Offensive and Defensive Football Positions Explained
Positions in American Football
If you haven't grown up watching and playing the sport, American football is sometimes hard to follow. Whether you’re from across the pond or live here in the States, the individual player positions and their responsibilities can be especially difficult to understand.
There was a time, decades ago, when the various players on a football team shared more similarities than differences. Individuals played both offense and defense, and everyone had to know how to block and tackle well.
The game has evolved, and so have the positions. Football has become a game of specialists, with each position assigned a specific duty at different times during the game.
This article is a basic guide to the offensive and defensive positions on an NFL football team. Volumes can be written about the strategy and the historical significance of each position, but this is intended to be simple and usable for the new football fan.
Here you’ll find information on where each player typically lines up, a description of their duties, the physical attributes they possess, and the jersey numbers they are allowed to wear.
Why do jersey numbers matter? The NFL jersey numbering system is fairly strict. It is meant to be helpful for the referee and other officials, but it also helps fans understand which player plays which position. NFL teams must declare an individual player’s roster position, and that player must wear a number within the range allowed for his position, as per NFL rules.
Here’s a look at each position on an NFL roster, starting with the offense.
Football Positions on Offense
There are 11 men on the field per side in American football. On the offense, seven of those men must line up on the line of scrimmage, and the other four behind them in the backfield.
The job of the offense is to move the ball down the field and score points. Each offensive position has a unique set of responsibilities, and each player has specific attributes that better enable him to do his job. The stereotypical player at each position has evolved over the decades, as players continue to get bigger and stronger with each generation.
A play starts with the center snapping the ball, and the center is one the offensive linemen. So, the offensive line is where we will start.
You can refer to the diagrams throughout this article to see the specific locations of each position.
There are five offensive linemen (OL) in most offensive formations: one center, two guards, and two tackles. Their primary function is to block for the player with the ball.
Offensive linemen are the biggest, strongest guys on the field, and their work can win or lose a game.
Lines Up: All five players line up on the line of scrimmage. In football, there must be seven offensive players on the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped. In most standard formations, five of those players are linemen.
Duties: The primary job of the offensive line is to block for other players. They do not typically touch the ball as part of the game plan, and there are even rules preventing them from doing so at certain times. They need to be very good blockers in both running and passing situations. They must have the strength to overpower opponents, the speed to get out in front of running backs, and the quickness to block smaller, faster defensive players.
There are three positions on the offensive line:
- Center (C): As the name describes, he lines up in the middle. The center snaps the ball to the quarterback and starts the play. He is the leader of the offensive line and makes calls before a play starts so the other offensive linemen know their blocking assignments. The center is often required to block the defensive nose tackle, usually the biggest, strongest player on the defense.
- Guard (G): There are two guards, one on each side of the center. Historically, guards used to be the best athletes on the offensive line. Now, they are all great athletes. Guards are often required to run the farthest on running plays and need to have decent speed and quickness for their size.
- Tackle (T): There are two tackles, and they line up outside of the guards. Tackles may have the toughest jobs on the offensive line. The position they hold on the end of the line means their block is often key on running plays. Tackles are also required to block much faster defensive ends and linebackers on passing plays. Quarterbacks may get all the glory, but there is no player more valuable to a football team than an outstanding offensive tackle.
Physical Attributes: All offensive linemen are huge, powerful men. 30 years ago, linemen weighing in the neighborhood of 250 pounds could make a living in professional football. Now, few linemen weigh less than 300 pounds, with some tipping the scales closer to 400. NFL linemen are extremely strong, and many of them are capable of bench pressing over 500 pounds.
Jersey Numbers: Linemen may wear numbers from 50 to 79. These are ineligible numbers in the NFL, meaning offensive players wearing those numbers are not allowed to run downfield on a passing play. This helps the officials when calling penalties. However, a lineman may line up in an eligible position or in the backfield (as long as there are still seven players on the line) but must first report his intentions to the referee.
The quarterback (QB) gets the ball at the start of a play. He must be able to throw the football well and have the leadership skills necessary to command the offense. Some quarterbacks are good at running with the ball, but this skill is not usually paramount in the NFL.
Lines Up: Behind the center. Depending on the play, he may stand directly behind and take the snap straight from the center. Or, he may stand several yards back in shotgun or pistol formation, in which case the center would pass the ball back to him.
Duties: The expectations put on the quarterback vary widely, depending on the offensive game plan and, in many cases, the skill of the quarterback. At the very least he must take a leadership role and have the knowledge to guide the offense down the field. Some quarterbacks are excellent passers, where others are able to run well. However, the NFL is very much a passing league, so most teams prefer quarterbacks who can throw the ball well.
Physical Attributes: The best quarterbacks are tall athletes, which enables them to better see the field. That said, there are more than a couple of modern quarterbacks around the 6-foot mark who do just fine, proving that prototypical standards don't always determine an athlete's effectiveness. Athleticism is important, as is toughness, but most quarterbacks earn their keep with their passing arm and their brain above all else.
Jersey Numbers: Quarterbacks in the NFL may wear numbers 1-19. Aside from kickers and punters, they are the only players allowed to wear single-digit numbers.
NFL Jersey Number Rules at a Glance
QB, P, K
QB, P, K, WR
RB, DB, TE, LB
LB, OL, DL
Running backs (RB) come in all shapes and sizes. There are huge, bruising power backs, and small, fast scat backs, and some running backs that never even touch the ball. While their role has changed in modern football, the running back is still a very important position.
Lines Up: Running backs must line up in the backfield. However, that doesn’t mean they must stay behind the offensive line. In many cases, they split out like a wide receiver and run downfield to catch passes.
Duties: There was a time, not all that long ago when all running backs needed to be able to carry the ball and gain yards. The NFL was a more run-centered league back then, where today it is pass first. This means modern running backs need to be good at catching passes and blocking blitzing linebackers.
There are several types of running backs, and their duties vary:
- Fullback (FB): The fullback’s primary job is to block. Some fullbacks are good pass receivers as well. The average fullback is large and powerful, with plenty of the strength necessary to crush defenders on running plays. The job of fullback has become a very blue-collar position. In days gone by the fullback was an important ball carrier, but nowadays the halfback gets the ball on most running plays and the fullback paves the way.
- Halfback (HB): In modern offenses, the halfback is the player counted on to run with the ball the most throughout the game. Some are small and quick with the ability to fake defensive players out of their cleats. Others are large and powerful and bowl over defenders rather than run around them. The best halfbacks have a combination of speed, power, and quickness, and they are very valuable to their teams. Because of the punishment they take, the average career of a professional halfback is very short.
Some other terms used to describe running backs and their duties include:
- Tailback (TB): A running back, usually a halfback, who lines up behind the fullback in an I formation rather than next to him.
- Scat back: A term referring to a very shifty halfback.
- Blocking back: Usually refers to the fullback. A running back whose main job is blocking.
- H-Back: Not to be confused with halfback, an H-back is a player who lines up in the backfield a step behind where the tight end lines up. Usually, a fullback or tight end plays this role in sets requiring an H-back.
- Wingback (WB): The wing back lines up in the backfield a step behind and to the outside of the tight end.
Jersey Numbers: Running backs are allowed to wear the numbers 20 through 49 in the NFL.
Along with defensive cornerbacks, wide receivers are usually the fastest guys on the field. They must be agile and quick enough to shake defenders who are trying to cover them, and be able to reliably catch the football.
Duties: The main job of the wide receiver is to run downfield and catch passes. If a wide receiver can block well it's a bonus, but they earn their pay for their receiving abilities. Some wide receivers may also serve as punt or kick returners.
Lines Up: There are three basic types of wide receiver, depending on where they line up on the field:
- Split end (SE): Lines up on the line of scrimmage, except split out away from the linemen. They are considered one of the 7 players on the line, and because they are on the end of the line they are eligible to receive passes. In the diagram below, the wide receiver on the left of the formation is the split end.
- Flanker (FL): Splits out wide like a split end, but one step back. So, technically they are in the backfield. In the diagram below, the wide receiver on the right of the formation is in the flanker position.
- Slot receivers (SL): Lines up inside of another wide receiver. They get their name because they are in the "slot" between a wide receiver and the line. They may be on or off the line, depending on the formation. In certain offensive formations where both wide receivers are on the same side of the field, the flanker lines up in the slot position. In the diagram below, you'll see two slot receivers.
Physical Attributes: Decades ago, big, lanky receivers were the standard. Then the position morphed to where speed and quickness were most valued, and small wide receivers flourished. In modern football, the best wide receivers are both big and fast. Designated slot receivers tend to be a little smaller.
Jersey Numbers: NFL wide receivers may wear numbers 10-19 and 80-89.
Of the seven players lined up on the line of scrimmage, only the ones on the ends of the line are allowed to run downfield and receive a pass. The tight end (TE) needs to have the power to block as well the finesse to run downfield and catch the football.
Lines up: The classic tight end lines up at the end of the line, next to one of the tackles. However, in today’s NFL, the tight end may line up all over the place. He may split out like a wide receiver, or line up in a slot position. He may even line up in the backfield, as long as there are still seven players on the line.
Duties: The position of tight end seems to undergo continual changes. With the popularity of more wide-open offenses featuring multiple wide receivers today, many teams are interested in tight ends who are good pass catchers. They still must be able to block well, and some teams carry tight ends that are only used when a good blocker is required.
Physical Attributes: Historically, tight ends were usually tall and strong with moderate speed. Now, in the modern NFL, there are some tight ends who look more like big wide receivers, with the speed to match. Other tight ends are bulkier and better at blocking on running plays.
Jersey Numbers: Tight ends are permitted to wear jerseys with numbers between 40 and 49, and 80 and 89.
Kicker (K) is possibly the position easiest for European audiences to understand, thanks to the popularity of soccer and rugby. The kicker only kicks the ball, but his job is very important. Many a hard-fought football game has come down to the leg of the kicker.
Lines up: When kicking field goals and extra points the kicker lines up in the backfield.
Duties: The kicker kicks field goals, extra points and kicks off. In modern football, he plays no other position.
Physical Attributes: Physical size really doesn’t matter. Kickers only need to have the leg power and accuracy to kick field goals from as far a distance as possible, but the most important quality of a kicker is reliability. A coach needs to know what his kicker is and isn't capable of so he can plan accordingly.
Jersey Number: Kickers may wear numbers 1-19.
Football Positions on Defense
In American football, the defense is tasked with stopping the opposing offense from scoring points. Given the athleticism and sophistication of modern offensive players, it’s a tough job. Successful defensive players must not only rely on brute power and speed but also have the intelligence to understand what the offense is trying to do to them.
It’s a myth that football is a game for large men with small IQs. Dumb players don’t make it very far in American football, especially on defense.
The eleven defenders may line up anywhere they like, as long as they are not across the line of scrimmage. But there are two common defensive schemes employed by most teams: the 4-3 and the 3-4. The 4-3 implies there are four defensive linemen and three linebackers, while the 3-4 means three linemen and four linebackers.
Teams commit to one scheme or the other, not only so they can focus on one style of defense, but because slightly different personnel is required for each. However, with increasingly sophisticated offenses most teams will use a wide variety of schemes and personnel.
There are three main positions on defense, with a range of differences within each position. It all starts with the big guys up front.
The defensive linemen (DL) are the first stage of the defense, and the first men the offense must account for in their blocking schemes. Their responsibilities and where they line up are dependant on their exact position and the type of defense they play.
Lines Up: Directly across the ball from the offensive line. Defensive linemen usually (but not always) play from a three or four-point stance, with their hand(s) on the ground.
There are several types of defensive linemen:
- Defensive tackles (DT): In a 4-3 set there are two defensive tackles. While their basic position is roughly across from the offensive guard, like all defensive players they shift around to many different positions in the same general area. Their primary task is to prevent the other team from running the ball, but many are great at rushing the quarterback as well. Good defensive tackles are capable of taking on several blockers at once, jamming up the middle of the play and keeping the offensive tackles off the inside linebackers.
- Nose tackle (NT): In 3-4 defenses there is only one defensive tackle lined up in the middle called the nose tackle. Because he is alone in the middle, a nose tackle will get hit from all sides as an offense attempts to take him out of the play. But a good nose tackle can hold his ground, and become a game-long nightmare for the offense.
- Defensive end (DE): These players line up outside of the defensive tackles. They need to have the strength and power to do battle with offensive linemen, but also the speed and quickness to chase down the quarterback on passing plays. In 3-4 defenses, defensive ends line up closer to the middle of the line. In 4-3 defenses, they are lined up outside the offensive tackles.
Physical Attributes: Defensive linemen are huge, strong guys, rivaled on the field only by the offensive linemen. However, some physical characteristics are more desirable for specific positions. Nose tackles are incredibly powerful, and a few even dwarf offensive linemen when it comes to size and strength. Defensive tackles in a 4-3 and ends in a 3-4 typically tip the scales around the 300-pound mark, with the strength to match. Defensive ends who play in a 4-3 tend to be slightly smaller, quicker players and built for pass rushing.
Jersey Numbers: Defensive linemen in the NFL are permitted to wear numbers from 50-79 and 90-99.
Linebackers (LB) are often the best all-around athletes on the field, and much is asked of them. Their duties range from stopping the run, to chasing down the quarterback, to covering speedy wide receivers. The exact responsibilities of a linebacker depend on his position and the defensive scheme.
Lines Up: A couple of yards behind the defensive line, their exact location dependant on their position and duties. Linebackers usually play on their feet, but will occasionally take a three-point stance in pass-rushing situations.
The different types of linebackers are:
- Inside linebacker (ILB): In a 3-4 set there are two inside linebackers lined up across from the offensive guards, though again their exact positions will shift throughout the game. They need to be able to take on blockers one-on-one, stop running plays through the middle, and cover against the pass.
- Middle Linebacker (MLB): The middle linebacker's basic territory is across from the offensive center in a 4-3 set. The middle linebacker is usually the leader of the defense, the defensive equivalent of the quarterback. He needs to be a great tackler and have the speed to range across the field and make plays. The middle linebacker is often called the Mike linebacker.
- Outside Linebacker (OLB): Outside 'backers can be a bit smaller than inside linebackers, and are often faster. In a 4-3 they need to be well-rounded defenders, able to chase down the quarterback, play the run, cover the pass, and take on lineman. In a 3-4 the outside linebacker is often a primary pass rusher, whose worth to the team is his ability to bring down the quarterback on passing plays. Many defensive schemes will designate a strong-side linebacker called the Sam, and a weak side ‘backer called the Will.
Note: When you hear quarterbacks calling out the Mike linebacker before a play they aren’t simply pointing out the guy who plays middle linebacker. They can see that by looking at the roster. What they are doing is identifying a linebacker (or defensive back) in order to get a central reference for the play they are about to run. Remember: Defensive players can and do line up all over the place. Identifying the Mike helps the offensive linemen focus their blocking scheme accordingly.
Physical Attributes: Linebackers in the NFL are generally over six feet tall, and weigh between 220 and 270 pounds. Larger linebackers typically play in the middle, while smaller, quicker ‘backers play outside. These are big, muscular guys who are extremely strong but also very fast for their size. Most importantly they have to be tough, and able to do battle with offensive linemen who may outweigh them by a hundred pounds.
Jersey Numbers: NFL linebackers may wear numbers from 40-59 and 90-99.
Defensive backs (DB) are the last line of the defense. They need to be speedy and tough, able to cover receivers and make tackles against much larger players.
Lines up: Like linebackers and linemen, their specific location and duties depend on their position and the defensive scheme.
Here are the different types of defensive backs:
- Strong Safety (SS): In modern football, a strong safety is almost like an extra linebacker. He may line up several yards in the defensive backfield, and he needs to be fast enough to cover against the pass. But he'll also find himself lined up close to the line more than any other defensive back. For this reason, he needs to be tough and fearless, able to take on bigger players.
- Free Safety (FS): The free safety is usually the defensive player lined up the deepest. He needs to be able to see the whole field and make sure nobody gets behind him. The free safety is the player who calls out the signals for the other defensive backs before the play, letting them know their assignments. Free safeties must be outstanding tacklers, as there is nobody between them and the end zone.
- Cornerback (CB): There are two cornerbacks on the field in a base defense, and they are lined up the widest. The job of the cornerback is primarily to cover wide receivers and stop them from catching passes. Wide receivers and cornerbacks are the fastest players on the field, and these one-on-one matchups can be epic. A good corner isn’t afraid to tackle and will come up the field to stop running plays around the outside of the line.
- Nickel back: This is a term for an extra defensive back. Usually, there are four defensive backs, but in obvious passing situations, a team may take out a linebacker or lineman and put in a fifth defensive back. This player is referred to as the nickel back, and this position is usually played by a backup cornerback.
Physical Attributes: Defensive backs in the NFL can be relatively small players at cornerback, some standing several inches under six feet and weighing less than 200 pounds. Safeties are generally larger, with some as big as linebackers.
Jersey Numbers: In the NFL defensive backs wear jersey numbers between 20 and 49.
Like the kicker, the punter (P) is a specialist who only plays on punting downs.
Lines Up: Stands deep in the backfield and receives a long snap before punting the ball.
Duties: Punt the ball on fourth down, pinning the defense further away from your goal line. The punter must have a strong leg, and not only be able to kick the ball far and accurately, but also high in the air so his team has a chance to run downfield and make the tackle.
Physical Attributes: Like the kicker, leg strength and accuracy are really what matter. However, most punters tend to be tall, lanky guys.
Jersey Numbers: Punters wear numbers between 1 and 19.
Other Football Positions
There are a few other positions you may notice while watching a football game. Often these positions are played by athletes who also play another position listed above.
- Kick Returner (KR) and Punt Returner (PR): The former catches and returns kickoffs, where the latter catches and returns punts. They must be good decision makers under pressure, reliable receivers and ball carriers, and elusive open-field runners. Usually, these positions are manned by wide receivers, running backs and defensive backs.
- Long Snapper (LS): This player takes the place of the center during punting downs, field goals, and extra points. In the olden days the starting center would perform this duty, but today the long snapper is a specialist whose only job is to reliably snap the ball in punting and kicking situations.
- Holder: Holds the ball for field goals and extra points. This job is usually performed by the punter.
Understanding Offensive and Defensive Football Positions
Learning the offensive and defensive positions and their responsibilities goes a long way toward understanding the strategy of the game of football. Many football fans and viewers never see beyond the images that the broadcasting companies wish to portray.
There is nothing wrong with that; football is an exciting game, filled with color and pageantry. But the more cerebral fan will come to appreciate intricacies of the game that go unseen by most.
An offensive lineman who plays a great game is seldom lauded in the media, but his work is no less important than any star quarterback.
A fullback who blasts open holes for his halfback but rarely touches the ball himself often goes unnoticed, but he is instrumental to the success of his team.
The best matchups in football are often those which fly under the radar: The trench battle between an elite offensive tackle and a promising young defensive end. The career-long rivalry between a veteran wide receiver and veteran cornerback. The mind games between an All-Pro quarterback and a great middle linebacker.
The sum of those victories wins football games, and a team counts on each of its players to come out on top in those battles. Learning to spot these matchups can give you a better appreciation for the game.
Hopefully, this article has given you a good understanding of the offensive and defensive positions on an American football team. More importantly, maybe you’re off on a life-long journey as a football fan. If so, you will not be disappointed.