Understanding the physical requirements to play American football

Patrick Willis Fat Loss
Matt Vincent

American Football is an incredibly physical sport. At any moment in the game, players are crashing into each other at high speeds, fighting and wrestling for superiority. The game is frantic, fast paced and to the untrained eye nothing short of chaotic. However, as physical as the sport is, it may be surprising to find out that you don’t need to be a particularly physical person to play the game. In fact, you don’t even need to be in shape.

In order to prove that to you, let’s take a look at the physicality of a number of players from the world’s most successful American Football league, the National Football League in the United States.

Of course, as with any sport at its highest level, the NFL is filled with supremely athletic individuals. Adrian Peterson, running back for the Minnesota Vikings, is 6 feet and 1 inch tall (1.85m) and weighs 217 lb (98 kg). From a standing position, he can jump 38.5 inches vertically and 10 feet 7 inches horizontally. If you led two average sized women head to toe he could clear both of them with relative ease.

Vikings running back Adrian Peterson utilises a devastating combination of speed and power that makes him one of the most physical sportsmen in the world

Vikings running back Adrian Peterson utilises a devastating combination of speed and power that makes him one of the most physical sportsmen in the world

The NFL is filled with people with athleticism like Peterson. Calvin Johnson, wide receiver for the Detroit Lions, is even faster and stronger and more explosive than Adrian Peterson. He stands at 6 feet 5 inches tall (1.96m), weighs 239 lb (107kg) and can run 100m in just over 10 seconds.

While that kind of athleticism would obviously give you a huge advantage in a sport as physical as American football, it is not essential to play the game. You don’t have to look like Hercules to be successful on the grid-iron. One of the best qualities the sport has to offer is that it is a sport that caters to a lot of different types of athleticism.

If you turn on an American football game on a Sunday afternoon, you will see a real variety of physical appearances among the players. It is, in a way, a bit like Rugby; there are positions dependent on strength and power, and others dependent on speed. American football is a more exaggerated version of this.Take, for example, Trindon Holliday and Terrence Cody. Holliday is a wide receiver and kick returner for the Denver Broncos. He is only 5 feet 5 inches tall, and when he stands on the field he truly looks like a boy among men.

Despite this, Holliday is one of the most dangerous players in the National Football League. He is extremely fast (he can run the 100m in 9.98 seconds, which would have been fast enough to qualify him for the 100m final in London last year), and because of his small stature he is actually very difficult for larger men to try and tackle.

Terrence Cody

Cody, on the other hand, carries the nickname “Mount Cody” for good reason. When he takes to the field, he makes a regular sized man look like they’re the same size as Holliday. He truly is a mountain of a man, standing 6 feet 4 inches (1.93m) tall and weighing a staggering 340 lb (154kg). Cody is slow and fat, and wouldn’t be confused as an athlete in most societies in the world. But he is exactly what he needs to be for his position on the defensive line; a huge mass of a man who is very difficult to move.

There are even positions in American football that don’t necessarily require any athleticism at all. The quarterback position, the most important in the game, is one of those. Whilst athleticism can be useful to a quarterback, especially in amateur versions of the game, the only thing that is truly a necessity from a physical standpoint is an ability to throw a football with some power and accuracy.

In fact, some of the most revered men in American football history are quarterbacks with no obvious physical talent. Tom Brady, quarterback for the New England Patriots and a three time Super Bowl winner, was berated coming out of college for his lack of physical gifts. He was described as a “skinny quarterback who didn’t run well“.

One scout made more detailed observations, stating that Brady was “Poor build. Very skinny and narrow… Looks a little frail and lacks great physical stature and strength… Lacks mobility and ability to avoid the rush. Lacks a really strong arm…is not what you’re looking for in terms of physical stature, strength, arm strength and mobility.”

Tom Brady's combine photo reveals what most already knew at the time; the quarterback lacked any definable physicality

Tom Brady’s combine photo reveals what most already knew at the time; the quarterback lacked any definable physicality

The observations were all true. Brady did look skinny and he did lack physical strength and mobility. His stats from the NFL Scouting Combine prove that. Brady carried those limitations with him for his entire career, but despite that he is regarded by many as the greatest quarterback in the history of the NFL.

So the answer to the question “what physique do you need to play American football?” is that there is no particular physique required. You don’t have to have muscles like a Greek god to be able to play the game.

Having said that, you do need to be good at something. This is a sport after all. If you are slow but can throw a ball well then there is a position for you. If you are overweight but strong then there is a position for you. If you are small but fast, there is a position for you. Heck, even if you aren’t strong, big or fast there is still a position for you if you can kick a ball 50 yards.

If you want to know what position you would be best suited for, here is a guide to what types of physicality are required for each position in American football.

Quarterback – This position is played as much with the mind as with the body. The only crucial physical attribute is that he can throw the football well, either with accuracy or power. Ideally, he is tall with big hands and strong shoulders, and at least some speed or mobility.

Running back – The running back position is one of the most physical on the field. He gets hit hard every single time he touches the football, so he will need to be physically strong enough to take a beating. His primary purpose is to avoid being tackled, which means he probably has very quick feet. However, while speed is important for a running back he doesn’t need to be quite as quick as say a cornerback or wide receiver. A lot of successful running backs get by with strength and size, bulldozing over defenders rather than running around them.

Full Back – A full back is a bigger version of a running back. His primary job is to block for the running back behind him and so he is stronger and heavier than a typical running back but still possesses enough speed to be able to run with the football himself.

Wide receiver– Besides the obvious point that they need to be able to catch the football, wide receivers need to be fast. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to have terrific straight line speed, however. Breaking it down to a basic level, there are two kinds of “fast” in American football; speed and quickness.

Speed is straight line speed, meaning the ability to line up one on one against another man and beat him in a foot race. Quickness means being very quick in a short space, using fast feet and good body control to break away from defenders and create enough space to become open. You need at least one of these qualities to be successful at the position, and the very best can do both.

Tight end – A tight end is either a good blocker or a good receiver, which means he is either a bigger version of a wide receiver or a smaller version of an offensive lineman. Therefore, the physicality of both offensive linemen and wide receivers applies to tight ends; they are expected to be strong and big enough to block but have enough mobility to get open down-field to catch passes. A lot of tight ends are unusually tall, making themselves a big target for their quarterback. The best tight ends are often the most physically impressive players on the field.

Offensive line – Offensive linemen have one job – block. On every single play an offensive lineman will be expected to crash into a very large defender who is trying to get around him, and have enough strength to make sure that doesn’t happen. Therefore, size and strength are absolutely paramount to this position, while speed is less useful.

Having said that, as offensive linemen are often expected to perform elaborate blocking schemes which require quick, precise movements in a short space, quick feet is a valuable trait. If you are bigger than most of your friends but still quite light on your feet, you might be well suited to the offensive line.

Defensive line – Faced with the task of facing big offensive linemen on every play, defensive linemen have to be just as big and strong as their counterparts. Most defensive linemen carry a little bit of extra fat around the midsection, and have powerful legs to anchor against the force of offensive linemen trying to push them backwards. If you are a big man with strong legs who can hold his ground against a big push, a life on the interior defensive line might be for you.

Pass rusher (Defensive End/Outside Linebacker) – Pass rushers can take a number of different shapes and sizes. The pass rusher’s job is to line up on the outside of the defensive line and try and beat the offensive line to get to the quarterback. There are different ways of doing that.

Some pass rushers weigh almost as much as defensive linemen, and use their sheer power to overwhelm blockers. Others rely on being quicker than their counter parts, using speed and agility to beat their blocker. These “speed rushers” still need a lot of strength to engage in the hand to hand fights they will encounter, but are built more like tight ends than defensive linemen. They need to be explosive out of their stance like a sprinter, and have the mobility and body control to bend at very low angles to avoid blocks.

Linebacker – Linebackers have a similar sort of physicality to tight ends, due to the fact that their position is somewhat of a hybrid between the defensive line and the defensive backs. Linebackers are in a position which requires the versatility to attack blocking offensive linemen, make tackles on running backs and cover tight ends or running backs on passing downs. This means they need to be strong and fast in equal measure, powerful enough to fight off offensive linemen and take down onrushing running backs, but fast enough to run with tight ends and running backs in space.

Cornerback – Cornerbacks are often the fastest men on the field, as it is their job to run with the wide receivers and prevent them from making catches. There is no hiding a lack of physicality at cornerback. You absolutely have to be fast, both in short spaces and in a straight line, and you have to be able to jump well. If you aren’t fast enough to keep up with the wide receivers, you can’t play the position. Size, however, is not a pre-requisite for a cornerback as they are not often called upon to make tackles against running backs or take on blocks by offensive linemen. While cornerbacks are often the fastest men on the field, they also tend to be the smallest.

Safety – Safety is one of the most physical positions you can play in American football. While you do not have to be quite as fast as a cornerback, you still need to have enough speed to at least compete with wide receivers. Safeties also need to be a little bigger than cornerbacks, as they roam the center of the field and come into contact with running backs and offensive linemen much more frequently. The very best safeties are able to tackle like linebackers and cover like cornerbacks.

Placekicker/Punter– The kicker’s job is to kick. It’s that simple. While at the professional level kickers are well conditioned athletes, most of the time they don’t even compare to the athleticism of their teammates. All you really need to do to be a successful kicker is to have a strong and accurate leg. This is a popular position for soccer players transitioning into American football who don’t quite have the athleticism or size to fit into any other position.

Edited by Staff Editor


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