In the NFL, Success Depends on Differences.

A team full of quarterbacks would be doomed to fail. Here’s why.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:American_football_-_Positions.svg

People come in all shapes and sizes. Even athletes. Some sports attract certain body types because of the nature of the activities, like diminutive female gymnasts and monster sumo wrestlers. Some sports accommodate athlete sizes with weight classes, like boxing. Some sports don’t pay much attention to athlete sizes, like baseball and hockey. And some sports use athlete sizes as part of the game. Football (American) does that.

Playing in the NFL

If you’re not familiar with American football, the National Football League (NFL) consists of 32 teams, divided into two Conferences each having four Divisions. There are 53 players on the active roster of each team and, for 2021, 16 players on practice squads. This means that there are 69 players on each of the 32 teams, not counting players on injured reserve and special exemptions, for a total of 2.208 NFL players. Rosters are constantly in flux as teams have to replace injured players and add more proficient players in place of underperformers. It makes for a very competitive job market, that is, one job opening for every 150,000 people in the U.S.

The National Collegiate Athletics Association estimates that the total number of players in college football is slightly over 73,000. The NFL took 253 players in its last draft. This means the odds of playing football in college and making it to the NFL is 1.6 percent. The likelihood of a high school football player getting to the NFL is only 0.2 percent.

Imagine what it’s like being an NFL player. The work is hard, both the physical training and the intensive classroom study of all the game’s intricacies. Aspiring NFL players likely have spent a decade training and studying, through their college and high school years and before. There’s no diploma to validate their football accomplishments. They have two weeks of training camp and three preseason games to prove their value. They either get one of those 2,200 jobs or they don’t. If they do make it into the NFL, they have to keep training and studying for the rest of their careers, until someone younger and more proficient replaces them. The average career in the NFL is about 2.66 years according to the WSJ. Imagine facing that uncertainty every year on your job.

The other side of the coin is that, despite the punishment athletes take during their careers, the pay is great. Even if they’re working for the NFL minimum wage, they’re making $660,000 per year (in 2021) with 6% increases contractually stipulated for the next few years. If they’re a star, they might make a LOT more. 278 players, 13% of all players equally divided between offense and defense, will make more than $1 million in base salary in 2021. Further, 40 players (1.8% of all players) will make more than $10 million in base salary in 2021. Of those 40 players, 58% play offense and 42% play defense. You can’t make that much money (legally) working for the government.

NFL Players

NFL players range in age from 20 to 44. The median age is 25. More players were born in July, August, and September than any other month. They were conceived during football season.

The Minnesota Vikings are the youngest team for 2021 with an average age of 25.1. The Arizona Cardinals are the oldest team with an average age of 27.1. Quarterback Tom Brady of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is the oldest player in the league at 44.

About a quarter of the NFL players for the 2021-2022 season were selected in the first two rounds of the college draft. A third were undrafted. 283 colleges will have a player in the NFL in 2021. Half of the players will come from just 35 colleges. Alabama and Ohio State will each have over 60 (5.8%) players in the NFL.

Half of the players in 2021 will have three years of experience or less. Only 6% will have ten years of experience or more. Of the 11 players with more than 15 years of experience, 82% are either quarterbacks or special teamers. The refs protect these players. Defensive players get a penalty if they hit quarterbacks, punters, or kickers too hard. It’s called roughing.

NFL players aren’t all behemoths. The four smallest players in 2021 will be 5’6”. Three are running backs and the smallest is a 170 pound wide receiver. The median height will be 6’2”. The median weight will be 234 pounds. The four tallest players will be 6’9”. All four are over 300 pounds and play on the offensive line. The heaviest player will be a 6’8” 380-pound offensive linemen.

Positions on NFL Teams

There are two dozen, and sometimes more, designations for positions on an NFL team. To simplify this presentation, those designations were consolidated into three on defense (defensive line, linebacker, and defensive back), five on offense (quarterback, offensive line, running back, tight end, and wide receiver), and one for special teams. Here are profiles for the players at each position.

Quarterbacks

Quarterbacks are the celebrities of most NFL teams. If they’re not, the team probably isn’t winning. Most teams have two quarterbacks, the starter and a backup. Some teams might carry three on their 53-man rosters. A team’s quarterbacks is part of every offensive play. No other player can make that claim, not the star running back, not the star receiver, and not the star defensive back. Every player is replaced on the field from time to time for a breather. Not the quarterback.

Quarterbacks communicate the play that the coach designates to the other players in the huddle. Sometimes, a quarterback might change the play at the line of scrimmage if he sees the defense is prepared for the coach’s play. Quarterbacks start every play and determine who gets the ball by handing it off or throwing a pass. They are the sine qua non of football.

The 99 quarterbacks in the NFL at the beginning of the 2021-2022 season will be 5’10” to 6’7” and between 200 and 245 pounds. 40% were selected in the first two rounds of the draft and 22% were undrafted. Their average age will be 27.3 with 5.4 years of experience. Their median base salary will be $920,000, top base salary will be $24,100,000, and top total salary (including base salary, signing bonus, roster bonus, contract options, restructuring, workout bonuses, and incentives) will be $75,000,000. Yes, that’s for just the 2021-2022 season. Most people don’t make that much in a career.

Offensive Linemen

Offensive linemen have two jobs:

  • Push aside (block) defenders so running backs can advance the ball
  • Protect the quarterback while he is trying to pass the ball.

It sounds simple but it is probably the most physically demanding position in football.

There are five offensive linemen on almost every play: left tackle, left guard, center, right guard, and right tackle. Teams usually have at least seven offensive linemen on their rosters. Many offensive linemen can play several of the positions.

Tackles tend to be bigger to defend against defenders coming from the edge of the offensive line. Guards tend to be more athletic so they can block defenders from different angles. The center snaps (hands) the ball through his legs to the quarterback. Centers tend to be the smallest of the offensive linemen. Still, they are all BIG.

The 379 offensive linemen in the NFL at the beginning of the 2021-2022 season will be 6’1” to 6’9” and between 274 and 380 pounds. 26% were selected in the first two rounds of the draft and 31% were undrafted. Their average age will be 26.1 with 4.1 years of experience. Their median base salary will be $952,624, top base salary will be $18,036,000, and top total salary will be $32,267,647.

Running Backs

Running backs usually line up behind the quarterback (or next to him when he is in the shotgun). They have three jobs:

  • Run the ball when the quarterback hands it to them
  • Catch passes thrown by the quarterback
  • Block defenders trying to tackle the quarterback.

Most young running backs can do the first two things acceptably well but blocking for the quarterback is tougher. Most running backs are smaller than the defenders they have to block and they don’t know what direction the defender might be coming from. The two reasons running backs are most likely to be cut from a roster are their tendency to fumble the ball and their inability to block effectively.

Running backs are either halfbacks or fullbacks. Halfbacks tend to be smaller, faster, and more agile. They usually run the ball or catch passes but they do block. Fullbacks tend to be bigger. They usually block for the quarterback or the halfback but may run or catch passes. Teams typically carry four running backs on their rosters, only one of which would be a fullback.

The 179 running backs in the NFL in 2021 will be 5’6” to 6’6” and between 171 and 255 pounds (not including a 6’3”. 311 pound fullback, a former defensive lineman, who is on the roster of the Baltimore Ravens). Only 15% of running backs were selected in the first two rounds of the draft and 40% were undrafted. Their average age will be 24.9 with 3.5 years of experience. Their median base salary will be $920,000, top base salary will be $10,500,000, and top total salary will be $14,214,705.

Tight Ends

Tight ends are a cross between offensive linemen and wide receivers. They usually line up on the offensive line outside the tackles but may be used as a fullback in the backfield. They block defensive players on running plays and run routes on passing plays. Most tight ends specialize in one skill or the other, being known as either blocking tight ends or receiving tight ends. Blocking tight ends tend to be bigger but not as big as offensive linemen. Receiving tight ends are faster and more athletic, and attract more media attention and higher salaries, like wide receivers. Teams typically carry three tight ends on their rosters.

The 159 tight ends in the NFL in 2021 will be 6’1” to 6’8” and between 210 and 281 pounds. Only 14% were selected in the first two rounds of the draft and 45% were undrafted. Their average age will be 25.8 with 3.9 years of experience. Their median base salary will be $990,000, top base salary will be $8,500,000, and top total salary will be $21,954,904.

Wide Receivers

Wide receivers tend to be the most flamboyant of NFL players, both on the field and in the media. Their job is to run established pass routes, eluding defensive backs in the process, and catch passes thrown by the quarterback. The best wide receivers drop the fewest passes and run for the most yardage after catches. Teams usually carry at least five wide receivers on their rosters.

The 267 wide receivers in the NFL in 2021 will be 5’6” to 6’6” and between 153 and 238 pounds. 26% were selected in the first two rounds of the draft and 37% were undrafted. Their average age will be 25.1 with 3.7 years of experience. Their median base salary will be $1,000,000, top base salary will be $21,000,000, and top total salary will be $27,250,000.

Defensive Linemen

Defensive linemen line up across the line of scrimmage from the offensive line. There are usually two defensive ends and one or two defensive tackles inside the ends. Their jobs are to:

  • Tackle running backs on running plays
  • Rush the quarterback on passing plays.

Teams may carry eight defensive linemen on their rosters primarily because the position is so physically demanding that players have to be rotated in and out of the game.

The 340 defensive linemen in the NFL in 2021 will be 5’11” to 6’8” and between 230 and 366 pounds. 27% were selected in the first two rounds of the draft and 25% were undrafted. Their average age will be 25.8 with 4.0 years of experience. Their median base salary will be $990,000, top base salary will be $18,500,000, and top total salary will be $31,142,235.

Linebackers

Linebackers are positioned behind the defensive line. Their jobs are to:

  • Tackle any runners that the defensive line doesn’t tackle
  • Defend against running backs and tight ends who run pass routes
  • Sack the quarterback in the backfield (on some plays).

There will be three linebackers if there are four defensive linemen (called a 4-3) or four linebackers if there are three defensive linemen (called a 3-4). Teams predominantly align in either a 4-3 or a 3-4, not both, because they require different personnel.

The 288 linebackers in the NFL in 2021 will be 5’11” to 6’7” and between 209 and 285 pounds. 23% were selected in the first two rounds of the draft and 28% were undrafted. Their average age will be 25.3 with 3.7 years of experience. Their median base salary will be $920,000, top base salary will be $17,500,000, and top total salary will be $23,384,000.

Defensive Backs

Defensive backs are slightly smaller in size than wide receivers. Their job is to prevent wide receivers from catching passes. They may line up anywhere in the defensive backfield depending on where the wide receivers line up. Cornerbacks are defensive backs who play closer to the line of scrimmage. Safeties are defensive backs who play farther from the line of scrimmage. (This is a gross oversimplification because of the complexity of defensive alignments.) Teams usually carry about seven defensive backs.

The 412 defensive backs in the NFL in 2021 will be 5’8” to 6’4” and between 159 and 221 pounds. 25% were selected in the first two rounds of the draft and 31% were undrafted. Their average age will be 25.2 with 3.8 years of experience. Their median base salary will be $920,000, top base salary will be $14,750,000, and top total salary will be $21,000,000.

Special Teamers

The three types of specialists on a Special Team are kickers, punters, and long snappers. Teams carry one of each. All the other players are part-timers who also play other positions on the football team. Kickers are responsible for kicking the ball off of the ground. They either kick the ball being held by a holder through the uprights to score a 3-point field goal or an extra point, or they kick from a tee to the other team after a score. Punters kick the ball out of their hands to the other team at a change in possession. Of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

Special teamers are never stars. Kickers often score most of a team’s points, but one bad game and they might be replaced. Punters can get replaced for a single kick that is too short, too long, or sent to the wrong part of the field. They’re considered replaceable, like everybody has that kind of leg strength and control. Long snappers are, for the most part, anonymous.

The 95 punters and kickers in the NFL (on 9/1/2021, guaranteed to change by the end of the season) will be 5’8” to 6’5” and between 164 and 255 pounds. None were selected in the first two rounds of the draft and 66% were not drafted at all. (It’s probably not true that they aren’t allowed in the team’s locker room and have to change in their cars in the stadium parking lot.) Their average age will be 28.1 with 5.8 years of experience. Their median base salary will be $905,296, top base salary will be $3,750,000, and top total salary will be $7,500,000.

Position Match-Ups

Football is a game of personnel match-ups that make rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock look simplistic. Who should a defense have cover a tight end running a pass route, a linebacker who’s slower but similar in size or a defensive back who is faster but smaller? It’s incredibly complicated, which is why even the coaches make large salaries.

Consider the match-ups on the line-of-scrimmage, the irresistible force of the defensive lineman attacking the immovable object of the offensive linemen. There are 10% more offensive linemen in the league than there are defensive linemen. Many of those players are undrafted. Furthermore, offensive linemen tend to be bigger than defensive linemen. These trends may be because the skills needed for a good defensive lineman are more instinctual. The skills needed by offensive linemen, things like leverage and footwork, have to be taught. If teams can’t find an appropriate candidate for the offensive line in the draft, they’ll sign smart, large-framed athletes and try to train them for the position. This match-up is often trained finesse versus innate power.

Another key match-up in football is between wide receivers and defensive backs. Some experts claim that a good wide receiver will usually beat a good defensive back. This may be true in part because the receiver knows where he is going to run, the defender has to guess. As a consequence, receivers tend to be bigger to overpower pursuing defenders. Defensive backs have to be quick, agile, and fast to keep up with the receivers. Again, the skills needed by the defensemen are more innate. A receiver can be taught route-running skills. That’s why there are 50% more defensive backs than receivers. They either have sufficient skills or they don’t. Good defensive backs are keepers; inadequate defensive backs are replaced. Talented but raw receivers can be coached. If they turn out to be good, they’ll make 30% more money than their opponent.

If you have only a passing familiarity with American football, you might think it’s mostly about the size and the physicality of the players, but there is much more. It starts with the General Manager who decides how much to pay each player to keep them on the team and the team under the league salary cap. The coaches decide which players to keep on the roster to fill all the positions. They and their staffs train the players for their roles, both general football skills and game-specific strategies and plays. On gameday, the coaches manage the execution of their game plans for defeating their opponents.

All you might think you see at a football game is a bunch of big guys banging into each other. What you may not think about are all the business guys in suits in the stadium’s luxury suites and all the coaches and their staffs in sweat-suits on the sidelines. You may focus on the veteran quarterback but it might be an interception by a rookie defensive back that turns the game around. It may be a fumble by the star running back that gets recovered by an undrafted linebacker who makes a fraction of the star’s salary. It might be a 5’10” 180 pound kicker who makes the winning score one week and then misses a kick three weeks later and gets cut.

It’s all that diversity and complexity that makes me love American football, even when my team loses.

Sources

Data sources used in this analysis include: lineups.com; spotrac.com; statista.com; sportsaspire.com; careertrend.com; and bleacherreport.com.

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