There are 11 players on a football field for both teams, and each one of them has a different position or job to do during plays. The offense’s goal is to run the ball and catch passes thrown by the quarterback, but not everyone on the field can legally catch passes, only the eligible receivers.
So, what is an eligible receiver in football?
An eligible receiver is a player who can legally catch a pass in football. These players commonly include running backs, tight ends, wide receivers, and anyone on the defense. There are also ineligible receivers which are the offensive linemen; however, some of them can become eligible receivers.
This article will explain what an eligible receiver is, which players can be eligible receivers, and how the NFL and NCAA define an eligible receiver. Additionally, we’ll go over how an ineligible receiver can report and play as an eligible receiver and the difference between an eligible and ineligible receiver.
What Does Eligible Receiver Mean in Football?
Eligible receivers in football are players who are legally allowed to catch a pass during a play. Each play will have up to 17 eligible receivers, 11 on defense, and six on offense.
So, not everyone on the field is an eligible receiver. Their eligibility depends on whether they’re on offense or defense, what their position is, their jersey number, and where they line up to start a play.
Players who are eligible based on position will have to start the play in one of the eligible positions, which is behind the line of scrimmage or at one of the ends of the line of scrimmage.
Players who are normally ineligible can change their eligibility on each play if they announce themselves to the referees and line up in an eligible position.
The next section will explain which players are eligible and ineligible.
Which Players Are Eligible Receivers in Football?
Only certain positions are eligible to receive the ball. Every player on the defense is an eligible receiver, regardless of their position or jersey number, which we’ll explain in the next section.
They also must line up in specific positions at the beginning of each play to be eligible for that play. They can be on the ends of the line of scrimmage or at least one yard behind the line of scrimmage.
While the offensive linemen are almost always ineligible, they can become eligible receivers if they announce themselves to the referees at the beginning of a play.
Eligible Receiver Numbers
As discussed in the section above, only certain players are eligible receivers unless a normally ineligible receiver specifically announces themselves as such. The league restricts which numbers players can wear based on their position, which also corresponds to whether or not they’re an eligible receiver.
Per the NFL rulebook, here are the numbers that players are allowed to wear based on their position:
- quarterbacks, punters, and placekickers: 1–19;
- defensive backs: 1–49;
- running backs, fullbacks, tight ends, H-backs, and wide receivers: 1-49 and 80-89
- offensive linemen: 50-79
- defensive linemen: 50-79 and 90-99
- linebackers: 1-59 and 90-99
All defensive players are eligible receivers, regardless of their jersey number.
Eligible offensive players, including running backs and tight ends, will always have between 1 and 49, or 80 and 89. On the other hand, ineligible receivers on the offensive have numbers between 50 and 79 which are all linemen.
Eligible Receiver Rules (NFL, NCAA, etc.)
The NFL and NCAA have rules for who is and isn’t an eligible receiver, where the eligible receivers must set up for each play, and what exceptions there are for eligible and ineligible receivers.
Here is the NFL’s official eligible receiver rule:
The following players are eligible to catch a forward pass that is thrown from behind the line of scrimmage.
- Defensive players.
- Offensive players who are on either end of the line, provided they either have the numbers of eligible players (1–49 and 80–89) or have legally reported to play a position on the end of the line.
- Offensive players who are legally at least one yard behind the line at the snap, provided they either have the numbers of eligible players (1–49 and 80–89) or have legally reported to play a position in the backfield.
- All other offensive players after the ball has been touched by any defensive player or any eligible offensive player.
In addition to following the eligible receiver requirements, the offense must follow some rules when they set up for each play. These rules, listed below from the NFL Rulebook, ensure that the offense follows the proper setup for their eligible and ineligible receivers. And, if they don’t have a legal formation, there is a five-yard penalty.
The offensive team must be in compliance with the following at the snap:
- It must have seven or more players on the line
- Eligible receivers must be on both ends of the line, and all of the players on the line between them must be ineligible receivers
- No player may be out of bounds
Note: Offensive linemen may lock legs.
Penalty: For illegal formation by the offense: Loss of five yards.
The NCAA has similar rules regarding who is an eligible receiver. Here is how they define the rule, per the NCAA rulebook, where the offense is “Team A” and the defense is “Team B”:
Eligibility rules apply during a down when a legal forward
pass is thrown. All Team B players are eligible to touch or catch a pass.
When the ball is snapped, the following Team A players are eligible:
a. Each player who is in an end position on his scrimmage line and who is
wearing a number other than 50 through 79.
b. Each player who is legally positioned as a back wearing a number other
than 50 through 79.
c. A player wearing a number other than 50 through 79 in position to receive a hand-to-hand snap from between the snapper’s legs.
Can a Tackle Be an Eligible Receiver?
No, a tackle can’t be an eligible receiver because the tackles line up on the line of scrimmage between other players. This position makes them ineligible to receive the ball. Furthermore, tackles are offensive linemen who have ineligible jersey numbers.
If they want to be an eligible receiver on a play, they need to announce themselves and line up in a different position, thus removing them from the tackle position for that play.
How to Report as an Eligible Receiver
Any player on the defense is automatically an eligible receiver during any play they’re on the field for. However, offensive players need to signify that they’ll be eligible receivers since there can only be six during a play.
If an offensive player plays an eligible position and has a jersey number designated for eligible receivers, they need to take one of the six positions designated for eligible receivers.
There are seven offensive players on the line of scrimmage to start any play, and the two players on the outside, one on each end, are eligible receivers.
The other five eligible receivers all start the play behind the line of scrimmage. They must be at least one yard behind the line of scrimmage.
Suppose an offensive player has a jersey number between 50 and 79 and wants to be an eligible receiver for a play. In that case, they need to do more than just lineup in one of the positions designated for eligible receivers. These are offensive linemen who need to announce themselves as an eligible receiver for a play and line up in a position for an eligible player.
Why Do NFL Referees Have to Announce an Eligible Receiver?
When a normally ineligible player lines up as an eligible receiver for a play, they need to report it to the referees. Then the referees announce it to the defense.
The NFL’s referees have to announce the player as an eligible receiver as a courtesy to the defense. The defense doesn’t expect players with certain jersey numbers to be a receiver, so it’s fair to alert them of the change when it happens.
And, while they could figure out who’s an eligible and ineligible receiver based on their position on the field, it can be difficult to determine when players are moving around before the snap and when players are accustomed to looking at a jersey number and assuming a player isn’t eligible.
It can also be difficult to see all the players on the line when you’re standing on the line. A player may think they see the players on the end of the line, but there could be one further out.
So, if an offensive lineman lines up to be an eligible receiver on a play, the referees will let the defense know.
But, if the ineligible player doesn’t report that they’ll be eligible for a play, a penalty will be assessed.
Here is the penalty when an ineligible receiver catches the ball from the NFL Rulebook:
It is a foul for illegal touching if a forward pass (legal or illegal) thrown from behind the line of scrimmage:
a. is first touched intentionally or is caught by an originally ineligible offensive player; or
Penalty: Loss of five yards at the previous spot.
b. first touches or is caught by an eligible offensive receiver who has gone out of bounds, either of his own volition or by
being legally forced out of bounds, and has re-established himself inbounds.
Penalty: Loss of down at the previous spot.
- If a forward pass (legal or illegal) is caught by an ineligible offensive player, the ball remains alive.
- The bat of a pass in flight by any player does not end a pass, nor does it change the impetus if the bat sends it in touch.
- If a player touches the ball after having been out of bounds, but prior to re-establishing himself inbounds with both feet or any part of his body other than his hands, the pass is incomplete, and there is no penalty for illegal touching.
What Is an Ineligible Receiver?
All offensive linemen with jersey numbers between 50 and 79 are ineligible receivers. Defensive linemen are eligible regardless of their jersey number.
Here is the official NFL rule on ineligible receivers:
All offensive players other than those identified [as an offensive receiver] are ineligible to catch a legal or illegal forward pass thrown from behind the line of scrimmage, including:
- Players who are not on either end of their line or at least one yard behind it when the ball is snapped.
- Offensive players wearing numbers 50–79, unless they have reported a change in their eligibility status to the Referee and have assumed a position on the end of their line or in their backfield;
- Players who fail to notify the Referee of being eligible when required;
- An eligible receiver who has been out of bounds prior to or during a pass, even if he has re-established himself inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands.
- A player who takes his stance behind center as a T-formation quarterback is not an eligible receiver unless, before the ball is snapped, he legally moves to a position at least one yard behind the line of scrimmage or on the end of the line, and is stationary in that position for at least one second before the snap.
Note: If he leaves his position behind the center and does not receive the snap, it is Illegal Motion unless he has been stationary for at least one full second prior to the snap.
Eligible vs. Ineligible Receivers
Eligible receivers include the entire defense, regardless of jersey numbers and positions. There can be up to six eligible receivers on the offense, including everyone starting the play behind the line of scrimmage and the two players who line up on the ends of the line of scrimmage.
The eligible receivers are the faster players who can run downfield to catch the ball. These positions include tight ends, running backs, fullbacks, and quarterbacks.
Ineligible receivers are the offensive players who line up at the line of scrimmage between the two end players. These are the offensive linemen, and they’re ineligible to catch the ball until they declare otherwise at the beginning of the play.
Can the Center Be an Eligible Receiver?
The center can’t be an eligible receiver because they must start the play on the line of scrimmage to snap the ball, which is a position for ineligible receivers.