Football is the ultimate team sport. It’s about a roster of 53 guys coming together each and every week to play as a single unit, owning specific roles in the three phases of the game. Some positions, as you probably know, are more important than others. It’s just the nature of the game, and the reality of sports.
We’ve attempted to outline which positions are most valuable, and which ones teams can live without Pro Bowlers at. The dollar value below represents the average salary of every player at each position, courtesy of Spotrac.
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Long snapper: $773K
The only position less important than the punter is the long snapper – the guy who snaps the punter the ball. Long snappers don’t have the biggest role, considering how infrequently they’re needed, but having the peace of mind that a snap is going to be on target does count for something.
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Punter: $1.5 million
Pat McAfee and Marquette King tried to make punters cool and fun, but for the most part, they’re less important than other positions. Yes, having a guy like Ryan Allen or King is valuable, but if your offense is strong, you shouldn’t need your punter on the field all that often. Pinning a team deep in their own territory does carry some weight, though.
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With teams mostly using three wide receivers in base sets, fullbacks have largely been phased out of the NFL. Some teams, like the Bills and 49ers, still value them, but the majority of coaches typically do without them.
Kyle Juszczyk is the highest-paid fullback in the NFL after signing a four-year, $21 million deal with the 49ers, while Patrick DiMarco is also up there thanks to his free-agent deal.
Kicker: $1.5 million
Having a good kicker doesn’t often make or break a bad team. It does greatly impact a Super Bowl contender’s chances of winning it all. Adam Vinatieri played a huge role in a few of the Patriots’ championships, and without him, there’s no telling how many rings Tom Brady would have.
When your kicker is unreliable and inconsistent, though, it can derail a team’s championship hopes – especially with how close games are on a weekly basis.
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Center: $1.8 million
Centers are often some of the least-valued players in the NFL Draft with the first typically going in the bottom half of the first round, and sometimes in the second. However, they’re the anchors of the line and put their fellow blockers in position to succeed. For instance, a guard needs a solid center in order to pull around on a power run play.
They’re tasked with blocking nose tackles and the bigger defensive linemen, opening up holes for running backs.
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Outside linebacker: $2.6 million
Outside linebackers play different roles in 3-4 and 4-3 defenses, but we’re strictly talking about off-ball players in this instance, not pass rushers. Lavonte David, Thomas Davis, Jamie Collins and Sean Lee are among the best in the league at this position, holding up well in coverage and against the run.
They’re often asked not only to cover tight ends but also set the edge in the running game, forcing backs inside with solid containment. Weak-side linebacker is the more important of the two and often stays on the field on passing downs, but strong-side ‘backers are also valuable.
Offensive guard: $2.0 million
Guards don’t get the same attention as tackles because they aren’t asked to block the game’s best pass rushers. However, they do have to hold their own against 330-pound defensive tackles and blitzing linebackers. That’s no easy task.
Teams are prioritizing guards in today’s NFL with the likes of Kelechi Osemele and Kevin Zeitler resetting the market with massive contracts. Zack Martin is next in line, and is likely to surpass the contracts of both of those players.
Running back: $1.3 million
A few decades ago, running back would have been far higher on the list. Not in today’s NFL where teams throw the ball first and use committees in the backfield. However, the Cowboys and Bills have shown that the running back position isn’t dead because of the impact it can have on an offense.
Ezekiel Elliott is the type of player who can take pressure off the quarterback and make his life easier. Backs who can catch passes out of the backfield like Le’Veon Bell are increasingly important because of how often teams now throw the ball. Teams seem to still be valuing backs based on the fact that three have gone in the top 10 the past two years.
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Tight end: $1.5 million
Tight end is one of the most difficult positions to play in the NFL. It’s a big reason rookies often struggle early before finally grasping the requirements of the position. You have to be able to block edge rushers, catch passes, run routes and open up running lanes in the run game.
The position has changed greatly over the years with guys like Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski and Jordan Reed being receivers first, bringing an added element to the offense that wasn’t necessarily there years ago. Teams are going to more three-wide sets, taking one tight end off the field, but that hasn’t diminished the importance of having a playmaker on the end of the line. You do see teams like the Jets, though, who refuse to use tight ends in the passing game, which does bring into question the value of the position.
Inside linebacker: $1.8 million
The role of the inside linebacker – or middle linebacker – differs based on whether a team runs a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme, but their importance is mostly the same. They’re often in charge of calling plays on defense, patrolling the middle of the field both against the pass and the run. The premier middle linebacker in today’s NFL is Luke Kuechly, though Bobby Wagner is also an outstanding player, too.
Inside linebackers are no longer just run-and-hit players. They have to hold up in coverage and fill lanes in the running game before the back can get through them. It’s a demanding position because of the skill set you have to possess to succeed there.
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Defensive tackle: $1.8 million
Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy and Fletcher Cox have become dominant players for their respective teams, and it’s a big reason they’re among the highest-paid players at their position. Defensive tackles have become so much more than just run-stuffers, needing to generate pressure up front, as well.
Sure, there are players who are geared more toward stopping the run – those are 1-techniques – but defenses often feature players who can play multiple spots on the line. By eating up blocks, they can open up more one-on-one opportunities for edge rushers.
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Safety: $1.6 million
Safeties are the last line of defense – the farthest players from the ball at the snap. Yet, as time goes on, their value goes up. Tight ends are bigger and better receivers than ever before, which means the defense needs a guy who can match up physically in coverage.
On the other hand, free safeties in the middle of the field are equally important. Earl Thomas has become the type of player every team desires at free safety, ranging sideline to sideline picking off and knocking down passes. Safeties have to be versatile and great athletes as teams look for more interchangeable players on the back end.
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Wide receiver: $1.6 million
Wide receivers are sometimes labeled as divas or ball hogs who get upset when passes don’t come their way. That’s hardly the case, and they’re more important now than ever before. The prototypical receiver has become bigger, faster and more precise in route running, exemplified by a guy like Julio Jones or A.J. Green.
There are also smaller receivers like Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr., who win with quickness, speed and the ability to get open with ease. Regardless of which type your team has as its No. 1 receiver, it’s a very important position despite the false stereotypes that come with being a wideout.
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Cornerback: $1.8 million
With the way teams rely heavily on the pass, the value of cornerbacks has gone way up. Having a Richard Sherman-type corner, or a Patrick Peterson can drastically help a defense when it comes to limiting teams through the air. Players of that caliber can line up across from No. 1 receivers and force the quarterback to go elsewhere with the ball.
And with teams shifting more toward nickel defenses as the base formation, having three cornerbacks is almost a necessity. The game has changed over the years and it’s done wonders financially for those playing the cornerback position.
Offensive tackle: $2.0 million
In today’s NFL, with the number of dynamic and freakishly athletic defensive ends there are, right tackles are becoming increasingly valuable. You often see guys like Von Miller and Vic Beasley rushing off the left side of the defense, setting up one-on-one matchups with right tackles.
Left tackle is obviously one of the premier positions in the NFL with Tyron Smith, Joe Thomas and Trent Williams among the best, but the value of right tackles is being driven up, particularly in the salary cap department. Teams are paying big money for right tackles, as we’ve seen with Lane Johnson and Mitchell Schwartz.
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Pass rusher: $2.3 million
It’s a quarterback-driven league, and if you can’t put pressure on them, you’ll have a hard time finding success. The best thing a team can do to an opposing quarterback is hurry him in the pocket, make him uncomfortable and bring him to the ground. It throws off the timing of the offense and leads to mistakes, which is always a plus for the defense.
Having someone like Von Miller, Khalil Mack, Vic Beasley or J.J. Watt allows defenses to be more aggressive in not only coverage, but with their schemes up front. Quarterbacks have less time in the pocket, making the lives of cornerbacks far easier.
Quarterback: $4.6 million
It’s not only the most important position in football, but it’s the most important in all of sports. If you have one, you’re set. If you don’t, well, good luck winning anything. There’s a reason the Patriots have five Super Bowls, and it’s largely because of Tom Brady. There’s a reason the Steelers and Colts have been so successful for such a long time.
The quarterback is not just the leader of the team, but he often determines how successful a team is offensively. A game-manager like Alex Smith often limits the explosiveness of an offense, while someone like Aaron Rodgers allows a team to be more creative in its play calling.