFL at least) has slowed down the game and made the cornerback position one of the hardest positions to play in all of sports.

Corners are forced to play a mirror coverage, where they kick back and are expected to run across field or vertically. These wide receivers often run 4.3 40’s or have extraordinary speed. Corners are automatically at a disadvantage in the NFL as wide receivers (such as Julio Jones or AJ Green) are too fast and too powerful, for a game that doesn’t allow corners to make contact after 5 yards.

Do you think this rule should be applied to all levels of football? Are you in favor of the 5 yard contact rule? Let us know if the comment section below!

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