This article reviews the breakdown by position of the number of players on an NFL roster.
We also discuss how many are dressed for a game and the numbers that take to the field at the same time.
Depending on the coaches and strategies, the numbers will vary slightly across different NFL franchises. They will even vary within a franchise during the season.
But in general, there is consistency in how teams finalize their roster and put teams out onto the field.
How Many Players Are On An NFL Team?
NFL teams are allowed to have 53 players on their roster.
46 players can be dressed to play in a single game.
Players can rotate in and out, but only 11 players can be on the field at the same time.
The table below summarizes a typical roster. It shows typical numbers by:
- position in the roster
- dressed out for the game
- on the field of play
|Offense||Wide Receivers||6||5||3 or 2|
|Offense||Running Backs||4||4||1 or 2|
|Offense||Tight Ends||3||3||2 or 1|
|Defense||Defensive Linemen||9||8||4 or 3|
|Defense||Linebackers||7||7||3 or 4|
This format won’t be followed by every team every year.
Some franchises like to keep three quarterbacks on their books. If there are injury concerns over a great kicker, the coach may want to have a backup on the roster.
Some teams like to run a 4-3 defense format, which means four linemen and three linebackers on the field. Others prefer to switch that formation to a 3-4.
Let’s look at some specific questions that are often asked about football.
How Many Quarterbacks Are In An NFL Roster?
NFL teams need a starting and a backup quarterback at a minimum on their roster. Some stick to the minimum and retain just two per season.
In the 2020 season, twenty of the 32 teams had three quarterbacks on their roster.
The third QB is often a development player that is probably not quite ready for a big game. However, he’s a break-glass option in the case of injury to the first two picks.
Teams that have an aging or injury-prone quarterback or more likely to carry a third quarterback as a necessary expense.
However, sometimes it can be a good tactical choice. Carolina had a third quarterback in recent seasons who also played on a special team as a kick returner. That’s putting every cent to use!
How Many Quarterbacks Are On The Field At Once?
Most NFL teams play one quarterback on the field, but there is no official restriction on fielding more quarterbacks in other positions.
Some teams may opt to put their second quarterback on the field as a wide receiver. The New Orleans Saints and the New York Jets are just two franchises that have done so in recent years.
Playing two quarterbacks is more common in college football, particularly when the squad has one good running QB and another with a great pass.
This makes it difficult for the defense to predict the attacking play.
How Many Wide Receivers Are On A Team?
There are usually six wide receivers on an NFL team roster.
But this can vary. Green Bay has carried seven on their roster and Houston has had five in a season.
How many wide receivers are on the field at once?
In recent years, coaches have most frequently played three wide receivers on the field.
The dominant offensive positioning has been three receivers, a tight end, and a running back. This is known as the “11” personnel (i.e. one running back and one tight end).
This is a marked change in tactics. Up until fairly recently, two wide receivers were the norm, alongside two running backs (i.e. the “21” personnel).
How many wide receivers are dressed?
If the coach is fielding three wide receivers, he will want five dressed for the game.
One may also be utilized in a special team as a returner.
NFL teams will seldom dress six wide receivers. This leaves the sixth man on the roster kicking his heels! This position usually goes to a development player.
How Many Tight Ends Are On A Team?
NFL teams usually have three tight ends on their roster and will dress three for a game.
The second and third tight ends on the roster often play a role in a special team.
It’s rare for teams to play three TEs on the field at once, although it can happen in a goalline situation.
There are usually two tight ends on the field of play.
Ever heard of a QB playing TE? And vice versa?
And by the way, it’s not unheard of for a quarterback to play tight end!
Detroit Lions drafted a college quarterback named Logan Thomas. He eventually switched position to play tight end.
When the Lions were hit by injuries to multiple QBs, they listed Thomas again as an emergency quarterback!
How Many Offensive Linemen Are On A Team?
Most NFL teams have nine offensive linemen on the roster.
The standard attacking formation has five offensive linemen on the field at the line of scrimmage.
This picture shows the typical formation in an overhead shot:
How Many Linebackers Are On A Team?
NFL teams usually keep at least seven linebackers on their roster.
Depending on the defensive formation, they will field either three or four linebackers.
This diagram shows a 4-3 formation with three linebackers on the field:
Despite there only being three or four linebackers in these defensive formations, teams usually dress seven for a game.
It’s not because the position is more injury-prone than others. It’s because linebackers usually double up their role with contributions to special teams.
Even the first-choice linebacker usually contributes.
How Many Running Backs Are On A Team?
NFL teams usually keep four tight ends on their roster. However, they will only field one or two in an offensive formation.
The reason for doubling the roster is that the position is notorious for being injury-prone.
In a 2015 study, running backs had the highest injury rates across all positions. To be fair, tight ends weren’t far behind.
This means that coaches will usually dress all four for a game.
Due to their speed, running backs will usually contribute to a special team.
How Many Defensive Linemen Are On A Team?
NFL teams usually have nine defensive linemen on their roster.
Take another look at our diagram in the section on linebackers. In the sample 4-3 formation, there are four defensive linemen on the field.
Coaches like to have dress double the number on their roster. In other words, they will dress eight linemen and play four for a 4-3 formation.
If the coaching strategy prefers a 3-4 formation, then the team will probably give up a lineman position and have an extra player elsewhere.
How Many Defensive Backs Are On A Team?
NFL teams usually have ten defensive backs on their roster, which is more than any other position.
The diagram below shows how the backs typically line out in the third line of defense.
There are four defensive backs on the field at once (two safeties and two cornerbacks).
Depending on the defense strategy, between six and eight backs are typically dressed for a game.
The backup safeties are usually part of the special teams.