Fantasy Football: Studying wide receiver utilization

2WB5B22 Dallas Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb (88) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Washington Commanders during the first half, Sunday, January 7, 2024, in Landover, Md. Dallas won 38-10. (AP Photo/Jess Rapfogel)

CeeDee Lamb’s unique role helps him be WR1: Lamb is one of the rare wide receivers to be the X receiver in two-receiver sets and the slot receiver in three-receiver sets.

The evolution of the league: Distinctions between X, Z and slot receivers can still generally be made for receivers and is useful to pay attention to but it’s less important than it was a decade ago.

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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Over the last two days, I dug into running back utilization and now it’s time for the wide receivers. While running backs are rotated in on the situation, wide receivers are more so depending on the personnel grouping.

On most plays, there are at least two wide receivers on the field. In most playbooks, one of those wide receivers would be designated as the X receiver, or split end, and the other is the Z receiver or flanker. In three or more wide receiver sets, there will be one or more slot receivers. This article will dig into systematically defining those receivers and examining what the distinctions mean for fantasy football. Designations for each receiver will also be given and discussed in the upcoming player profile series.

Defining the receivers

In general, the X receiver tends to line up on the line of scrimmage to the side of the field opposite the tight end. He won’t go in motion before the play. In contrast, the Z receiver will line up off the line of scrimmage, often on the same side as the tight end and off the line of scrimmage. Both tend to line up on the outside of the formation while in three-receiver sets a slot will line up on the inside of the X or Z receiver. While different playbooks might have different letters for the slot receiver, for the purpose of this article and future articles, I’ll refer to him as the S receiver.

Looking at combine results from X, Z and S receivers, the X receivers tend to be taller and heavier with longer arms and hands in addition to better bench press repetitions but are slower than the Z receivers. S receivers are typically the smallest of the group. There are plenty of exceptions to those trends, but those trends match both historical descriptions of the positions as well as averages from the combine over the last decade.

For this project, I used PFF data on where players lined up on the play relative to the rest of the formation and defined which receiver was the X, Z and slot based on the formation. In some formations, this was a black and white distinction. Others are less clear like a two-receiver set where the receivers were on the same side, the outside receiver was off the line of scrimmage and the inside receiver was on the line. For those less obvious plays, I looked at how often a typical X receiver from the obvious formations lined up in one spot compared to a typical Z, using that to help inform which player should be the X for this study. Different teams might have different philosophies, but the primary focus is finding the X, Z and S receivers on a team are.

The wide receivers' objective changes by position. Below are how often players at each position run each route.

Those play-level positions were then rolled up to the game and season level to determine X and Z receivers in general for two receiver sets, and X, Z and slot in three-receiver sets. One receiver sets are ignored, as those are typically run plays, and teams will often use this as an opportunity to give their top receivers a rest. Four and five-receiver sets are also ignored, as it’s generally expected any wide receiver worth talking about for fantasy football will be on the field in these personnel groupings.

The Results

Here are the most common roles a wide receiver had on a team in a game since 2014 in two- and three-receiver sets and how well they performed for fantasy football purposes. The results are similar using just more recent seasons, so the larger sample was used.

Unsurprisingly, the most important factor is being a lead player in both two and three-receiver sets, as they average 11.5-12.6 PPR points per game while everyone else is at 8.0 or less. The league has slowly but surely shifted to using more three-receiver sets, but even then the better players tend to play in two-receiver sets, leading to these trends even in recent seasons.

X receivers tend to play better than Z receivers by a few percentage points across the board. It depends on whether the league is PPR or non-PPR to determine it’s helpful for an X or Z receiver to play in the slot in three-receiver or sets, at least when it comes to top fantasy production.

The top players in PPR leagues at top-12 performances are those who play X in two-receiver sets and S in three-receiver sets. Historically, Keenan Allen from 2017-2020 is the only receiver to maintain this role for several seasons. Doug Baldwin and Larry Fitzgerald had the role at times. CeeDee Lamb and Adam Thielen join them in the top five in games played with this role. Lamb took over the X role from Amari Cooper after he left before 2022, and Adam Thielen had the role with the Minnesota Vikings in 2017 and 2018, and again in 2023 with the Carolina Panthers, particularly near the end of the season. 

Thielen is unlikely to have this role again with Diontae Johnson now on the roster, but Lamb will. It’s not surprising that he was also the top fantasy wide receiver last season and is expected to be again this year.

Changes over time

Throughout the PFF era, there have been plenty of changes to the wide receiver position. Reggie Wayne used to play exclusively on the left side and Marvin Harrison on the right side, but that kind of formation predictability is unheard of today. This article is about finding the generalities, but typical X receivers line up at Z and vice versa all the time.

Teams have slowly but surely trended toward these position distinctions not mattering as much. In 2014, the player at X receiver on a play was the lead X receiver from two- or three-wide receiver sets on 68.7% of plays. That stayed pretty consistent until 2018, when that rate steadily declined by a few percentage points. That dropped to 65% in 2023 with a notable dropoff from 2022 to 2023. Trends of typical Z and typical S receivers have seen similar declines over time as well as a significant decline in 2023.

Typically, someone lined up at X receiver has historically had the highest target share. Over time that has similarly declined for X receivers on the play level, but we haven’t seen the same decline for typical X receivers on the game or season level. That’s because the X receivers are still targeted the most, just not necessarily while lined up at the typical X receiver spot.

Below are how often the X receiver on a play was a lead X receiver in two- or three-receiver sets for the game, ordered by the three-year average. It’s worth noting of the top eight teams, six have new offensive play-callers for 2024. The two exceptions are the Indianapolis Colts who changed playcallers in 2023 and dropped down to league average last year, and surprisingly the Los Angeles Rams. The bottom three include two of the five highest-scoring teams in the NFL as well as the Kansas City Chiefs.

Why draft a slot receiver

At running back, we found if players aren’t playing on early downs then they are much less likely to be fantasy starters, and the same is true at wide receiver. It’s difficult for wide receivers who aren’t the primary players in two-receiver sets to be fantasy-relevant.

Over the past decade, only five wide receivers have more than four games as a WR30 or better and as the team’s slot receiver without being a lead player in two receivers. That includes Golden Tate in 2017, Dede Westbrook in 2019, Curtis Samuel in 2020, Hunter Renfrow in 2021 and Wan’Dale Robinson in 2023.

Three of those receivers accomplished this by playing for teams who were among the league leaders in 11 personnel usage. 

Hunter Renfrow still played significantly in 12 personnel, as the Las Vegas Raiders passed 90% of the time he was on the field in 12 personnel. It’s worth noting in the wide receiver fantasy production by role chart that wide receivers who play at least some snaps in two receiver sets are better off than those who don’t.

Curtis Samuel’s Panthers didn’t play much 11 personnel but did have 01 packages with Samuel at running back. He ran 41 times for 200 yards and two touchdowns that season. The only other wide receivers with at least 200 rushing yards in a season in the last decade are Deebo Samuel, Tavon Austin, Cordarrelle Patterson, Tyreek Hill and Percy Harvin.

These receivers are the exceptions and not the rules. The only reason you should draft a slot receiver who isn’t projected to play in two wide receiver sets is if there is reason to believe they could like Jaxon Smith-Njigba, or the two is consistently high in 11 personnel usage which mostly includes the Los Angeles Rams, Indianapolis Colts, New York Giants and Cincinnati Bengals, making it okay to consider players like Josh Downs and Wan’Dale Robinson despite their likely three-receiver set only roles.

What’s next?

Tomorrow this data will be used to identify some receivers to target and avoid based on how wide receivers' roles could change in 2023. Starting next week this kind of information will be used for player profiles on all of the noteworthy wide receivers. This season, the utilization report returns, digging into how wide receivers are used and their changes over the course of the season.


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