Understanding The 5 Yard Illegal Contact Rule In The NFL

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: March 6, 2024

Defensive backs and linebackers cannot contact a receiver down the field. The NFL is a unique league that doesn’t allow this type of contact to receivers. What is the 5 yard illegal contact rule?

The 5-yard contact rule in the NFL allows defensive backs to make contact with wide receivers at or less than 5 yards. Anything over 5 yards will result in an illegal contact penalty.

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

As the spread game became more prominent in the college and NFL, defenses needed to keep up. Wide receivers started to evolve into 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. The cornerback would jam with either one hand or two hands to disrupt the route on the snap.

This physical style of play threw off the quarterback’s timing and prevented receivers from getting 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 and gives a leg up to the defensive back as he can retreat to his zone coverage.

Illegal Contact Rule In The NFL

Rule committees on both the college and NFL levels 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 football or the NFL.

As mentioned at the beginning of the post, the college game is a bit more neutral in the eyes of the rule book. Defensive backs can be a bit more physical in the college game.

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

In the NFL, the 5 yard contact rule states that no defensive player can make contact with another offensive player past 5 yards. If contact is made from the defensive player after 5 yards, it will result in a 5 yard penalty and a first down.

Illegal Contact Rule In College

To put it simply, there isn’t one. College football has specific rules that allow 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 contact a receiver if the ball is in the air. It does not matter how far down the field it is. The point of emphasis is on the fact that there is no open attempt to catch the football. If there is contact when the ball is in the air, it will be called pass interference.

Looking at the NCAA rule book, they also contact 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 can be dangerous for receivers who are not looking but technically fall within the rule books’ scope.

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 the 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 their zone to purposely hit a receiver and miss, they vacant their zone. This opens up more throwing lanes for the quarterback and receivers.

Avoiding The 5 Yard Contact Rule

The known defensive back rule states that you may only contact 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 Illegal Contact Rule. The NFL implemented what we call a “5-yard contact” or “5-yard shuck” rule.

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

This rule is large because of the physical dominance of Mel Blount and the Pittsburgh 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!


(Watch On YouTube)

The NFL prohibits this from making any contact past 5 yards “illegal contact.” This was because of how physical corners, like Mel Blount, dominated receivers off the line of scrimmage.

We rarely see the bump and run coverage in today’s high-powered offenses – as receivers are too fast in and out of their routes.

Keep Learning

If you want to grow your football IQ even more, we recommend taking the Ultimate Football Guide course. It will help to improve your knowledge of everything football!

Below are articles to help you learn more about the rules of football.

Rules Of American Football – Beginner’s Guide

Difference Between Legal & Illegal Blocks In Football

Illegal Contact With Wide Receivers Explained

What Is A Flag In Football? Penalty Flags Explained

Can A Football Game End On A Penalty?

Football Overtime Rules: NFL Vs. College/High School

Learn Offsides, Neutral Zone Infraction, and Encroachment

Complete Guide To Referee Signals In American Football

What Is A Safety In Football? Explained

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 the sports.

Corners are forced to play a mirror coverage, where they kick back and are expected to run across a field or vertically. These wide receivers often run 4.3 40s 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 in the comment section below!

About the author 

Chris Haddad

Chris Haddad is the founder of vIQtory Sports & high school coach for over 12+ years. He has been featured as an authority on Hudl, Bleacher Report and countless other football-centric platforms. Chris continues to study and provide valuable content for those looking to learn more about the game of football.