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What Is An Eligible Receiver?

What is an eligible receiver? In football, eligible receivers are players who may legally catch a forward pass. They are also the players who may advance through the neutral zone. 

Eligible receivers are usually positioned at the end of the offensive line. They could also be at the back of the scrimmage line. Usually, eligible receivers are the quarterback, running backs, fullbacks, tight ends, and wide receivers. In addition to that, of the eleven players inside the pitch, six players can be considered as eligible receivers. 

What Happens When An “Ineligible Receiver” Receives a Forward Pass?

If an ineligible receiver received a forward pass, it would be an “illegal touching” (five yards and a loss of down). Meaning, five yards from the spot of the foul or of the penalty plus loss of down. An example scenario to best explain this is when a quarterback throws a pass after getting through the line of scrimmage.

In football, a “down” means play. From the time the ball comes into play to the time the official whistles for a stoppage is considered as “one down.”

Aside from that, if an ineligible player receives a forward pass while he is positioned beyond the neutral zone, it will be a foul which is called an “ineligible receiver downfield.” A player will be determined as ineligible depending on his position by the time he receives the ball.

On most plays, ineligible players are usually the offensive linemen that includes the center, offensive guards, and offensive tackles.[1]

Read more about football offensive positions.

How Does A Player Become An Eligible Receiver?

In general, to become an eligible receiver, players must report to the referee before each play. They can also do it on consecutive plays. But still, they have to tell the match officials each time. But rules regarding who is considered as eligible vary depending on the level of competition. The implications in college football differs from the NFL, as well as in High School football. Let’s break it down one by one.

College Football (NCAA)

In college football, to determine who is an eligible player depends on the players’ position during a “snap” and their jersey number.[2] A “snap” is the passing of the ball backwards and between the legs to officially start the play from scrimmage. 

In terms of the jersey numbers that are being worn, any player on offense wearing numbers 50 to 79 are all ineligible. That means that all defensive players are considered as eligible. However, there are cases that an offensive player may receive a forward pass. If the player is not wearing an ineligible number and is positioned at the end of the scrimmage line, he may receive a forward pass. Another thing is if he is lined up at least a yard behind the line of scrimmage, he could also receive the pass. 

Additionally, it is in the rulebook that if a player wants to change between being eligible or not, they must change their jersey number. Take note also that a player may lose his eligibility. It is if he was out of bounds, except if another player forced him out. A player must establish his position and must step to the field of play three times before being eligible again. 

Professional Football (NFL/CFL)

In the NFL and the CFL, all players in the defensive unit are considered as eligible. The line of scrimmage must have at least seven players. The two players who are positioned at the two ends are considered as an eligible receivers. 

The same thing with college football, eligible receivers must wear specific numbers on their jerseys. In the NFL, running backs must wear numbers 20-49. Tight ends must wear numbers 80-89. Wide receivers must wear 10-19 or 80-89 as well. 

In the CFL, eligible players may wear any number that they prefer except from number 50-69. They can also wear the number 0 or 00. A player who lines up in an eligible position but does not wear a number that corresponds to a player being eligible, remains ineligible. However, a player may report to the referee if he intends to be eligible in the next play. By then, he will be allowed to line up and receive a forward pass. 

An example of this is during an NFL game in 1985, William Perry who was wearing number 72 and was allowed to line up and receive a forward pass. He caught a pass attempt and made a successful touchdown. Take note that eligible receiver rules are only implied to forward passes. Players may catch a backward or lateral pass without committing a penalty.

High School Football (NFHS)

High school football almost has the same rules with college football. But in 2009, they made a rule wherein at least five players must wear numbers between 50-79. With that, it makes them an ineligible receiver. This is because teams are taking too much advantage of using the A-11 Offense. It is a strategy that allows the offensive players to disguise that they are eligible in receiving a forward pass. 

Last year, the NFHS reduced the number of players on the offensive line from seven to five. This was made to close the loopholes in the rules of amateur football. 

Final Words

To wind up everything, college, pro, and highschool football may have slight differences when it comes to eligible receiver rules, but still, they have one thing in common.

Jersey numbers are important. It helps the match officials determine who are the players playing for specific positions. Referees are also using it to maintain balance between following the rules and keeping the flow of the game at its highest competitive level. What do you think of this position? Do you think it is significant enough to carry the whole team to victory? Share us your insights!


1. “American football positions | American Football Database ….” Accessed 6 Aug. 2020.
2.  NCAA Rulebook.

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