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X Y Z Receivers Explained

Have you ever watched a football game on tv and heard the announcers talking about the X Y Z receivers? These receivers are unique to different offenses in football.

The X Y Z receivers are offensive players. Z receivers line up off the line of scrimmage. The X receiver is on the line of scrimmage. Last, the Y receiver is the tight end. 

These receivers typically play into all types of systems – whether it be a ground attack, heavy RPO system like Oklahoma runs, or a pass-heavy offense.

Why Do They Call Them X Y Z Receivers?

As passing schemes became more complex, coaches started to revert from saying “wide receiver, slot receiver, or wideouts.” Coaches had to start labeling receivers that correspond to their position on the field.

If you look into complex offenses (such as Andy Reid’s offense), you’ll see many motions and shifts from the X Y Z receivers. Here’s a prime example:

Interim head coach at the University of Maryland, Matt Canada, is also famous for his motions and shifts. Offensive coordinators will often create confusion for the defense by motioning and shifting.

Here is an example of Matt Canada’s offensive shifts when he was at LSU:

Teams will tag receivers with letters (X, Y, Z receivers, for example) to call these complex plays in the huddle. Based on the type of motion (jet, deep, return, etc.), coordinators can tag their play with simple letter checks and add it to any play. It does, however, make it tougher to call plays with picture boards or hand signals. A simplistic example would be:

“I-pro Right, Z-jet, 22 dive”

Now that we’ve laid the foundation of the receivers let’s look at who is often targeted when these letters are named. This was a staple in the West Coast Offense. If you’re unfamiliar with the West Coast system, learn more about it here!

the football handbook

X Y Z Receivers

Positions were often named by location. For example, it was common to hear “flanker, split end, wide receiver or tight end.” However, as offenses got more complex and diverse, coaches started to create systems where they could change routes on the fly (for example, change what the Z receiver is doing just by saying “Z-Slant” or “Z-Out”).

This complexity has made the game harder to understand. This is why we created the Complete Football Guide to help you better understand the complete game of football.

Below is an image of a basic formation we’re going to break down to help identify the X Y Z receivers.

21 personnel football

X Receiver – Let’s start with the X receiver. This receiver is typically on the line of scrimmage and flexed out wide. Often a team’s #1 receiver is the X receiver.

Z Receiver– The Z receiver, previously known as the flanker, lines up off the line of scrimmage. This player can move in and out of the formation. These players often speed players that don’t have to worry about an immediate jam from a defensive player.

Y Receiver– The Y receiver has grown popular over the years (especially in the NFL) as the “tight-end” position. The ability to pass, catch and block has made an immediate impact on the field, as it’s a matchup nightmare for linebackers. We often see this position lined up next to the tackle or slightly flexed away from the tackle.

A/T/B Receiver – The featured running back. This position is lined up directly behind the quarterback or next to him in a shotgun formation. Often referred to as the “Tail Back, Half Back, Running Back.”

Here is a fantastic breakdown by SB Colts Cast Page on the X Y Z receivers:

B, F and H Receivers

This is where things can get tricky. Depending on the play call (and the coach’s system), the second running back in the backfield’s letter can change. Let’s break it down!

B Receivers – Line up as a true fullback. We often see the B in I-formation or any power formation. The fullback position has become less popular with the innovation of the spread offense.

i formation football

F Receivers– The F, or the offset fullback, is still responsible for blocking but is a bit more athletic to leak into the flats to catch the football.

21 personnel football
Formation featuring the “F” position

H Backs – The H position is becoming increasingly popular, as more spread offenses are emerging from youth to pro football. The H position can line up anywhere between the tackle or flexed out.

H back in football
Formation featuring the “H” Receiver

The H-back has become wildly popular over the last 8 years. The perfect example is Rob Gronkowski.

Having a player with tremendous size and speed puts defenses in a bind – leave a linebacker on the field to cover him or nickel back?

Popularity In X Y Z Receivers

Why the H-back, and especially Gronk, is a matchup nightmare is for 2 reasons:

  • Linebackers are too slow to cover him in pass coverage
  • Nickel Backs are too small to shed blocks

In a traditional offense, the tight end is often used in run blocking sets and the occasional play-action route.

Players like Gronk, Kelce, and Olsen are big enough to block physically and athletic enough to catch passes in the open. Defenses are now adjusting by drafting bigger, stronger, and faster outside linebackers that can play all 4 downs.

This also is a direct correlation to why people say the “fullback” position is dying. H-back’s give teams more of a diverse capability to have a blocking-like position in the game to run plays like power and spread the field in the passing game.

A few fullbacks left in the NFL are guys like Anthony Sherman, James Devlin, and Kyle Juszczyk. These players are critical pieces in the system that they play in. As the H-back position becomes increasingly popular, some experts believe the fullback position will eventually die off.

If the game continues to innovate, we may see a new letter position become the new stable in both the run and pass game. If you’re looking to learn more about how offensive systems and philosophies work, check out our football course!

Conclusion

These letters can often change based on the coach’s system. It’s always good to keep an open mind when learning these systems, as they may change as the game evolves!

Do these letter schemes ( X Y Z receivers) fit with what you learned or are currently coaching? If not, we’d love to hear the different variations of your scheme!

Learn More Football From Our Football Handbook! Over 100 pieces of content from philosophy to scheme.