American Football Positions and What They Do

Updated on August 6, 2018
JesseUnk profile image

I've watched football all my life. My first word was "touchdown", literally. I love this game with a passion and I'd love for others to too.

How to Play American Football

What are the Player Positions in Football?

Football positions can be difficult to identify because players can line up in different areas depending on the type of play they'd like to run. This will be a basic guide to reference what each player does, their importance to the game, and where to most likely will see them lined up on the field before a play begins, beginning with the offensive players.

Quarterback (QB)

The quarterback is the most important position in football. Their job is to lead the offense, relay the plays to the other players, throw the ball, or hand the ball off to another player. Every single play, minus a very few trick plays, will begin with the ball in the quarterback's hand. They are responsible for knowing where every player will be during a play and then executing that play. The majority of a QB's contributions will come from throwing passes to other players. Some famous examples of quarterbacks are Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, and Joe Montana.

Offensive Linemen (O-Line)

There are five positions on the offensive line; Left Tackle, Left Guard, Center, Right Guard, and Right Tackle. These are easy to remember because they are always in the middle of the field, and their positions go in order left to right.

  • Left Tackle: The left tackle is the most important person on the offensive line. They typically protect the Quarterback's blindside; the side of the field they typically are looking away from. If a left tackle fails to do his job the QB may get hit or injured. This player blocks defensive players who are trying to get past in order to tackle an offensive player. Famous examples of left tackles are Anthony Munoz and Joe Thomas.
  • Guards: Guards, both left and right, typically serve the same purpose on the field. While they also will block defensive players from tackling offensive players, they are more mobile than the rest of the offensive line. While tackles and centers will typically block the man directly in front of them, guards will often time be asked to run and block, or "pull", to the sides to help with runs to the left and right opposed to just straight up the middle. Famous guards include Gene Upshaw, Mike Munchak, and Larry Allen.
  • Center: The center is responsible for hiking the football to the QB. Hiking is when the ball is placed on the ground and then brought between the center's legs into the hands of the QB so they can execute the play. They can hand the ball directly to the QB, or if the QB is standing far away they can toss it back from beneath their legs to the QB. Centers typically call out adjustments and changes to the rest of the line when they're needed. They are typically the mental leaders of the offensive line. Famous centers include Dwight Stephenson, Mike Webster, and Alex Mack

Tight End (TE)

Tight ends are smaller than offensive lineman but bigger than other traditional football players. They have two jobs in a game; catching passes from a QB and blocking. Tight ends are typically found lining up near the ends of the main five-man offensive line, thus their name because they are found tight to the end of the line. When a play happens they can block incoming defenders or they can move forward into the open field to attempt to catch a pass. Famous examples of tight ends are Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez, and Jason Witten.

Wide Receiver (WR)

There are two main types of wide receivers in the NFL; the wideout and the slot receiver. Both of their main purposes are to catch balls thrown to them. They can range in size from tall to small and slow to fast. Depending on the type of WR, they can be utilized in various different ways. Some famous examples of wide receivers are Jerry Rice, Larry Fitzgerald, Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr, and Terrell Owens.

  • Wideouts: A wideout WR is a WR who lines up on the far outside portion of the football field, either the left or right side. These are typically bigger WRs, and while the best WR can line up anywhere this is typically where they will be. You can remember them because they are wide on the outside, thus wideout.
  • Slot Receiver: A slot receiver is typically a smaller, shifty, and quick WR with good ability to catch the ball. They line up in the section of the field between the wideouts and the offensive line. This can be remembered because they're in the "slotted section" of the field between everyone. Famous examples of slot WRs are Wes Welker, Victor Cruz, and Julian Edelman.

Runningback (RB)

A running back contributes mostly by having the ball handed to him by the QB, and then running as far down the field as he can before he gets tackled. He can also catch the ball like a WR, but that is his second priority despite it still being very important for him to do. You can find running backs lined up behind the QB on most football plays, though he could be in various spots. There may be anywhere from zero to three RBs on the field on any given play, but typically one or two is normal. RBs touch the ball most in a game for skill positions (RB, WR, TE), second only to the QB overall. There are two types of running backs, a halfback, and a fullback.

  • Halfback: HBs are the most common form of a running back. They're the primary running option in a game, can catch the ball, and can be fast or bigger "power backs". Regardless of their size, their job of running as far as they can is the same. Famous HBs are Adrian Peterson, Ladanian Tomlinson, and Walter Payton.
  • Fullbacks: FBs are less common in today's NFL, but still exist. Once they were the HBs of the NFL and the most important position, including QB. Now they are more often large players who block for the running back. They line up between the QB and HB and use their running head start to clear a running path for the HB behind them. Famous examples of FBs are Jim Brown, John Kuhn, and Earl Campbell.

Examples of Offensive Positions in Football

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Quarterback Tom Brady primarily throws the ball and runs the offense. He's the most important position in the game.Offensive linemen block for the QB and RB. The Center, who hikes the ball, can be seen in the middle.The tight end Tony Gonzalez is capable of catching the ball and blocking for teammates.Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr's main job is to go out and catch passes thrown to him.Running back Adrian Peterson is handed the ball and runs as far as he can. He can also catch the ball occasionally and block for the QB.
Quarterback Tom Brady primarily throws the ball and runs the offense. He's the most important position in the game.
Quarterback Tom Brady primarily throws the ball and runs the offense. He's the most important position in the game.
Offensive linemen block for the QB and RB. The Center, who hikes the ball, can be seen in the middle.
Offensive linemen block for the QB and RB. The Center, who hikes the ball, can be seen in the middle.
The tight end Tony Gonzalez is capable of catching the ball and blocking for teammates.
The tight end Tony Gonzalez is capable of catching the ball and blocking for teammates.
Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr's main job is to go out and catch passes thrown to him.
Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr's main job is to go out and catch passes thrown to him.
Running back Adrian Peterson is handed the ball and runs as far as he can. He can also catch the ball occasionally and block for the QB.
Running back Adrian Peterson is handed the ball and runs as far as he can. He can also catch the ball occasionally and block for the QB.

What are the Different Defensive Positions in Football?

While there are multiple offensive positions that have the same jobs, there are more specific tasks for defensive positions. Depending on your formations, whether a 3-4, 4-3, 4-4, 46, or other, your positional job may change even if its technically the same. This will focus on the basic jobs of these positions, and where they line up generally.

Defensive Line (D-Line)

Defensive line consists of defensive ends (DEs) and defensive tackles (DTs). They line up directly across from the offensive line and typically, but not exclusively, consist of three or four men. Their job is to try to tackle the QB before he throws the ball, known as a "sack", or to tackle the RB before he gets past them.

  • Defensive End (DE): Defensive ends are located on the end of the defensive line. I know, super hard to remember. They are often found to be "pass rushers", which means their main job is to rush the passer and sack him or disrupt him enough to make a bad throw.
  • Defensive Tackle (DT): Despite offensive tackles being located on the ends of their line, a defensive tackle is located in the middle. There are typically one or two defensive tackles on the defensive line. A single defensive tackle is usually much larger than if there are two, being known as a "Nose Tackle". DTs are usually meant to stuff up lanes that an RB may run through and force O-Lines to double-team them so defensive ends can get to the QB. They don't record many tackles or sacks but are instrumental in a defensive play.

Linebacker (LB)

Linebackers are located directly back behind the defensive line, thus linebackers. Typically there are three or four linebackers on the field, usually three if there are four defensive linemen, and four if there are three defensive linemen. There are three types of linebackers the two outside linebackers, strong and weak side, and the middle linebackers.

  • Left Outside Linebackers (LOLB): Strongside linebackers, sometimes known as "Sam" linebackers and Left Outside Linebackers (LOLB), line up on the stronger side of the offense where the tight end sits. They are responsible for tackling the RB more often, are good at breaking away from blockers, and can guard the tight end when he goes out for passes. A famous example of a LOLB is Vonn Miller.
  • Right Outside Linebackers (ROLB): Weakside linebackers, sometimes known as "Will" linebackers and Right Outside linebackers (ROLB), line up on the weak side of the offensive line where the left tackle is. These are typically the fastest LB on the field, and their primary job is to get past the left tackle and sack the QB or to drop back to cover a portion of the field from passes. Typically this LB will have the most sacks over the course of the season than the others. Famous examples of a ROLB are Terrell Suggs, James Harrison, and Lawrence Taylor.
  • Middle Linebackers (MLB): Middle linebackers, sometimes known as "Mike" linebackers, are the captains of the defense. They are typically the players who call out the defensive plays and command the defensive unit. They can be called on to rush the QB, protect the center area of the field from passes, guard tight ends, and tackle running backs. This position usually ends the season with more tackles than any other position. Famous examples of MLBs are Ray Lewis, Jack Lambert, and Dick Butkus.

Together, a defensive line and group of linebackers are known as a "Front Seven", being that they typically make up the seven players who line up directly across from the offensive line. A front seven typically consists of four defensive linemen and three linebackers, also known as a 4-3 defense, or consists of three defensive linemen and four linebackers, also known as a 3-4 defense.

Cornerback (CB)

A cornerback is the direct defensive answer to a wide receiver. They line up directly in front of a WR and their job is to guard them as best they can to prevent a WR from catching a pass. Corners are one of the most important positions in football. They're typically the fastest position on the defense. There can be anywhere from two to four corners on the field at any time, but two is typical. Famous examples of a CB are Deon Sanders, Darrell Revis, and Richard Sherman.

Safety (FS or SS)

There are two types of safeties; a free safety (FS) and a strong safety (SS). Safeties are located the farthest back from the offensive side of the ball. They are the last defense against a big play, like a safety net. While both line up similarly they often have different jobs.

Free Safety (FS): A free safety is the true last line of defense. He is primarily considered a pass defensive position, sitting back and scanning the field for where the ball will go and then reacting. He is typically considered a playmaker, intercepting balls thrown his way and stopping plays deep down the field. He is free to roam the field and make plays, thus free safety.

Strong Safety (SS): A strong safety is similar to a linebacker with more speed. He will often line up on the left side, or the strong side, or the field and come up to help with stopping running backs. He is also needed to sit back in coverage of the field, but primarily will be similar to a linebacker with more coverage responsibilities. He is a strong tackler and lines up on the strong side, thus strong safety.

Together, the cornerbacks and safeties make up what is called the "backfield". This is because they are lined up in the back of the "front seven". The backfield primarily takes cares of the passing defense, while the front seven primarily takes care of the running defense.

Examples of Defensive Positions in Football

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Defensive end JJ Watt is on of the best in the league.Defensive Tackle Vince Wilfork is one of the biggest and most productive DTs ever.Vonn Miller is an all time great strong side LOLB.Lawrence Taylor is the best weakside ROLB ever, and arguably the greatest linebacker period.Ray Lewis is the greatest Mike middle linebacker to play the game.Deion Sanders is the best cornerback to ever guard wide receivers.Ed Reed was an interception machine at free safety.Troy Polamalu was a hard hitting strong safety that terrorized the league for years.
Defensive end JJ Watt is on of the best in the league.
Defensive end JJ Watt is on of the best in the league.
Defensive Tackle Vince Wilfork is one of the biggest and most productive DTs ever.
Defensive Tackle Vince Wilfork is one of the biggest and most productive DTs ever.
Vonn Miller is an all time great strong side LOLB.
Vonn Miller is an all time great strong side LOLB.
Lawrence Taylor is the best weakside ROLB ever, and arguably the greatest linebacker period.
Lawrence Taylor is the best weakside ROLB ever, and arguably the greatest linebacker period.
Ray Lewis is the greatest Mike middle linebacker to play the game.
Ray Lewis is the greatest Mike middle linebacker to play the game.
Deion Sanders is the best cornerback to ever guard wide receivers.
Deion Sanders is the best cornerback to ever guard wide receivers.
Ed Reed was an interception machine at free safety.
Ed Reed was an interception machine at free safety.
Troy Polamalu was a hard hitting strong safety that terrorized the league for years.
Troy Polamalu was a hard hitting strong safety that terrorized the league for years.

What position is most important in football?

What is your favorite position in football?

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Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Jesse Unk

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      • JesseUnk profile imageAUTHOR

        Jesse Unk 

        3 weeks ago from Ohio

        Thanks Dan! I added a few offensive line greats! Totally forgot to include them!

      • Cre8tor profile image

        Dan Robbins 

        3 weeks ago from Ohio

        Poor linemen. No famous examples. The unsung hero’s of the game. Nice article. This will be great for those who are learning the game abroad as well as youngsters.

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