American football is notorious for being one of the most complex sports in the world. With a seemingly endless rulebook and over 50 players on each sideline, it's understandable that newbies can sometimes struggle to get to grips with all the ins and outs. But, don't worry... Whether you're looking to spectate, bet on or even play American football, we're here to help.
We already have a beginner's guide for all the basics you need to know, from the simple aim of the game to all the rules and regulations. Today though, we're going to run through all the positions of a football team and explain exactly what they do.
First, here's a few basics regarding the layout of a football team. (We'll be using the NFL standards for all of the information we provide)
A football team is made up of three separate units - offense, defense and special teams (which has further subsections depending on the type of play).
Each team has a total of 53 players on their roster.
At any time there will be 11 players on the field for each team.
Coaches can align their players in any way they prefer (within the regulations) - this is called the formation.
Formations will vary throughout the game and see different players from the 53 man rosters take to the field at any given moment. Some formations are specific for certain scenarios, such as plays near the goal line or 3rd down situations. But, to keep things simple - these are perhaps the most basic formations an offense and defense can play:
The offense is the unit of players that controls possession of the ball and advances towards the opposition's endzone in an attempt to score points.
The eleven offensive players can be split into two groups: the offensive linemen, whose main role is to protect the quarterback by blocking opponents, and the other six are backs and receivers, whose primary job is to progress the ball down the field by passing or running.
Now, let's break down the offense position by position.
The quarterback is the leader of the offense.
As the player who handles the ball more than anyone else on the field, the quarterback is perhaps the most important member of the team.
Almost every play requires a decision from the quarterback who will receive the ball from the center at the start of each play (this is called a 'snap') and lead the offense from there. Some running plays do not have options for the QB to choose from, but they will still handle the ball and be instrumental in the success of the play.
A quarterback is expected to be smart and athletic, with a strong and accurate throwing arm. Their football IQ is perhaps the most important aspect of their game.
Running Back (RB)
There are three variations of running backs: a fullback (FB), halfback (HB) and tailback (TB).
The difference between each depends on the play design and their position on the field. They often have different statures in terms of size and strength, with fullbacks usually being much larger than halfbacks and tailbacks.
Both the tailback and halfback tend to be responsible for running the ball, while the fullback most often blocks to clear a path for the running play, though they can also run the ball.
Running backs will stand behind or next-to the quarterback and either run a route in an attempt to catch a pass, or take the ball with a direct hand-off from the QB.
Wide Receiver (WR)
A wide receiver's job is simple - catch the ball thrown by the quarterback and attempt to gain as many yards as possible.
WRs run designated routes that are specific to a given play call and will try to catch the ball if it is thrown their way. If the ball is thrown to someone else on the field or even run instead, wide receivers will block for the ball carrier.
They are positioned on the line of scrimmage and towards either sideline.
Receivers are generally tall, quick, agile and have great coordination. They are the most targeted players when throwing the ball.
Tight End (TE)
Tight ends are some of the most versatile players on the field. Depending on the play, tight ends can be used as receivers, ball carriers or blockers.
They are positioned on the line of scrimmage next to the offensive line.
With such varied responsibilities, tight ends are some of the most talented players on the field. They are physically dominant, well-coordinated and smart.
The offensive line is split into three different positions:
- The center
- The guards
- The tackles
The center is the middle offensive lineman, responsible for snapping the ball to the quarterback at the start of each new play.
The snap is when the center takes the ball on the ground and when the quarterback indicates that he is ready to receive the ball, the center throws the backwards between his legs which signals the start of the play.
Once the ball is snapped, the center is responsible for blocking any defensive lineman that may attempt to get past him and reach the quarterback or the ball carrier.
Offensive Guard (OG)
The right and left guards are positioned either side of the center. They are responsible for blocking the defensive linemen and any rushing defensive players attempting to reach the QB.
Offensive Tackle (OT)
The right and left tackles sit on the end of the offensive line and are responsible for blocking any approaching defenders that may rush off the edge.
There are 11 defensive players on the field at any time, all of which have the same responsibility - to prevent the opposition from moving the ball down the field and scoring.
They will attempt to do this in one of two ways - forcing the opposition to punt or creating turnovers in the form of fumbles or interceptions.
Just like the offense, defensive formations will vary from play to play, meaning many of the positions below will be omitted to add an extra player elsewhere on the field.
For example: the nose tackle may be replaced for an extra cornerback if they expect the offense to throw the ball.
The defensive line is comprised of three different positions:
- The nose tackle
- The defensive tackles
- The defensive ends
Nose Tackle (NT)
The nose tackle is the defensive lineman that lines up directly opposite of the center on the line of scrimmage.
They are most often used to prevent runs up the middle, though they are also expected to collapse the pocket and pressure the quarterback on throwing plays.
Defensive Tackle (DT)
Defensive tackles are positioned either side of the nose tackle on the defensive line.
They most often pressure the offensive guards and centers in an attempt to reach the ball carrier or the quarterback and prevent yardage gains.
Defensive End (DE)
Defensive ends sit on the edges of the defensive line, outside the tackles.
They are mostly responsible for creating pressure on the outside of the pocket and therefore, they usually battle against offensive tackles.
Sometimes, they will start on the line of scrimmage in a DE position, but instead of rushing, they'll drop off into coverage. As such, many defensive ends are seen as hybrids between D-linemen and linebackers.
There are two variations of linebacker: middle and outside.
Middle Linebacker (MLB)
The middle linebacker is positioned behind the defensive line and is tasked with preventing the offense from advancing down the middle of the field.
As the name suggests, a linebacker's main responsibility is to 'back up the line', meaning they must be effective in stopping the offense's run game. They are also responsible for pass coverage in both man and zone coverage situations.
Outside Linebacker (OLB)
The right (ROLB) and left outside linebackers (LOLB) are lined up on either side of the MLB.
They are equally responsible for preventing yardage gains in both running and passing situations.
All linebackers must be strong, fast and very intelligent as they are often the core of the defense, requiring extremely quick play recognition.
Cornerbacks tend to line up opposite the wide receivers on offense, though they may be in coverage against any player that can catch passes including tight ends and running backs.
They are mostly tasked with preventing receivers from catching passes, but they must also help prevent yardage gains on run plays.
They are often tall, fast, strong and resilient - as all defensive players must be.
There are two kinds of safeties: free and strong.
Strong Safety (SS)
Safeties tend to line up around 15 yards away from the line of scrimmage, sitting much deeper in the backfield than cornerbacks and linebackers.
Strong safeties line up on the 'strong side' of the field, which tends to be the side with the tight end.
Strong safeties tend to be more engaged with stopping the run than the pass, as offenses will often run to the strong side of the field, using their TE to assist in the blocking.
Free Safety (FS)
Joining the strong safety in the last line of defense, the free safety will also line up around 15 yards away from the line of scrimmage (depending on the formation/play call).
They differ from the strong safety as they line up on the 'weak side' of the field. This is usually the side without a tight end.
Therefore, the free safety is a more pass-minded defender.
There are various special teams units that are made up of both offensive and defensive players, as well as specialists like kickers and long snappers.
These are the most important positions on special teams, as most specialists have just one role in the team. But there are specialist positions that utilise offensive or defensive players:
- Kick Returners (KR) and Punt Returners (PR) are often the fastest and most elusive wide receiver and are used to return punts and kick-offs to gain the best field position.
- A Holder (H) is responsible for catching and holding the field goal snap for the kicker. They are most often the back-up quarterback.
The following players are often specialists on the team, with just one responsibility.
Long Snapper (LS)
The long snapper is the center for field goals and punts. They are responsible for snapping the ball directly to the holder or the punter.
Though this player is sometimes the offensive center, it is often a specialist that is much better at snapping the ball over a long distance.
The kicker is a specialist player responsible for kicking the ball on kick off, field goals and extra point attempts.
The punter is solely responsible for catching the snap and kicking the ball on a punting play.
Once the ball is kicked they are often the last line of defense if the opposition manages to return the ball.