Time to get into some football terminology, San Francisco 49ers fans. And with the Niners revamping their wide receiver corps in 2019, how will head coach Kyle Shanahan deploy this unit this season?
It’s June, and the San Francisco 49ers aren’t going to be partaking in any on-field activities until training camp kicks off on July 26. So that means it’s time to dive into things a bit deeper, exploring some of the other topics we don’t always get to delve into on a regular basis.
Last week, Niner Noise explored some of the pros and cons behind the team’s switch to a wide-9 defensive alignment. Now, we’ll shift to the offensive side of the ball and break down all that terminology behind the X, Z and even Y wide receivers.
More specifically, how head coach Kyle Shanahan will deploy them in 2019.
Before we get to that part, let’s explain the difference between the three positions.
Traditionally, football terminology lists X receivers as split ends — a pass catcher lining up on the weak side of the formation opposite the tight end. X receivers are required to line up on the line of scrimmage and can’t go in motion.
As a result, they’re typically stronger and more capable of handling press coverage, since they have to beat jams right at the snap.
Z receivers are often referred to as “flankers,” and they’ll line up on the strong side of the formation. Unlike X receivers, though, they’re usually going to line up a yard off the line of scrimmage and can go in motion. If this receiver lines up on the line of scrimmage, a strong-side tight end would be ruled ineligible.
Perhaps this explains some of the illegal formations you’ve seen the 49ers have trouble with from time to time.
Z receivers don’t have to be as physical as X receivers, as they encounter press coverage less frequently. So you’ll often see these wideouts boast either tremendous acceleration and speed or exceptional footwork to create space.
This kind of pass catcher can either be delegated to a slot receiver or a tight end, depending on formations. In 21-personnel (two wide receivers, a tight end and two running backs), the Y receiver would be the tight end. A tight end can still be a Y receiver in 11-personnel (three wide receivers, one tight end and one running back). But again, that depends on deployment.
The “depends” part is crucial to Shanahan’s offensive system.
49ers Deployment of X and Z receivers
Let’s get one thing straight: Shanahan doesn’t stick to the traditional mantra of wide receiver deployment. He’ll use a multitude of different combinations and personnel to confuse defenses, and the creation of what’s being termed a “positionless offense” only serves to create more mismatches.
At times, Shanahan can call any number of plays out of the same offensive formation. That’s the point.
On paper, though, it’s still possible to gauge what kind of roles some of the Niners pass catchers will fill. For a good chunk of last year, then-rookie wideout Dante Pettis handled Z-receiving duties on the strong side of the formation. A bit undersized and less physical, Pettis was required to use his excellent footwork and route-running abilities to create separation. That extra yard off the line of scrimmage meant a lot for the former second-round NFL Draft pick.
The 49ers hoped to get that physical X-receiver presence from the veteran, Pierre Garçon, the last two seasons. But injuries cut into Garçon’s production, and the Niners parted ways with him during the offseason, replacing him with South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel in Round 2 of the 2019 draft.
Samuel possesses that physical presence, and he’ll likely be asked to frequently handle weak-side receiving duties, beating a lot of press coverage in the process.
And depending on what Shanahan is calling, the Y receiver will be split between tight end George Kittle, wide receivers Marquise Goodwin, Jordan Matthews and Trent Taylor and, perhaps, a little bit of the other rookie, Jalen Hurd, sprinkled in when necessary.
As far as X and Z receivers go, however, the two players to watch this season remain both Pettis and Samuel. The hope for Shanahan and Co. is for the two to complement each other, effectively handling the responsibilities of their respective positions, yet flexible enough to potentially change out of those roles to create additional confusion.
If the last part sounds vague and confusing, that’s exactly what Shanahan wants it to be.
Remember, being predictable is a bad thing in the NFL.