Best of Fundamentals: 53-man Roster

summer break, sky, football, roster

Originally posted here on February 18, 2013

We’re going to start with the one thing you need to play a football game, other than a football:

A team.

There are 53 men on each NFL team. Clearly, they don’t all play at the same time. Here’s the breakdown:

football, basics, roster


So each week, 46 men dress to take the field. Those are the “active” players. The 7 players on the practice squad (also called the scout team) are “inactive” players – they are still on the roster, but they aren’t allowed to enter the game.

We know that even though a team might have 3 tight ends, 4 running backs, and 5 wide receivers on their active roster that not all of them are going to be on the field at the same time. Not only would that be a massacre waiting to happen (the offensive line does more than just protect the quarterback), it would also be illegal: each team can only have 11 men on the field at one time. Is the offense on the field? There can only be 11 guys out there. Defense? Same story. Special teams? Nothing special here: there are still only 11 men allowed on the field

from each team at one time.

So why are there so many men on the roster? If each unit only fields 11 players (and the special teams unit doesn’t even have it’s own specific set of players other than the 3 shown on the diagram), why are there 46 guys on the active roster?

Reason #1: Injuries. If one guy gets injured (and over the course of the season, pretty much every guy is getting injured), he’ll need a replacement. One of the second or third or fourth string guys will take the field to replace him.

Reason #2: Formations. Remember when we talked about personnel groups? And whenwe talked about defense before the Super Bowl? Teams utilize different players in different formations depending on the game plan they have in place. Maybe the offense sees that the other team’s defense is showing a weakness in the secondary so they want to try a passing play. They might field 10 personnel – 1 running back, 0 tight ends, and 4 wide receivers – to give the offense the best chance possible of gaining yardage on a long pass. Or maybe the defense, seeing that the other team’s offense is successfully converting on passing plays, wants to substitute in more defensive backs in either a nickel (5 DB’s) or a dime (6 DB’s) package to defend against the pass. Using different formations is an essential way that a team keeps the other team on it’s toes, guessing what they’re going to do.

If 53 men on the roster seems like a lot, remember that teams are allowed to bring 90 players into training camp. 90 players! So nearly half of those players get cut and keep training for their next opportunity. Being the coach who makes those cuts is a tough gig.

SO: 53 guys on a team. 46 active. 7 on the practice squad, or inactive. 11 on the field at one time.

Got it?

For more about who’s on the field, check out these posts:

The Basics : The Players

The Basics of Offense

The Basics of Defense

The Basics of Special Teams

Author: Beka

One thought on “Best of Fundamentals: 53-man Roster”

  1. This isn’t quite correct. A team consists of 53 players, 46 of whom are designated “active” for each game. This, sort of, levels the game for a team who has several injured players. That team can designate the injured players as “inactive,” and still end up with the same number of players (46) eligible to play as a team which doesn’t have any injured players.

    Who else make up the inactives? Players who aren’t as good as the others. For instance, third string quarterbacks are often on the inactive list. Usually they are not needed for a game. What happens if the first string and second string quarterbacks were injured in a game? Could an “inactive” third string quarterback step in? No. He isn’t allowed to play. A player who usually doesn’t play quarterback would have to step in.

    The inactive list can change each week. So if a first string quarterback were slightly injured, he might be placed on the inactive list for the next week while he was healing, while the third string quarterback might placed on the active list.

    Players on the inactive list are paid, just like active players.

    The practice squad is different from the inactive list. The practice squad consists (in 2015) of up to ten players. The NFL has very specific rules about who can play on a practice squad. Generally these players are younger players who aren’t yet good enough to make the regular team. They can practice with the regular team, but cannot play in games unless called up to the regular team. Also, other teams can sign practice squad players to their regular teams at any time. (but not to another practice squad). Practice squad players are generally paid significantly less than regular team members.

    Note that there is another category of injured players who are so badly hurt that they can’t play for the rest of the season. The team designates them as injured/reserve. Even if these players miraculously get better, they aren’t allowed to play until the next season. They don’t count against the 53 man roster, and they cannot be signed by another team – but they do get paid. There is no limit to the number of players on the IR list.

    And there is yet another type of injured player called an “injured reserve/designated to return.” A team can designate only one player as “injured reserve/designated to return.” This player does not count against the 53 man roster. However, if he gets better, he can play that season, as long as he has sat out at least 8 weeks after he was put on the IR list.

Comments are closed.