American Football Positions Explained

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American Football FORZA

American Football (also known as “Gridiron Football”) is one of the most popular sports in the world, with televised NFL games attracting television audiences that sometimes exceed 100 million viewers. Given all the hype and attention the sport receives in the United States, if you’re not following the NFL, or watching major events such as the Super Bowl, it can feel like you’re missing out!  

Watching the frantic and aggressive action of American Football for the first time can be a confusing experience, with a whirlwind of activity, collisions, and commercial breaks. Having some background knowledge before watching can certainly enhance your appreciation of the game and the strategies at play.

Whether you’re thinking of tuning into the next Super Bowl or grabbing your kit and giving the sport a try at your local club, this blog post will explain what the main roles and objectives of players in different positions. This way, you’ll have a clear understanding of what’s going on and what each player is trying to achieve.

Offensive Positions in American Football

Like attacking players and forwards in Association Football, offensive players in American Football are attempting to score points. Their primary objective and role of an offensive player is to advance the ball towards the opposition’s End Zone in order to score a Touchdown. 

Because there is a confusing number of positions and responsibilities on an Offensive Team, we’ve created the table below containing a quick summary of the positions and their main roles and attributes:

Offensive Team Positions
PositionCategoryMain RoleRequired Attributes
Quarterback (QB)BacksLead the offense; execute a forward pass or hand off the ball to the RBGood vision, strong & accurate throwing ability, decision-making ability
Running Back (RB)*BacksRun with the ball and gain ground towards opponent’s end zoneAgility, speed, ball-handling skills
Wide Receiver (WR)ReceiversCatch forward passes from the QBSpeed, agility, good hands/catching ability
Tight End (TE)ReceiversBlock defending players, catch passes from the QBStrength, speed, good hands/catching ability
Center (C)Offensive LinemenPass the ball at the start of play, block defending playersDecision making, accurate passer of the ball, strength
Offensive Guard (OG)*Offensive LinemenBlock defending players, protecting the QBStrength, size & power, speed
Offensive Tackle (OT)*Offensive LinemenBlock defending players, protecting the QB & RBsStrength, speed, good hands/catching ability

*Running Backs usually consist of Fullbacks (FB) and Halfbacks (HB), Offensive Guards consist of Left Guard (LG) and Right Guard (RG) and Offensive Tackles consist of Left Tackle (LT) and Right Tackle (RT).

An important concept in the game is that the offensive team has four attempts, known as ‘downs’ or ‘plays’ to gain a total of 10 yards towards the opposing team’s end zone. If they fail to make the 10 yards, possession of the ball is given to the opposition.

The offensive players, often referred to as the ‘offensive team’, consist of eleven players. Unlike Association Football and rugby, only these eleven offensive players are on the field when the team has possession of the ball, while a different eleven defensive players entering the field of play when the team loses possession. 

The offensive team can be split into two distinct categories: the five offensive linemen and the six backs & receivers. The linemen’s main role is to shield their Quarterback and block players from the defending team, while the backs & receivers work to advance the ball towards the opposing team’s end zone. 

The image below shows how the offensive team may line up and position themselves on the field as they attack the end zone and goal posts shown at the bottom of the diagram:

NFL offensive positions diagram

Backs & Receivers 

Quarterback (QB)

Arguably the most important player on the team, the Quarterback leads the team’s offense. The Quarterback will receive the ball during most plays and has to make important decisions about whether or not to pass the ball to a specific player, or to run the ball themselves. Almost all forward passes are executed by the Quarterback to pass to a receiver. 

The Quarterback needs to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the entire offensive team, as well as their positions on the field, in order to quickly execute a pass. They must also keep an eye on the clock, as it can dictate which offensive play should be executed.

Responsibilities – Making strategic offensive decisions about plays, executing those plays, communicating with the rest of the team, protecting the ball from turnovers, and serving as the focal leader of the offense.

Famous Quarterbacks – Drew Brees, Patrick Mahomes, Joe Montana, Tom Brady

Running Back (RB) 

A running back’s primary objective is to carry the ball after receiving a ‘handoff’ (a pass handed directly from one player to another from a short distance) from the Quarterback. The running back is an offensive player, who starts plays standing next to or behind the Quarterback. One of the most exciting positions to play or watch on the field, a running back will attempt to find holes in the opposition’s defense, break tackles, and gain ground or make a touchdown. 

When the ball is handed to a running back, it is usually referred to as a ‘running play’.  While ‘passing plays” are more common in modern NFL games, having a skilled and fast running back can give a team a dual threat that keeps the opposition guessing. 

Running backs need a blend of speed, strength, and agility to avoid and burst through the opponent’s defense. 

Running Backs are sometimes split into two distinctive positions – Fullbacks (FB) and Halfbacks (HB).

Fullbacks (FB)  are usually larger than Halfbacks and are positioned slightly ahead of Halfbacks at the beginning of each play. The Fullbacks role is often to protect the quicker and more agile Halfback from the opposing players attempting to block and tackle them. 

Halfbacks (HB) are more likely to receive the ball from the Quarterback and are generally quicker and more capable of evading tackles and running into space than the larger Fullback. 

Responsibilities – To take handoffs (short passes) from the Quarterback, to run with the ball and make ground towards the opponent’s end zone, to serve as a decoy during passing plays, and to block the opposition players on certain passing plays.

Famous Running Backs – Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Adrian Peterson, Josh Jacobs

defensive nfl player training with slalom poles

Wide Receiver (WR)

The main job of a Wide Receiver is to catch a Quarterback’s pass and run with the ball during offensive plays. Wide receivers require an extremely high level of athleticism, with acceleration, speed, and agility being some of the most important traits. Being tall is a significant advantage for a wide receiver, giving them an edge over the opposition when catching the ball at height. Wide Receivers position themselves near the sidelines on the field, similar to wingers in football or rugby, and there are usually two wide receivers on the field from the offensive team at any one time. However, for certain plays, teams can field up to five wide receivers.  

Depending on the play, wide receivers typically follow a predetermined path or route toward the opposing team’s end zone. This makes it easier for the Quarterback to target them with a pass. 

During running plays, when the ball is handed to the Running Back, the Wide Receiver is expected to block defending players to clear a path for the running back to attack and run through. 

A Wide Receiver is sometimes called a ‘flanker’ when lining up behind the offensive line at the beginning of the play, while a wide receiver positioned between the outermost receiver and the offensive line is known as a “Slot Receiver”. 

Responsibilities – catching passes from the Quarterback whilst under pressure from the defending team, running with the ball to make ground towards the oppositions end zone, and blocking defensive players during running plays.

Famous Wide Receivers – Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens, Justin Jefferson

Tight End (TE)

Tight Ends are required to block defending players, especially on running plays, and catch passes from the Quarterback. They need to be strong enough to block and athletic enough to get into offensive positions and catch passes. Tight Ends typically fall in size between Offensive Linemen and Wide Receivers. They often receive passes in the centre of the field when the team is trying to gain a short amount of yards towards the oppositions end zone. 

Responsibilities – blocking players from the defending team during running plays, protecting the Quarterback from the defending team’s players, and catching short passes from the Quarterback. 

Famous Tight Ends – Travis Kelce, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez

Offensive Linemen

Center (C) 

The Center is classified as an Offensive Lineman. The Center is the player who passes the ball between his legs at the start of a play, a move called ‘the snap’. After the snap, Centers typically transition to blocking duties.

Similar to the Quarterback, the Center often plays a crucial role in communication and sometimes decision-making regarding defensive alignments and counter strategies. 

Responsibilities – passing or “snapping” the ball to the Quarterback at the beginning of each play/down, communicating plays and strategies to other linemen, and protecting the Quarterback. 

Famous Centers – Jim Otto, Jim Otto, Dwight Stephenson, Jim Langer

Offensive Guard (OG)

There are typically two Offensive Guards on the field. Their primary job is to block defensive players, preventing them from making tackles and creating space for their teammates to gain ground and score touchdowns. 

In certain plays, Offensive Guards may also ‘pull’ which involves running behind the other defensive linemen and then ahead of the Running Back to disrupt a defensive player’s position or block them from making a tackle.

At the beginning of play, Offensive Guards usually position themselves on either side of the Center. They are typically large, strong and powerful players. However, they also need to be quick enough to run ahead of their teammates to make blocks and create space. As a result, Offensive Guards, while often weighing over 250 pounds (17 stone & 12 pounds / 113 kilograms), are usually the most athletic of all the Offensive Line players. 

Left Guard (LG) – positioned to the left of the Center, the Left Guard is on the blind side of most Quarterbacks (if the Quarterback is right handed). Their main role is to block defensive players from getting near or tackling the Quarterback.

Right Guard (RG) – the primary role of the Right Guard is to ‘run block’ by engaging with/hitting defensive players, pushing them out of the way to give the Running Back space to run into and make ground towards the opposing teams end zone.

Responsibilities – block defensive players, protect the Quarterback, establish lanes for Running Backs to run through

Famous Offensive Guards – Steve Hutchinson, Larry Allen, Gene Upshaw, John Hannah

Offensive Tackle (OT)

Similar to other players on the offensive line, the primary goal of an Offensive Tackle is to block players the opposing team, to protect the Quarterback and Running Backs. They line up at the start of each play to the left and right of the offensive guards. Like offensive guards, Offensive Tackles tend to be extremely large, often the biggest and heaviest players on the entire team. 

In addition to their strength, Offensive Tackles must be able to move quickly from side to side to block any of the opposing team players attempting to close in and intercept passes made by the Quarterback. 

Offensive Tackles are also responsible for creating paths for Running Backs to run through. If they can block or ‘hook‘ the opposing team’s Defensive End, it allows the running back to move to the outside and make a run near the sideline. 

Most NFL offensive tackles weigh more than 300 lbs (21 stone and 6 lbs / 136kg) and stand well over 6ft tall. They often lose significant amounts of weight after retiring – staying over 300 lbs is hard work!

There are usually two Offensive Tackles on the offensive team – the Left Tackle and the Right Tackle.

Left Tackle (LT) – positioned on the far left of the offensive line, the main role of the Left Tackle is usually protecting the Quarterback from defending players attempting to “rush”, pressurise and tackle him/her. As most Quarterbacks are right-handed, their blindside is usually to their left – it’s the Left Tackle’s job to protect the Quarterback from player’s trying to attack his/her most vulnerable side.

Right Tackle (RT) is positioned to the far right of the offensive line. As the Quarterback will normally make passes with his/her right arm, the Right Tackle’s main role is to clear a path or route by pushing defending players away, making space for offensive players to exploit and run through.

Responsibilities – protecting the Quarterback’s blind side from the opposing team’s players, creating space for Running Backs to exploit by blocking the opposing team’s players

Famous Offensive Tackles – Forrest Gregg, Anthony Munoz, Ron Mix, Lou Creekmur

Defensive Positions in American Football

Playing a similar role to defenders in Association Football, the main role of the defensive players, who are often referred to as the ‘defensive team’, is to prevent the opposition from advancing towards their end zone and scoring points.

To make the defensive team positions easy to comprehend, the table below summarises each players role and the required attributes to play in each position at the elite level:

Defensive Team Positions
PositionCategoryMain RolesRequired Attributes
Defensive Ends (DE)Defensive LinemenRush/tackle the Quarterback, stop the Running Back attacking near the sidelines/edges of the fieldStrength, speed, agility
Defensive Tackles (DT)Defensive LinemenDefend running attacks down the middle, fight off “double blocks”Strength, bulk, toughness, aggressiveness
Nose Tackle (NT)Defensive LinemenPrevent running plays down the middle, pressurising/tackling the QuarterbackGreat strength, size, and leverage
Outside LinebackerLinebackerForce Running Backs down the centre of the field, attack/rush the QuarterbackSpeed, strength, versatility
Inside or Middle LinebackerLinebackerDirect the defense, stop inside runs from Running Backs, cover short passesInstincts, leadership, speed, tackling ability
CornerbackDefensive BackCover wide receivers, force fumbles with hard tackles and pressureSpeed, agility, ball skills, man-to-man coverage skills
Strong SafetySafetyLast line of defense, tackle/stop Running Backs, defend against the run and short passesStrength, tackling ability, coverage skills
The Free SafetySafetyDeep pass coverage, act as last line of defense, read the quarterbackSpeed, instincts, ability to read the game

Whilst American Football has eleven players from each side on the field of play at one time, unlike Association Football, the defensive team and offensive team are never on the field at the same time.

The defensive team can be divided into three main roles and sub-categories: Defensive Linemen, Linebackers and Safeties.

The image below shows how the defensive team may line up and position themselves on the field, as they defend the end zone and goal posts shown at the top of the image:

NFL defensive positions diagram

The Defensive Linemen

Defensive linemen form the defensive line, which typically consists of four players. The players will line up close to the offensive line, with their hands on the ground, ready to attack the opposing team. Defensive linemen take up three position: Defensive Ends, Defensive Tackles, and Nose Tackle (NT). 

Defensive Ends (DE)

The Defensive Ends position themselves at the end of the defensive line, to the left and right, at the beginning of each play. Their primary responsibility is to close down and tackle the Quarterback or the running back. Defensive Ends need to possess a combination of speed and strength, allowing them to reach the opposing team’s Quarterback swiftly, preventing forward passes. They must also be agile and strong enough to tackle the running back during running plays. 

Responsibilities –  preventing Running Backs from gaining ground down the outside of the field (near the sidelines), close-down or “rush” the Quarterback,  tackle or “sack” the Quarterback, and tackle the Running Back

Famous Defensive Ends – Jared Allen, Bruce Smith, Deacon Jones, Reggie White

Defensive Tackles (DT)

Defensive Tackles are the two players on the inside/centre of the defensive line. They will regularly have to fight off “double team blocks” from the offensive team, where two offensive players will try and block a single defensive tackle, to prevent them from closing down or tackling a running back or Quarterback.

Defensive Tackles must use their arms and hands to fight off any attempt of a double team block. For this reason, defensive tackles need to be strong and aggressive, as well as being tough and durable enough to take on head-on collisions with the opposing players. 

Responsibilities – stop running plays down the middle of the field, fight off double team blocks, close down and putting pressure on the offensive line

Famous Defensive Tackles – Brandon Williams, Alan Page, Warren Sapp, Bob Lilly 

Nose Tackle (NT)

The Nose Tackle lines up in the middle of the Defensive Linemen. While the Nose Tackle may be absent from some defensive formations, they play a crucial role in defensive strategies and are typically featured in a 3-4 defensive scheme, which consists of three Linemen and four Linebackers.

Regarded as one of the toughest (and craziest) positions to play in American Football, the Nose Tackle will often get hit from all sides and angles as the opposing team tries to neutralise them and take them out of the play.

The Nose Tackle plays a vital role in blocking the offense, often providing the first line of protection against the opposing team’s offensive plays. Their primary role responsibilities include preventing running plays down the middle of the field and putting pressure on or tackling the offensive team’s Quarterback.

Responsibilities – providing the first line of defense, and preventing running plays down the middle of the field

Famous Nose Tackles – Jim Burt, Fred Smerlas, Ted Washington, Dontari Poe

Linebackers

As the name suggests, Linebackers position themselves just behind the defensive line at the start of each play. Their responsibilities include blocking and tackling Running Backs while attempting to break through the offensive line. Linebackers need a combination of speed, agility, and the strength and toughness required to take on the offensive line.

Experienced Linebackers, usually the middle Linebacker, are often responsible for calling and organising defensive plays, making them the leader of the defensive team.

When a defensive team fields three Linebackers, the position is subdivided to include two Outside Linebackers and a single Inside/Middle Linebacker.

Outside Linebackers (OLB)

When playing with three Linebackers, the majority of defensive teams will have two Outside Linebackers. The Outside Linebackers will look to run through and penetrate the offensive line and disrupt or tackle the Quarterback. They must also try to prevent any runs from going down the sidelines in order to force Running Backs to cut inside and attack down the centre of the field. 

Outside Linebackers tend to be slightly taller and leaner than inside Linebackers as their main goal is to run down and tackle the Quarterback and prevent or disrupt a pass.

Responsibilities – disrupt or ‘rush’ the Quarterback, contain the outside of the field and force Running Backs to attack the centre.

Famous Outside Linebackers – Derrick Thomas, Jack Ham, Bobby Bell, Lawrence Taylor.

Inside or Middle Linebacker (ILB/MLB)

Positioned in the middle of the defensive formation when a team plays with three Linebackers, the Inside/Middle Linebacker will try to prevent attacking/offensive runs down the middle of the field and attempt to intercept or cover passes down the middle. 

Inside or Middle Linebackers will tend to be bigger than Outside Linebackers, as they are more likely to tackle Running Backs moving at high speed. 

Responsibilities – make tackles on Running Backs who penetrate the defensive line, intercept and limit the space available for long passes.

Famous Inside / Middle Linebackers – Ray Nitschke, Luke Kuechly, Dick Butkus, Ray Lewis.

linebacker training tackles

Defensive Backs

Defensive Backs is an umbrella term for the positions of Cornerbacks and Safeties. There are usually 3 or 4 Defensive Backs on the field of play at one time. 

Cornerbacks (CB)

Cornerbacks usually line up at the start of each play, opposite the opposing team’s wide receiver. In these instances, the cornerback’s main goal is to guard the wide receiver and prevent them from catching a pass from their Quarterback.

Cornerbacks are sometimes called upon to tackle Running Backs, and they also force turnovers by intercepting passes or forcing a fumble with a hard tackle.

Responsibilities – guard wide receivers, making interceptions, forcing fumbles with hard tackles

Famous Cornerbacks – Darrell Green, Ronnie Lott, Mel Blount, Dick Lane

Safeties

Safeties are the last line of defense. There are actually two positions that make up the Safeties on a typical team – the Free Safety (FS) and the Strong Safety (SS). 

Safeties are usually positioned deeper than any other defensive player – standing closet to their own End Zone. Safeties need to be fast and able to communicate quickly & effectively with the rest of their team. 

Strong Safety (SS) position themselves on the ‘strong side’ of the field. The strong side is the lateral-side of the field that the opposing team’s Tight End lines him/herself up on.  Strong Safeties have to be big and strong enough to tackle Running Backs sprinting at full speed. 

Responsibilities – providing the last line of defense, tackling Running Backs and running players from the offensive team.

Famous Strong Safeties – John Lynch, Dennis Smith, Ken Houston, Troy Polamalu

Free Safety (FS) will position him/herself on the ‘weak side’ of the field – that is the side without a Tight End. Generally speaking, the Free Safety will be faster and lighter than the Strong Safety, as they are more focussed on disrupting the opposition’s passing game.

Responsibilities – Last line of defense, intercepting and disrupting the passing game of the offensive team, reading and predicting the Quarterbacks decision making. 

Famous Free Safeties – Yale Lary, Paul Krause, Ed Reed, Ronnie Lott.

Special Team Positions

Special teams are players who are called onto the field during kicking plays. It is possible for players to be both part of the defensive or offensive team, as well as the special team. There are however a number of specific roles and players with specialised skills who are only called upon during specific plays.

The table below shows the roles and required attributes of players on the special team:

Special Teams Positions
PositionCategoryMain RolesRequired Attributes
Kicker (K)Special TeamsKick field goals, extra points, and kickoffsKicking accuracy, leg strength/kicking power, consistency
Long snapper (LS)Special TeamsSnap (pass) the ball for field goals, extra points, and puntsAccuracy, consistency, speed of snap.
Kick returner (KR)Special TeamsCatch and return kick offsSpeed, agility, vision, ball-handling skills
Punter (P)Special TeamsPunt (kick) the ball to the opposing team.Leg strength/kickg power, kicking accuracy, ability to handle pressure
Punt returner (PR)Special TeamsCatch and return puntsSpeed, agility, vision, ball-handling skills
Gunner (G)Special TeamsCover punts and kickoffs, tackle the returnerSpeed, tackling ability, ability to avoid blocks/tackles
Personal Protector (PP)Special TeamsProtect the punter and serve as a last line of defense on punt playsAwareness, blocking ability, decision-making under pressure
Holder (H)Special TeamsCatches the snap (pass) from the LS & holds the ball for the kickerAwareness, catching ability

As shown in the table, the players/positions on the special team include:

Kicker/Placekicker (K/PK) – The Kicker or Placekicker is the player responsible for kicking field goals and executing the kicks for extra points attempted following a Touchdown. The kicker will also usually handle kickoffs, although some teams have two place kickers – one for field goals and PATs (Points After Touchdowns) and another for kickoffs.

Return Specialist (RS) – A Return Specialist is a player that is called into action for returning both punts and kick offs. The main goal of the Return Specialist is to catch a kick off or punt and run with the ball as far as possible towards the opponent’s end zone. Whilst some teams will field a Return Specialist to catch and return both kick offs and punts, other teams will have specific players to return kick offs or punts only.

Kick Returner  (KR) – The Kick Returner is a type of Return Specialist, that returns kick offs only. They are responsible for catching the opposing team’s kick offs and running it back towards their side of the field and their End Zone. 

Punt Returner (PR) – The Punt Returner’s role is to catch the ball after it is punted (drop-kicked) by the opposing team, usually on the fourth down. The Punt Returner must decide whether he/she should try and catch the punt, call for a ‘fair catch‘ or let the ball hit the ground – in which case the ball will go to the returning team’s end zone for a ‘touchback‘. 

Punter (P) – If a team is on the fourth down and they are unlikely to gain the 10 yards required to prevent the opposing team gaining possession of the ball, they are likely to punt or kick the ball to the opposing team, to ensure that they start their first offensive play as close to their own end zone as possible. In this instance, the Punter will be brought onto the field of play to kick the ball as far and accurately as possible into the opposing team’s half of the field. 

Long Snapper (LS) – The long snapper ‘snaps’ or passes the ball between his/her legs back to the punter.

Holder (H) – The Holder will catch the ball from the long snapper’s pass and hold it in place for the Kicker Placekicker. The Holder will usually position him/herself 7-8 yards behind the offensive line.

Gunner (G) – The Gunner is a player who runs down field as quickly as possible to tackle whoever catches or gains possession of the ball after it is kicked down field after a kick off. 

Personal Protector (PP) – sometimes called the ‘Upback’, the Personal Protector acts as the last line of defense for the punter. They may sometimes, but rarely, receive ‘the snap’ instead of the Punter, to run or pass the ball instead of it being punted.

American Football Positions & Players FAQs

Which Positions in American Football / The NFL get Paid the Most?

Generally speaking, it is the Quarterback that gets paid the most on an NFL team. Considered the leaders/captains of their team, they have a significant impact on the game and play a fundamental role in all offensive plays. At the time of writing, the average salary for a Quarterback in the NFL is approximately $40 million per year. Wide Receivers, Offensive Linemen and Defensive Tackles are also amongst the highest paid positions, with average salaries in the NFL at the time of writing, exceeding $20 million.

 In contrast, Special Teams players tend to earn the least amount of money, although the average wage at the time of writing in the NFL for a Special Team’s player was still well over $2 million. 

How many players are in an NFL team?

The NFL rules state that each team can have a “roster” (a bit like a squad in Association Football), of up to 53 players. During a game there will be 11 players on the field from the offensive team, and 11 players on the field from the defensive team at one time.

Unlike Association Football and rugby, the defensive and offensive teams swap when one team wins possession of the ball. If a team has the ball for example, and loses possession, the 11 offensive players from that team will leave the field and the 11 defensive players will enter the field of play. There are also special teams players who enter the field for specific plays or elements of the game. Around 35-40 players from each team will be on the field at some point during a game.

If you are a fan of American Football, then you may be interested in our extensive range of American Football equipment, which includes American footballs for practice sessions and games, tackle shields & bags, goalposts, plus much more! If you are looking to get in shape for American Football, then check out our gym & fitness equipment, which includes Olympic barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells and cardiovascular equipment including Air Bikes.

 By: Andrew Griffiths

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Bruce Kosky
Bruce Kosky
14 days ago

Excellent descriptions for an AFL (Aussie) fan.

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