Eric is a former football player, former youth football coach, and lifelong student of the game.
The hardest positions in football require a special caliber of athlete. These are the most important jobs on the field, and to play them takes athleticism, intelligence, and courage.
NFL history is brimming with tales of outstanding players who excelled at these demanding positions. Unfortunately, there are far more players who failed and left the league in a season or two, never to be heard from again.
There is nothing easy about making it as a starter on a football team. Every player in the NFL is tough, but these five positions call for extreme mental and physical prowess.
5. Middle Linebacker
Middle linebacker is one of the most demanding positions in football. It requires size, strength, speed, toughness, intelligence, and more than a little nasty attitude.
The middle linebacker is like the quarterback of a 4-3 defense. His pre-snap reads and knowledge of the opponent can determine the success of his entire unit. That means he needs to be smart and spend hours in the film room every week so he can diagnose plays before they happen. He must think on his feet and make good decisions on the fly.
Middle linebackers must be tough and fearless. Many 4-3 defensive schemes are set up to get him in a position to make plays. He has a target on his back and every offensive player is gunning for him. He will face double-teams, crackbacks, and traps, all specifically designed to put him on the ground. Taking out the middle linebacker goes a long way toward successfully running the football.
Middle linebackers must range from sideline to sideline and chase down much faster backs. They must have the speed to cover backs out of the backfield or drop back into deep zones.
After all of that, when he finally gets to the ball carrier, he'd better make it count. Some of the hardest hitters in NFL history played middle linebacker, and their ability to intimidate opponents was no insignificant part of their success.
The center is the leader of the offensive line, and he has to be smart. If you listen closely during an NFL game, you can often hear him calling out assignments before the snap. Because he starts the play by snapping the ball to the quarterback, he is obviously an important player, but he also has one of the most difficult responsibilities in football.
Offensive linemen are the biggest, strongest men on the field and some of the most powerful athletes in the world. They are also extremely skilled. It is enlightening to spend a few plays each game watching them instead of watching the ball. It really gives you a sense of the teamwork required in football.
Sometimes linemen are asked to make blocks on players just as big and strong as they are. Other times, they must rely on their quickness to block much smaller, faster players. They use a range of strategies such as fold, trap, and reach blocks. Sometimes they pull and clear the way for a running back on a sweep play.
The center has to do all of that, but first, he has to ensure the ball makes it into the quarterback’s hands. That means not only reliable direct snaps but also shotgun and pistol snaps. This takes nerves of steel when you have a 350-pound nose tackle lined up a few inches from your face.
While quarterback is the most important position on a football team, it is not necessarily the hardest. A powerful, accurate arm is important, but most quarterbacks don’t struggle with the physical aspects of the position. When they fail, it is usually because of the mental side of the game.
The quarterback needs to understand the offense inside and out. He must know where every one of his players should be and what they should do. He also needs to know what the other team is going to do. He must read the defense at the line of scrimmage and change the play if necessary.
On passing downs, he must read the defense after the snap. Receivers alter their routes depending on what the defense does, and the quarterback has to recognize this. Many pass routes depend on timing. That means, when you see a quarterback throw a pass and the receiver is in the wrong spot, it isn’t always the receiver’s fault. It is also possible the quarterback made the wrong read.
Teams call upon their starting quarterback to serve as their leader, whether he likes it or not. It’s an important job, and quarterbacks who are quiet loners have a hard time earning the respect of their teammates.
The fans and media fawn over winning quarterbacks, but those who lose take on an unfair portion of the blame. As they say, the most popular player on a losing team is the backup quarterback.
2. Left Tackle
All offensive linemen have difficult jobs, but the tackle on the quarterback’s blind side has an especially tough assignment. As most quarterbacks are right-handed, when they drop back to pass, their backs are to the left side of the field. The left side of the field is the blindside in most offenses.
Defenses know this and they put their most dangerous edge rusher at defensive end or outside linebacker on that side. It is the left tackle’s job to stop that player from getting to the quarterback.
The problem is the left tackle has other jobs too, like blocking massive defensive tackles on running plays. Offensive tackles are gigantic men, and most weigh over 300 pounds. They are often the strongest men on the field, but they're also the slowest.
On the other hand, edge rushers are some of the best athletes in football. They have the speed to run around an offensive tackle, the quickness to out-juke him, and the power to bowl him over. The left tackle must be an incredible athlete to match up against these monsters, and despite his size, he must have quick feet and excellent agility.
The consequences of failure are horrific. A missed block means an edge rusher has a clear shot at the quarterback, who will never see him coming until it is too late.
Cornerback is the hardest position in football, and it's one of the toughest jobs in all of sports. Corners are some of the smallest men on the field, but they're typically the most athletic. Exceptional speed, quickness, and agility are prerequisites for the position. That’s important because they’re going up against the fastest players on the offense, the wide receivers.
It’s a tough assignment. Even when a cornerback is a better athlete compared to the receiver he is covering, he is at a disadvantage because the receiver knows where the route is going. Film study helps, but it takes incredible physical skills and instincts to play cornerback well, especially in man-to-man coverage.
Corners have to be tough, no matter their size. They must possess the courage to take on linemen who might outweigh them by 100 pounds or more on sweeps. They are expected to tackle much larger running backs in the open field. They may be asked to play bump-and-run on the goal line against towering tight ends.
Above all else, cornerbacks must be mentally strong. Even the best corners get beat from time to time, and they must put it behind them and show up for the next play.
Most Difficult NFL Football Positions—Ranked
Here is an expanded ranking of the hardest positions in football:
- Offensive Tackle
- Middle Linebacker
- Strong Safety
- Outside Linebacker
- Tight End
- Defensive End
- Free Safety
- Offensive Guard
- Defensive Tackle
- Wide Receiver
- Kick/punt Returner
- Long Snapper
Vote in the poll at the end of this article and tell me which positions you think are hardest! What about positions like slot corner, nickelback, and slot receiver? Do they deserve their own spot?
Which Football Position Is Hardest?
Cornerback is the hardest position in football. It requires not only near-superhuman physical skills but also extreme mental discipline. Great cornerbacks are fast, agile, and tough, and they quickly learn from their mistakes.
That's just my opinion, of course. I think there is a case for each of these positions as the toughest in the sport. In some cases, it may depend on the team.
What do you think?