Sakamoto: 49ers Wide Receivers Not All About Speed, Rather Route Running Holds Key

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Strong Hands. Savvy route runner. Uncanny Explosiveness. These are the three most important traits I look for when evaluating the wide receiver position. A wide receiver needs sure hands to help sustain drives. A wide receiver must run methodical (crisp) routes in order to gain proper separation from defensive backs. And a wide receiver must display elite athleticism to run after the catch.

Notice how I didn’t mention speed. I must be crazy. After all, in the NFL speed kills, right? I would be quick to argue that although straight-line speed is a strong indicator of a player’s acceleration, the value of running precise routes is far more valuable.

Case in point. Just look at San Francisco 49ers 13-time Pro Bowl WR Jerry Rice. “The book said he’d only run a 4.70 40 [40-yard dash],” said Craig Walsh. “But my Dad [Bill] saw that he had tremendous speed from 15 yards to 50 yards like he’d never seen before.”

Where did that speed come from? Savvy route-running. The No. 1 job of a wide receiver is to catch the football. The No. 2 job is getting open. A wide receiver can’t get open if he doesn’t sell his routes properly coming off his stem. What’s a stem? Good question. A stem is the initial part of a wide receiver’s route tree. What’s a route tree?

Think of the route tree in terms of a tree branch. From the tree branch hangs numerous twigs. Those twigs are called routes. In all there are 9 different twigs (routes).

The following illustrates each of the 9 possible routes for wide receivers on a given play:

1.)  Quick Out

2.) Quick Slant

3.) Out Route

4.) Dig/In Route

5.) Comeback

6.) Curl/Hitch Route

7.) Corner Route

8.) Post Route

9.) Fade/Go Route

Note: Notice how all the odd number routes are plays developed toward the sidelines while the even number routes are developed toward the middle. (except 9 banger which is basically a hail mary).

Before we go any further, it’s a good idea to understand the subtle differences between the two wide receiver positions. Named X and Z or Split End and Flanker. These are the two starting positions at wide receiver. The X (split-end) is lined up backside of the formation opposite of the tight-end. The Z or Flanker is lined up on the strong-side of the formation (tight-end) side.

However, the differences don’t stop there. The X receiver lines up at or near the line of scrimmage while the Z (flanker) lines up a few yards behind. In addition, the X receiver is usually the last read for a quarterback’s progression while the Z receiver is primarily the quarterback’s first option or go-to-guy.

Now that we got that out of the way. Let’s review why route running is so important.

A good route runner doesn’t need sub 4.40 speed to get open. Instead he relies on his fundamentals which includes but not limited to; hand release, foot alignment, re-setting stem, firing out low (sinking hips), negating false steps, and most important, step count.

If there’s one player who did this to perfection for the San Francisco 49ers last year it’s none other than WR Anquan Boldin.

I’m not saying speed is not important. Because it certainly is. But let’s be honest. How many wide receivers who ran the fastest 40-times in the past decade garnered Pro Bowl or All-Pro recognition? The answer is three. WR Calvin Johnson, WR DeSean Jackson and WR Mike Wallace.

Getty Images

Getty Images

So what makes a good route runner? The answer lies in attacking the depth of your route look identical on every play, while incorporating sound fundamentals. Whether running a speed route or curl route, the wide receiver must sell his route while giving no tells (like in poker) of the route being ran. Which leads us to what happens after the catch, explosiveness.

A player’s explosiveness is greatly dependent on his muscle fibers. You will often hear NFL analysts like Mike Mayock say “He’s a fast-twitched guy.” What the heck does that mean? Well you’re in luck.

In the human body there are two types of muscle fibers; slow twitch (Type I) and fast twitch (Type II). Slow twitch muscle fibers generally produce less power and strength but can sustain longer hours of activity. Fast twitch muscle fibers (Type II) are directly opposite where they generate more strength, more power, but shorter shelf-life. Simply put a triathlon athlete would likely use his slow-twitch muscle fibers during a marathon whereas football players will use their fast-twitch counter-parts.

A player who can sustain muscle memory while breeding fast-twitch muscles (plyometrics), has a higher probability for making big plays. That’s important for the wide receiver position and where explosion comes into play. After the receiver makes the catch his job is not over. He needs to have the vision, lateral quickness, and agility to run after the catch. These intangibles are what separates the good ones from the great ones.

At 5-10, 186, Pittsburgh Steelers WR Antonio Brown may not be the biggest, strongest, or fastest guy on the football field, but no one can question his explosiveness after the catch which in turn makes him one of the best receivers in the game.

So what makes a good receiver, great? Strong hands. Strong route running. And strong fast twitch muscle fibers. When a player has all three, it’s undoubtedly a recipe for success!

In one of the more heated camp battles entering this season, it will be interesting to see which 49ers receiver wins the starter’s role opposite of WR Torrey Smith.

A camp battle that will likely go down to the end, you can be sure the winner will be required to have strong hands, savvy route running, and explosive quickness, as those three elements are essential for the position.

Ryan is the Founder/CEO of, 49ers Beat Writer, Live Game Day Correspondent for Bleacher Report and member of Pro Football Writers of America. Born and raised in San Jose, he also graduated from San Diego State University. His work has been featured on NFL Network, 95.7 The Game, National Football Post, Sports Illustrated, FanSided Network, ESPN Radio, CBS Sports 810, and NBC Bay Area News. For more information, please contact him via email at or call him at (408) 622-0996.