In American football, a wide receiver, sometimes also known as a "wideout," a "split end," or simply a "receiver," is a player on the offense who lines up split out "wide" from the main formation (i.e., toward the sideline).
The principal function of a wide receiver is to catch passes thrown by the quarterback. To achieve this end, after the ball is snapped, he typically runs one of several varieties of pass route, such as slants, fades, go routes, curls, or posts. A wide receiver is typically "covered" by a defensive player, such as a cornerback or a safety. Part of the wide receiver's task is to outrun or otherwise evade or elude this coverage in order to become "open" to receive a pass. For this reason, wide receivers are often among the fastest and most nimble players on the field.
Other than catching passes, wide receivers are sometimes asked to block for running plays. They often also serve as decoys to draw defenders away from the actual point of attack, or are sent in motion prior to the snap to suss out the defensive scheme. Sometimes wide receivers run the ball, in plays like the end-around or the reverse. In certain rare cases, a wide receiver may even pass the ball, typically after an end-around, or as part of a trick play known as the double pass. Unless the wide receiver lines up in the backfield and receives a direct snap, he is only eligible to pass the ball if he is behind the line of scrimmage and receives a backwards pass (which technically counts as a type of lateral), so the first pass of the double pass has to be a backwards pass. Wide receivers also often serve on special teams as punt returners or kick returners, due to their speed and catching ability.
The wide receiver evolved from the position originally known simply as the end. In the early days of football, the ends lined up on either end of the formation and played on both sides of the ball - both offense and defense. According to the rules governing the forward pass, only the two ends or players lined up in the backfield count as eligible receivers for a forward pass. Over time, the position of end evolved and trifurcated into three separate positions - the tight end, the split end or wide receiver, and the defensive end. With the specialization of offensive and defensive positions, players no longer played on both sides of the ball, so the end position on defense became known as a "defensive" end. Meanwhile, teams began experimenting with splitting the ends out wide, apart from the formation. Thereafter, offensive players who always lined up next to the main formation and were sometimes used as extra blockers in addition to catching passes became known as "tight" ends.
One of the first ends to consistently split out wide (a "split" end or "wide" receiver) was Don Hutson, who played college football for Alabama and professionally with the Green Bay Packers in the 1930s and 40s. Hutson is therefore widely credited for having originated the wide receiver position.
With the vertical passing game becoming increasingly important over time, most modern offensive formations have at least two wide receivers, many have three, and some have four or even five. This has led to sub-specialization among wide receivers. Aside from the classic split end (typically denoted with an "X" on play charts), teams also now have specialized flankers (the Z), who line up on the opposite side of the formation from the X, slightly closer to the main formation and a few steps behind the line of scrimmage, and slot receivers (the Y), who line up even closer to the main formation than the X or the Z and typically run shorter routes "over the middle" with occasional longer routes "up the seam." In four-receiver sets, there will also be a "slotback" or "H-back" (the H).
A typical four-wideout formation might look something like this:
SE(X) LT LG C RG RT SR(Y)
SB(H) QB FL(Z)
The Great Ones
Some of the most electrifying players in NFL history were wide receivers. Among the greatest are (Hall of Famers in bold):
Lance Alworth - Odell Beckham Jr. - Raymond Berry - Fred Biletnikoff - Anquan Boldin - Antonio Brown - Isaac Bruce - Tim Brown - Cris Carter - Larry Fitzgerald - A.J. Green - Marvin Harrison - Bob Hayes - Torry Holt - Don Hutson - Michael Irvin - Andre Johnson - Calvin Johnson - Keyshawn Johnson - Charlie Joiner - Julio Jones - Steve Largent - James Lofton - Brandon Marshall - Derrick Mason - Art Monk - Randy Moss - Terrell Owens - Andre Reed - Jerry Rice - Sterling Sharpe - Jimmy Smith - Rod Smith - Steve Smith - John Stallworth - Lynn Swann - Charley Taylor - Hines Ward - Paul Warfield - Reggie Wayne