what is an ineligible receiver in football

What Is an Ineligible Receiver in Football? Ultimate Guide

Can you throw a pass to any player in a football game? When quarterbacks make forward passes, not every offensive player on the pitch can catch it. The offense comprises two players; the eligible receivers and ineligible receivers.

Well, only eligible receivers can be a target of a forward pass. So, what is an ineligible receiver in football?

An ineligible receiver is a player on the offensive that cannot catch a forward pass. Players lining up the scrimmage line and out of the bounds are ineligible.

However, players on the scrimmage line but not outside the formation are eligible receivers.

Join below as I discuss more on ineligible receivers in football.

What Makes a Football Player an Ineligible Receiver?

In what instances can a player on the pitch become an ineligible receiver? According to the NFL rules, a player can become an ineligible player if the following happens:

  • When the player is on either side of the line or a yard behind when snapping
  • Unless officials are notified, players with numbers 50-79 are ineligible.
  • Players between these numbers are offensive and should not receive the ball unless officials are notified.
  • Eligible receivers can also become ineligible when out of bounds during a pass. This player is ineligible even if he establishes himself inbounds with both feet or any body part apart from the hand.
  • When players fail to inform the referee that they are eligible when required

These are the main reasons a football player can become an ineligible receiver. A small exception in the second case is when a receiver is pushed out of bounds.

If teams don’t break the three rules, then their receivers will be eligible and can catch passes.

How Do Football Players Know Which Receivers Are Ineligible?

Every defensive player needs to know eligible and ineligible receivers. There are several ways to know a receiver’s eligibility.

catching ball

First, they need to look and see how the players line up at the scrimmage line. At the very end of the scrimmage line, you’ll see eligible receivers. These are usually tight ends and wide receivers.

In addition, the defense needs to check and see if the players are at least a yard behind the line of scrimmage.

Secondly, you can know if receivers are ineligible by looking at the number on their jersey.

Linemen wear numbers 50-79 and are never eligible unless the referee is informed. The referee must then announce and inform teams the player has become eligible. 

However, the player must still line one yard behind the line of scrimmage. If they go out of bounds, then they become ineligible. The exception is when they are pushed.

Lastly, you can know ineligible players if they take the under-center position in the T formation.

Strategic Use of Ineligible Receivers

Strategic use of ineligible receivers is placing a high-value receiver that has been declared ineligible in positions that host eligible receivers.

For instance, teams can put a running back that has been declared ineligible at the end of a scrimmage line.

The strategy works since the receiver wears the number of an eligible receiver and takes an eligible receiver position.

It’s a formation that the New England Patriots used a lot in the 2014-2015 season. This strategy worked for them as defenders would block an ineligible player in confusion. 

It left other positions open for eligible players to run and score touchdowns. They came under fire for this, and this led to an amendment in the receiver rule.

The new rule stated that ineligible receivers with numbers 1-49 and 80-89 only line up in the tackle box.

What Are The Differences Between Eligible And Ineligible Receivers?

The main difference between ineligible and eligible receivers is that one can catch a forward pass while the other can’t. As teams line on the line of scrimmage, there are different kinds of players.

These are eligible receivers and ineligible receivers. Ineligible receivers cannot catch a forward pass and comprise offensive tackles, offensive linemen, and centers. Eligible players on the other end are tight ends and wide receivers.

about to get the ball

However, ineligible receivers still contribute to the game. They can pass and run the ball. What they can’t do is catch a forward pass. Rules allow them to catch a lateral or backward pass.

What Is Ineligible Receiver Downfield Penalty?

A penalty for an ineligible receiver is when a quarterback throws a ball forward while there is an ineligible receiver beyond the scrimmage line. If this happens, a downfield penalty is given.

However, the rules for downfield penalties tend to differ slightly for the NFL and NCAA. According to the NFL rules, an ineligible receiver can’t move beyond 1 yard of the scrimmage line, while NCAA allows up to 3 yards.

Example Of Ineligible Receivers Penalty In Downfield

Here are a few examples of a downfield penalty from an ineligible receiver.

  • Having an offensive lineman 4 yards past the line of scrimmage with a wide receiver catching the ball just behind
  • A tight end reported as an ineligible receiver is 3 yards out when a QB throws from 45 yards out
  • An offensive lineman 5 yards out blocks a defender while the QB is still holding the ball

What Is The Football Penalty Signal For Ineligible Receiver

The referee will indicate a football penalty for an ineligible receiver by throwing a flag at the start of play. You’ll see the referee announce and signal an ineligible penalty by touching the top of their head.

football referee and football players on the field

Players need to inform the referee if they are eligible players. The referee will then announce that to all teams. In addition, they always need to check with the referee that they are off and on the line of scrimmage.

What Is The Penalty of An Ineligible Receiver Downfield

The ineligible receiver penalty downfield is a 5-yard loss. Here is a breakdown of the penalty in different leagues.


In the NFL, teams get a penalty of five yards. There is also a replaying of the down.


The rules in the NCAA are the same, with the offending team getting a 5-yard penalty and a replay down.

High School

The same applies to high school games where teams get a 5-yard penalty and a replay down.

What Happens if an Ineligible Receiver Catches the Ball?

When an ineligible player catches a forward pass from a quarterback, they are docked a penalty. The penalty is a loss of 5 yards and down replay.

catched the ball

Can an Ineligible Receiver Run the Ball?

An ineligible receiver can run the ball. They are only prohibited from catching forward passes.

What Does Ineligible Mean in Football?

An ineligible in football means players that cannot catch forward passes in football.


Overall, ineligible plays in football are common. Quarterbacks can only throw a forward pass to an eligible player. However, that’s not always the case. When quarterbacks are under pressure, they end up passing to ineligible receivers.

The penalty for ineligible receivers downfield is 5 yards and a replay down. Players need to know their position in the field and check with the referee if they are eligible.

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