What It Means to Have an Ineligible Receiver Downfield

Who Is Allowed to Catch the Ball

Football player in mid-air reaching for football

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Before we learn about the ineligible receiver downfield penalty, it makes sense to first look at the rules for what constitutes an eligible receiver.

Eligible Receivers

In American football, not all players on offense are entitled to receive a forward pass. Only an eligible pass receiver may legally catch a forward pass, and only an eligible receiver may advance beyond the neutral zone if a forward pass crosses the neutral zone.

A forward pass is the throwing of the ball in the direction that the offensive team is trying to move, towards the defensive team's goal line.

The neutral zone is an area in which no member of either team may be, other than the person holding the ball. The neutral zone only exists when the ball is not in play, like before a snap that starts the play. Knowing whether the ball has passed beyond the neutral zone or remained in or behind the neutral zone is important for determining whether a forward pass has occurred.

On each play, the offense is required to have seven players line up directly on the line of scrimmage, and four behind it. The quarterback is one of those four, and the others are usually running backs, fullbacks, tight ends and slot receivers. Six of the 11 players on offense are eligible receivers and can catch a forward pass. The other five are ineligible receivers. Once the ball is caught by an eligible receiver, then the linemen can head downfield to block.

Every player on the defensive side is considered an eligible receiver. Any player on offense or defense can catch a backward or lateral pass. The pass must be parallel to or away from the opponents' goal line.

Ineligible Receiver Downfield Penalty

If an ineligible receiver is beyond the neutral zone when a forward pass crossing the neutral zone is thrown, that would be an example of an ineligible receiver downfield. The penalty is worth the loss of five yards, but no loss of down is called.

If the pass is received by a non-eligible receiver, it is called illegal touching. That penalty is worth the loss of five yards and the loss of down.

So for an example, if one of the five offensive linemen heads across the neutral zone, and a forward pass is thrown downfield, this would be a penalty.

Why Jersey Numbers Matter

There is a correlation between eligible receivers and the numbering system for football jerseys. In college football, the rulebook states that eligible receivers must be wearing a uniform number other than 50 through 79. It makes it easier for the officiating crew to determine who is an eligible receiver and who is not once the play is initiated. If a player is to change between eligible and ineligible positions, they must physically change jersey numbers to reflect the position.

In the NFL, eligible receivers must also wear certain uniform numbers for the same reason. In the NFL, running backs must wear numbers 20 to 49, tight ends must wear numbers 80 to 89, or if those are exhausted, then 40 to 49, and wide receivers must wear numbers 10 to 19 or 80 to 89.

An NFL player who is not wearing a uniform number that corresponds to an eligible receiver is ineligible even if that player lines up in an eligible position. There is an exception. If that player reports to the referee in advance of the play the intent to be eligible for the following play, then that player is allowed to line up and act as an eligible receiver.