Which position groups could a football team most and least afford to play without?
Ordinarily, this would be a fun offseason subreddit debate. This season, it’s a week-to-week concern for NFL and college coaches. After a positive COVID test and a botched quarantine, the Denver Broncos had to play a game without any quarterbacks, losing to the New Orleans Saints with a practice squad wide receiver under center. A few weeks later, the Saints had to play without their running backs, beating the Carolina Panthers anyway. Several college teams have been forced to cancel games due to being, like, literally out of available linemen. And there are now reports circulating, as Monday’s national title game approaches, that Ohio State “could be without an entire position group due to positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing.”
So let’s take a stab at ranking groups, in reverse order of essential worker status. You will disagree at times, and that is tremendous.
(A note on methodology: Since the Broncos and Saints situations were brought on by players spending time around one another, I’m going by bigger position groupings rather than individual lineup spots. The entire offensive line counts as one group, for example, because everyone on the line watches film together rather than splitting off into subgroups of tackles, guards, and centers.)
Punter, Kicker, and Long Snapper
A hard call right away! These players matter a lot!
But while they’re critical for a few plays each game, that’s the thing: It’s only a few plays each game. You’re obviously going to worry about your kicker if you need a field goal in the final minute, but if you’ve already spent an entire game without, say, a defensive line, you’re probably down by a lot more than just a field goal anyway.
Plus, analytics have long demonstrated that the smarter move is often not to kick. Teams should already go for two more often and attempt more fourth-down conversions, so playing without a punter or kicker could actually help, at least some of the time.
Being without a punter could force offenses to play more conservatively on first and second down, to avoid getting in some horrendous fourth-and-23 situations. But by treating all four downs as offensive snaps, you don’t need as many yards on first or second down anyway. Take a page from the successful Arkansas high school coach who simply never punts. Everyone knows that most great ideas come out of Arkansas.
That’s one way to deal with a depth chart wipeout—just scheme around it entirely. But with some positions, and in some situations, that’s just not possible. Every team needs to put someone at quarterback. And sometimes you need to kick the dang football.
In a must-punt situation, your quarterback can likely handle a pooch kick, another underused tactic. Having your QB punt from a shotgun formation also means your regular center can deliver the snap, avoiding the need to deploy a backup long snapper. To be clear, “backup long snapper” is actually the most horrifying personnel situation of all.
One of this season’s few moments worth treasuring came when Vanderbilt goalkeeper-turned-placekicker Sarah Fuller became the first woman to play in a game between Power Five conference teams, an event made possible by the Vandy football team’s lack of medically cleared kickers. Against Missouri, she delivered a respectable mortar kickoff that nearly gave the Commodores a chance at a recovery. Fuller also went two-for-two on extra point tries, both against Tennessee. But the Commodores got blown out in both games, because 0–9 Vandy’s more crucial position groups are rarely up for the every-down challenge.
Over the past few years, the internet’s NFL fans have spent a lot of time debating whether running backs really even matter. As in, is this the most replacement-level position? Doesn’t much of an RB’s value depend on whether the guys in front of him can block? NFL teams themselves seem to agree with this take to some extent, investing fewer and fewer dollars in the position over the years.
Without really wading into that, it is fair to say that every team surely has a wide receiver or tight end who could handle a few carries. The RB-deprived Saints just handed the ball to Ty Montgomery, a former Stanford receiver and five-year NFL utility guy, and he finished with 105 yards on the ground.
Look elsewhere, too. Maybe you can hand it to a backup quarterback, your Wildcat gimmick player. Surely a few defensive backs or linebackers played RB as teenagers. And now is your chance to put the ball into the hands of a 320-pounder and tremble before the majesty of God’s creation.
Giving everybody a tote or two is probably the easiest way to boost team morale, actually. I think this is what Ted Lasso would do.
Plus, plenty of pass-happy college and high school offenses have demonstrated you can pile up victories without running the ball much at all. Everybody wins!
A similar situation to RBs. But receivers are more valuable for a few reasons.
First, there’s real-world evidence from the past month: the then 10–4 Cleveland Browns had to play without their top four receivers against the 1–13 New York Jets. The Browns lost.
Wideout is actually quite a difficult position, despite what the annual (usually racist) calls for some QB to switch to WR suggest. Most NFL players could carry a handoff for a few yards, given adequate blocking. Anyone who hasn’t played WR is likely not making it off the line of scrimmage against an NFL corner, let alone running an intricate route with proper split-second timing. Catching the ball is also a more demanding skill than merely carrying it.
This group should also include tight ends, who are among football’s most tactically versatile chess pieces. Every team has a few tall, stout, quick guys who are shaped like tight ends, but any team without trained tight ends will have a hard time in both the passing and running games.
(Even if we split TE and WR into different groups, I’d still rank WR ahead of RB. I’d also rank TE ahead of RB. I apologize to running backs everywhere.)
Also, consider the sheer numbers. Playing without RBs means changing one or maybe two positions in most formations. Playing without any receivers could change as many as five spots.
I rank WRs below defenders for one reason: Plenty of college and high school teams have won without really needing to pass. It’d be a huge challenge in the NFL, but not impossible.
Losing a third of the players on any defense sounds alarming. But LBs feel like the easiest deletion to account for.
Many of us still default to thinking of 4–3 and 3–4 as base defenses, of teams trotting out walls of three or four linebackers on every play. But the spread offense revolution has forced defenses to counter with speed, meaning two-linebacker nickel sets became base formations, not situational reactions. Obviously, sending out zero natural linebackers encourages the offense to run up the middle, but defenses are already used to fielding nine or so nonlinebackers at a time. No LBs would be an adjustment, but there are bigger adjustments to come further down this list.
Most teams likely have a smaller defensive end who’s played some linebacker before. And lots of modern college and pro teams use tweener players who can line up as nickelbacks, rover safeties, or middle linebackers. Just have Tyrann Mathieu do everything, basically.
Maybe you can slide a couple of your biggest backup offensive linemen to defense. Maybe a couple outside linebackers can line up with their hands in the dirt. But you’re gonna get run over, and you’re not gonna have much of a pass rush. This sounds like a bad time.
In 2020, leagues and conferences had to go through a version of the exercise we’re undertaking today, declaring exactly which positions are among the most valuable. The SEC announced that any team that found itself without at least one scholarship quarterback, seven scholarship offensive linemen, or four scholarship defensive linemen could opt to reschedule or cancel a game. Those were the only position groups listed.
Why are linemen so special? Because they’re such rare athletes. Almost every football player must have incredibly quick feet and an equally quick mind, but most linemen must also have bodies weighing well over 250 pounds. Very few teams just happen to have stashed a few such anomalies in other position rooms.
It might sound impossible to win a game without a quarterback, but it’s happened.
In 2015, Baylor was fresh out of QBs, so they ran for 645 yards and beat an 11–2 North Carolina team in a bowl game. That’s an extreme example, and most teams would be crazy to hope for anywhere near that total, but still! Find somebody on the roster who can take a snap, and commit wholeheartedly to running the ball.
You might even happen to have a former QB at linebacker, as Maryland did in 2012. The Terps, missing all four quarterbacks, had true freshman Shawn Petty pass 84 times in their final four games. It didn’t go much worse for Maryland than usual—with Petty behind center, they went 0–4, but they lost to UNC by only seven points.
But the University of North Carolina isn’t in the NFL. Didn’t the Broncos just prove this could never work in the pros? Well, maybe. But Denver was terrible on offense even with a QB. And they were facing one of the NFL’s best defenses. And they had only about a day to prepare, not a week of full practices.
Let’s consider the 2006 Carolina Panthers. In a game against the Atlanta Falcons, they essentially had Chris Weinke stop passing at halftime (he threw only seven times for 32 yards all game), then just had running back DeAngelo Williams take direct snaps. The Panthers won. The Miami Dolphins broke out a similar Wildcat offense against the New England Patriots, pulling off one of the most shocking blowout upsets in football history, albeit with some ultimately unnecessary passing.
Winning without a QB would be difficult. But if you apply yourself and are not already as bad as the Broncos, you can pull it off … maybe. Once. If that.
In the modern game, you likely need to spend most of the game with at least five cornerbacks and safeties on the field. Maybe you have a WR who could play some emergency cornerback, like Julian Edelman and Troy Brown did for the Patriots. A small, fast linebacker might be a serviceable safety.
But unless this DB-free team happens to be playing the unquarterbacked Broncos, it’s gonna get lit the hell up.
Losing all of your DBs would also decimate your special teams. Worse than that, actually, since “decimate” technically means losing 10 percent of your personnel. While running backs, linebackers, and receivers also contribute to kick and punt teams, DBs frequently lead in special teams tackles. When someone makes the Pro Bowl as a “special teamer,” there’s a good chance their own team lists them as a DB.
So, this is a horrible situation all around. But it could be worse.
Impossible. You have pre-lost. Get out of here while you still can. Goodbye. You are proposing an insulting contest of anti-football. Beyond farfetched. Abandon all hope. Children mustn’t witness this. Reclassify as a seven-on-seven flag football team, get some exercise in the park, and forfeit this foolish business right this instant.