Football Route Tree: Breaking down wide receiver and tight end routes

NFL offenses are evolving and expanding rapidly, and there are many unbelievable offensive minds calling plays. The league is making it easier on incoming rookie quarterbacks, not to mention adapting more college concepts to the professional game. There are so many advanced passing concepts in football right now, but there is still a basic route tree.

Standard football route tree | Short and intermediate routes

Beginning with the short-to-intermediate area, let’s break down the nine basic routes on the football route tree.

1 – Flat

This is a quick-hitting route designed to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly. The receiver breaks his route off towards the sidelines into the “flat.” It isn’t uncommon to see running backs or tight ends run this route but envision the Cardinals’ incoming rookie Rondale Moore. Moore is short but powerful and compact. Expect Arizona to get him the ball quickly in the flat and let him create in space.

2 – Slant

The slant is a popular timing route that is a safe throw for the quarterback and can get physical receivers the ball with room to operate. Slants can be run at different distances, but generally, the receiver takes three powerful strides downfield to push the coverage player off the ball, plants their outside foot, and drives into the middle of the field at a 45-degree angle.

Michael Thomas is the poster boy here, and he has done a ton of damage over his career carving up NFL defenses with slant routes.

3 – Comeback

A comeback is an intermediate throw, usually between 12 and 15 yards. The receiver drives hard upfield to hopefully get his coverage player to turn and run, anticipating a deep route. Then, the receiver moves downhill towards the sidelines at a 45-degree angle. This is a much more difficult throw for quarterbacks than most tend to realize.

Justin Jefferson was often thought of as just a slot receiver when entering the league. But he quickly showed that he could get downfield on the perimeter and kill defenses with precise comeback routes.

4 – Curl

The curl is basically a comeback route but to the inside of the field rather than towards the sidelines. The receiver doesn’t have the advantage of using the sidelines, so there is a better chance of multiple defenders being in the area of the reception. This is a challenging throw for NFL quarterbacks. The receiver needs to present a nice big target for his passer.

Allen Robinson runs the curl route well. He explodes out of his break and gives his quarterback a large catch radius while having the physicality to haul in a contested catch in crowded quarters.

5 – Out

The out is an intermediate route, and it is foundational to many NFL passing games. The receiver uses his usual stem to drive the defender upfield, but then the route runner breaks the route off at a 90-degree angle towards the sidelines. This is another timing route, and the quarterback often doesn’t have a large window to put the football. Yet, when done right, this can be stealing yards from the defense.

There have been a lot of fantastic and precise out-route runners, but Antonio Brown comes to mind over the past decade or so as a guy that was close to uncoverable on this crucial route.

6 – Dig

This is the inverse of an out route. The receiver uses the same stem, but instead of breaking to the sidelines, he takes a 90-degree turn towards the inside of the field, running parallel with the line of scrimmage. This, of course, puts the receiver in harm’s way, which is why a great big-bodied receiver like Julio Jones has been so effective torturing defenses over the years with dig routes.

Standard football route tree | Deep routes

Let’s examine deep routes with the short and intermediate parts of the field out of the way.

7 – Corner

This is the first of three deep routes to finish up the standard route tree. The receiver builds speed downfield and then breaks the route off towards the corner of the end zone. We often see deep corner routes from slot receivers in today’s NFL, which gives the route runner more room to operate. Calvin Ridley is a master of the corner route with his sharp breaks and ability to get deep downfield.

8 – Post

There are several similarities between the corner and post route, but with the post, the receiver slices towards the goal posts rather than to the corner of the end zone. This is generally run from an outside-receiver alignment. Still, we also see skinny posts and variants of this route to allow for inside receivers to utilize it effectively, often against safeties in the deep middle. Tyreek Hill has tormented the NFL with all deep routes, but his ability to change a game in an instant with a post route really stands out from the Chiefs’ mercurial weapon.

9 – Go/Fade

There is more to a go route (or 9 route) than just running as fast as you can in a straight line. Still, pure speed sure does help, and this is the most simple of the nine different routes examined. The receiver can vary speeds to set up his cover man, but for the most part, he is trying to eat up and devour the cushion and get past the defensive back. You will often see quarterbacks put a lot of air under this throw and just let his speedster go get the ball. But this route isn’t just for burners.

We often see taller receivers being quite successful with go-route balls. D.K. Metcalf has a rare combination of both size and speed and has quickly become one of the NFL’s premier go-route runners.

Want more NFL news and analysis?

Be sure to follow us on Twitter (@PFN365) to stay in the loop on all things around the NFL. Also, continue to visit Pro Football Network for NFL news and in-depth analysis concerning the 2021 season and beyond.