Whose job is the toughest? We rate the hardest and easiest positions to play in the NFL
WE HEAR IT TIME AND again: Rookies can’t start at quarterback in the NFL. If they do start, the thinking goes, they are assured of struggling. Even Peyton Manning was mediocre in his first pro season.
OK, so we accept that bit of expertise. But what about the other positions (excluding special teams, which usually are manned by youngsters everywhere except for the actual guys who do the kicking)? We got to thinking about which positions are the most difficult to play in the NFL And which are the easiest. Where do you need more brainpower? More brawn? Where can players become easily confused and where can they develop the quickest?
Here’s a look at each position, listed in order of the most difficult to the easiest to play:
Yes, it not only is the most visible position on the field, played under the most glaring of spotlights, but it also is more difficult to master than any other spot on the offensive side.
Start with the basic physical requirements these days to be a quarterback: height, arm strength, good legs. Although there are many starters who aren’t skyscrapers the way Byron Leftwich, Manning and Daunte Culpepper are, a player under six feet has almost no chance nowadays of being a pro quarterback. Doug Flutie wouldn’t even get a look anymore, not that he got a fair one back in the ’80s.
Then there is the mental preparation, which Manning says takes up more time than anything. “There can be hundreds of plays to learn and all kinds of variations on those plays,” he says. “Different personnel packages for each formation, too. And then deciding whether the play we called is the right one for the defense we get. It’s not just watching film and practicing the things in our playbook and in the game plan. It’s mentally knowing which plays fit which situations, picking those plays and then executing them.”
Manning isn’t complaining, though. He relishes the challenge of lining up under center each Sunday. “I love the preparation and the approach you need to be a quarterback,” he says. “That’s a favorite thing for me, the preparation. There’s nothing like being out there on Sundays playing the game, but the way we build up and plan for the games is just as important and very challenging.” Then he adds with a chuckle, “Besides, do you see me playing tight end or linebacker?” Manning wouldn’t be able to do that, but Leftwich and Culpepper probably could.
There are other factors that make quarterback the toughest offensive position to master.
* QBs handle the ball on every snap, with the rare exception of the trick play.
* They are the focal point of the game for fans, television commentators who sometimes don’t recognize there are other players on the field, and, naturally, the opponent Indeed, they have targets on them whenever they drop back to pass.
* They generally are the highest-paid players on each roster.
* They’re expected to be leaders. In fact, they must be leaders.
Physically, there probably isn’t a more demanding position. Most of the time, a 300-plus-pound behemoth is breathing all over you as you get ready to snap the ball. And he wants to tear off your head on his way to that ball. He’s physically capable of doing so, too.
A center not only is confronted with that, but he also must determine if blocking assignments need to change before he snaps the ball. In addition, he has to get the ball cleanly to the quarterback–which isn’t as easy as most people think–and do so on the correct snap count. Only then does he get into the gladiatorial battle of neutralizing a Ted Washington or a Kris Jenkins.
The left side generally is harder of the two tackle spots because the better pass-rushers tend to be fight defensive ends. And most QBs are fight-handed, so the left tackle protects the passer’s blind side.
Tackles also must be versatile enough to block quick outside linebackers, particularly on sweeps or on blitzes that call for adjustments in blocking schemes. And what about when ends and tackles stunt during their rushes? Suddenly, a Jon Ogden or an Orlando Pace is dealing with one of those inside monsters. Even worse, many teams now have designated pass-rushing ends who come onto the field on passing downs. They are more rested than the poor lineman who has been in for each snap and has been worn down by the trench warfare.
“There’s not a lot of glory in this position,” says Pace, who has plied his craft for the St. Louis Rams since 1997. “But I know my teammates and coaches appreciate it when I do the job.”
For a while in the early 1990s, this position had lost its luster. Many teams used glorified tackles as blocking machines and rarely looked to throw to the tight end. Only the West Coast offense truly featured the position.
Not anymore. To get on the field these days, a tight end must combine blocking and receiving, although few really excel at both facets of the game. Jeremy Shockey won’t ever be a great blocker, but he’s a superb receiver. So you don’t ask him to do too much blocking, but you expect him to catch the ball, run with it, and get into the endzone.
The difficulty of playing tight end in the NFL centers on the need to read defenses and find the open spots, particularly in cover-two zones. A tight end must be on the same wavelength as his quarterback–Manning and Marcus Pollard are a good example of players who have an outstanding rapport–and has to see exactly what the QB is seeing before and during a play. And then, of course, there is the blocking.
Depending on the scheme, wideout can be either simple or complex to play. Much depends on the depth of the playbook and the number of reads a receiver must make. In some offenses, the majority of routes have breakoffs and adjustments, requiring pass-catchers to think while they run. In others, a pattern is just a pattern.
Some offensive coordinators prefer timing routes, in which the ball is thrown to a spot and the receiver must get there or the ball is airborne before the receiver turns to see it. Still, with the exception of the two-minute drills and having to stretch out for receptions, particularly over the middle, the wideout’s job is not as difficult as other offensive spots.
Former defensive lineman Mike Golic claims “you can pull a guy off the street and plunk him at guard.” While the position isn’t that simple, the main requirements are girth, strength, and a nasty streak.
Much like his opposite number at center, the middle linebacker has a lot to think about a play even before it begins. For one, if he is the signalcaller on defense–and most middle linebacker are–he needs to be sure the right people are on the field for whatever alignment is called. Then he must be certain they are positioned correctly on the field.
After that, the man in the middle often is the premier tackler on the squad, so defensive schemes are designed for him to find the ball and stop the guy carrying it. From Ray Lewis to Al Wilson to Brian Urlacher, is there really any question about the tackling skills of middle linebackers? Or their abilities in pursuit?
“Ray is the guy everyone who plays defense wants to be like,” says cornerback Chris McAlister, who is Lewis’ teammate on the Baltimore Ravens. “If you can play like Ray, there’s no stopping you.”
Some middle linebackers come out of the game on passing downs, which makes the position only slightly easier to handle. But the very best–yes, Lewis and Wilson and Urlacher–don’t want any part of missing a play.
Gil Brandt, who is in his fifth decade of analyzing football talent, says it takes two or three years for a defensive tackle to become more than functional in the NFL.
“It’s a difficult position to learn, because of the [gap] responsibilities and the fact every week you go up against much better blockers than you would see in college,” he says. “It takes time.”
Adds New York Jets coach Herman Edwards, whose team took Dewayne Robertson fourth overall in the ’03 draft and then saw him disappoint as a rookie: “Guys can get overwhelmed at that position. There’s a lot going on in there, physically and mentally. We expect the guy to be Warren Sapp after the first year? That’s not fair.”
Defensive tackles also must deal with such weighty issues as, well, weight, something that doesn’t come into play as often elsewhere on defenses. They need to be bulky enough to eat up space, but not so bulky that they can’t move or they are top-heavy and easily blocked.
Speed is essential here. Any cornerback who runs slower than a 4.6 in the 40-yard dash is in trouble. So quickness and shiftiness are required even more than understanding game plans and being physical.
But a cornerback will be a failure if he isn’t well-versed in coverages and the intricacies of zones and man-to-mans and how to deal with slot receivers in a nickel package. Some coordinators even blitz their cornerbacks. A starting cornerback who can’t tackle will see lots of running plays headed his way.
Still, it is not as tough to handle as middle linebacker or tackle. That, of course, doesn’t make the corner simple to play, and it can be the loneliest place on the field. Especially when the cornerback loses a step or so.
The main requirement for this position is versatility. A good safety must be a solid tackler with strong coverage skills and, in particular be quick at recognizing what an offense is attempting to do. Sometimes he’s required to call defensive signals and is the voice of the secondary.
Safeties need to know the entire defensive scheme, even though their jobs don’t necessarily entail a lot of adjustments. They must be dangerous on blitzes, too, in order to keep offenses honest. But speed is not a big-time necessity for a safety, although it helps. And fans tend not to blame safeties for long completions when it appears more obvious that a cornerback was beaten–even when the safety has not lived up to his responsibilities.
Unless the outside linebacker is calling signals for a defense, his job, while hardly easy, does not compare with what the guy in the middle must do. The best outside linebackers learn early that they must be good finishers, confronting the ball-carrier and making the stop. They need to have skills in pass coverage and be able to drop back from the line to shadow tight ends. Stopping running backs can be their most challenging chore.
If they’re talented enough, they also get to rush the passer on a regular basis. Such hybrid players as John Abraham of the Jets and Peter Boulware of the Ravens can make careers out of that aspect of the job. Of course, many outside linebackers are the most athletic players on their teams, so they can be turned loose. There’s no reason to tone down what is asked of a Derrick Brooks or a LaVar Arrington.
For all the talk about finding defensive ends who can stop the run, the main responsibility at this position is to pressure the passer. Knock him down. Sack him. Force him to throw too early or off-balance. That’s the name of the game. If an end can do that, he’s got a job. If he’s able to stymie the run or force opponents to double-team him, that simply is icing on the cake.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Century Publishing
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group