Every year, we witness new and exciting football players make a name for themselves in the National Football League (NFL). To most fans, it might seem like there are an unlimited amount of football players in the league, but this number is much smaller than most people think. Football teams are only allowed to play a specific number of players each game.
So, how many players are on a football team?
Football teams in the NFL are allowed a maximum of 53 players on their roster at any given point in time, but can only dress 47 of the players on game day. They’re also allowed 12 players on their practice squad, but there are specific rules in play when promoting these players to the active roster.
Of course, these rules only apply in the NFL and are subject to change each year as the league executes new deals with players in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). For a more detailed explanation of NFL rosters, as well as college and high school rosters, continue reading.
How Many Players Are on the Field in Football?
Although most NFL teams have 53 players on their active roster each week, that doesn’t mean all 53 players see playing time. Most of these players are only on the field for a few plays each game — if any. With that said, it’s 100% up to the coach to determine who plays and when.
Before the ball is snapped, each team must have a maximum of 11 players on the field at any given time. This means there are never more than 22 players total on the field at once.
While you aren’t penalized for having less than 11 players on the field, a team is penalized for having more than 11 players on the field. When called on the offense, the play is called dead and a five-yard penalty is enforced. When called on the defense, the play continues and the penalty is enforced after the play ends.
On offense, the 11 players generally consist of one quarterback, five offensive linemen, a running back, a fullback, two wide receivers, and one tight end. This can change throughout the game. For example, some teams may elect to have more running backs, tight ends, wide receivers, or linemen to confuse the defense.
On defense, the 11 players generally consist of four defensive linemen, three linebackers, two cornerbacks, and two safeties. Much like the offense, defensive schemes will change throughout the game and largely depend on what type of offense is being run on the opposite side of the ball.
How Many Players Are on an NFL Team?
Now that we understand how many players are on the field at once – what about the rest of the team that’s on the sidelines? Well, that’s where things get a bit tricky in the NFL because some of the rostered players and players under contract with a team might not be on the sideline at all.
Each NFL team is allowed a maximum of 53 players on their active roster. These players can suit up at any time throughout the season, but the coach is only allowed to suit up a maximum of 47 players for any game. That means a minimum of six active players won’t play in the game.
With the new CBA agreement signed in 2020, some teams can elect to dress 48 players if they also elect to dress a minimum of 8 offensive linemen. It’s a new rule that was added because defensive linemen rotate throughout the game, but offensive linemen normally don’t get rest.
Hold on, it gets even more tricky because an NFL team always consists of more than just 53 players. In addition to the active roster, an NFL team has a practice squad of 12 players — all of whom are under contract. These players practice with the team but aren’t on the active roster.
To be promoted to the active roster, the coach must first send an active player to the injured reserve, release a player from the active roster, or have a player from the active roster clear waivers and swap places with the practice squad player. It sounds excessive, but it works.
With that said, an NFL team generally consists of 65 total players — not including any player that’s on the injured reserve or physically unable to perform (PUP) list. In the offseason, teams are allowed up to 90 players but must cut that number down to the 53 active and 12 practice squad by the start of the new year.
How Many Players Are in the NFL?
The NFL consists of 32 teams and each team has anywhere between 65-70 players at once (depending on how many players are injured at that time). On game days, there are 1,696 active players in the NFL — 1,504 of which are on an active roster — and 384 players on practice squads.
As we mentioned above, there are almost always extra players that are listed as injured or physically unable to perform. Once these players return to the active roster or practice squad, they must replace someone that’s currently active or on the practice squad — which evens out.
Of course, these numbers only represent players that have a contract with a team. It won’t include the hundreds of free agents that are good enough to be on a roster but aren’t with a team due to roster size restrictions.
Even further than that, there are thousands of other football players (both veterans and college players) that simply aren’t good enough to be in the NFL or aren’t given a good enough opportunity to showcase their skills.
NFL Active Roster Rules
The active roster in the NFL is the 53-man roster a coach uses when designating their game-day roster. Any player on this active roster is available to suit up, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that player will suit up. Of those 53 players, only 47 are allowed to suit up.
A typical 53-man active roster generally consists of two quarterbacks, four running backs, six wide receivers, three tight ends, nine offensive linemen, nine defensive linemen, seven linebackers, 10 defensive backs, one punter, one kicker, and one long-snapper.
As we mentioned above, teams are allowed to dress 48 of those players, so long as eight of those players are offensive linemen. That is why most teams are starting to dress 48 players instead of 47 players, that way they can take advantage of having an extra offensive lineman on the sideline.
Any player that suits up is a player you’ll likely see on the field at some point during the game. Coaches aren’t forced to use every player that suits up, but those that don’t see regular action come in handy when injuries occur or during special teams plays.
With the 2020 NFL CBA in place, NFL teams could potentially have 55 players on their active roster by elevating two players from their practice squad. These players are available to suit up on game day, but must be sent back down to the practice squad within one business day of the game ending. They’re also not subject to clearing waivers before being sent back down.
While the maximum number of players allowed on an active roster is 53 (or 55 if taking advantage of the new practice squad rules), the NFL has also placed a minimum of 44 active roster players at any given time. Most teams won’t willingly have that few players, but some circumstances do call for it.
What Is the Practice Squad in the NFL?
The practice squad in the NFL is a group of players that are under contract and practice with a specific NFL team. Every team has one and each group consists of 12 players. These players are generally not good enough to make the active roster but are worth keeping to develop for future use.
It should be noted that this practice squad used to consist of eight players, but eventually was raised to 10 players and most recently 12 players under the current CBA. There was even another recent change to 16 players, but this was only for the 2020-21 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are specific rules that apply when designating players to the practice squad. Let’s first take a look at some of the requirements that make a player eligible to be named to the practice squad (they must meet at least one):
- They’ve never spent more than six games on an active roster in any one season
- They’ve only spent one accrued season where they were on the active game day roster for no more than 8 games
- Teams can have no more than four players that have no more than two accrued seasons as a free agent
- Teams can have no more than two players with no limitations as to their number of accrued seasons
- Players can only spend a maximum of three seasons on any practice squad in their career
Practice squad players are paid weekly and they can be released at any time in the season. If another NFL team wants to sign a practice squad player from another team, the acquiring team must sign them to the active roster — not their practice squad. They’re not allowed to sign with a team’s upcoming opponent unless the game is more than 6 days away.
A practice squad player can be promoted to the active roster at any time, but only if the team has room on their active roster. If not, the team must release a player or place a player on Injured Reserve (IR). If they want to send the player back to the practice squad, they must first clear waivers (which means every other team has an opportunity to sign them with no restriction).
Does the 53 Man Roster Include the Practice Squad?
An NFL team’s 53-man active roster consists of players that are available to suit up for a game. This roster doesn’t consist of any practice squad player, especially since practice squad players are not eligible to play with the team — they can only practice with the team each week.
With that said, a practice squad player can make their way to the 53-man active roster if — and only if — the team has space for them on that roster. If so, the player’s practice squad contract comes to an end and they must sign a new NFL contract with that team.
Once signed from the practice squad, the NFL team must pay them a minimum of three week’s pay according to their new contract, whether or not they play three weeks with the team. If that player is no longer needed on the active roster, the team must release them or place them on waivers.
If released, the player becomes a free agent effective immediately. If on waivers, any other team can sign the player to their active roster or practice squad without limitation. In the event they clear waivers (no other team signs them), they’re placed back on the original team’s practice squad.
How Many Players Are on a College Football Team?
When building an NFL roster, teams are limited to 53 players on their active roster and 12 on their practice squad. When it comes to college football, things are a lot different. Not only are there no clear limitations as to how many players you can have on a team, but there are no practice squads either.
Most college teams will have 100 or more players on their roster at any time — some of them up to 125 players. That’s a lot of players compared to the NFL. Of course, things get a little tricky when determining which players are allowed to travel with the team and which are allowed a scholarship to play.
A majority of these limitations are at the division or conference level. For example, teams in the NCAA’s Division I FBS are only allowed 85 players on scholarship each year. They’re allowed to have more players, but they can’t receive athletically-based aid.
As far as Division I-AA teams, they’re allowed a total of 63 scholarships. Division II teams are allowed a maximum of 36 players on scholarship.
Furthermore, some conferences limit teams to a maximum number of players that can travel with the team on road games. For example, the Big 10 only allows teams to travel with 70 players for in-conference games.
Once the game starts, teams are allowed 11 players on the field at once — just like the NFL.
How Many Players Are on A High School Football Team?
When building a high school football team, coaches are given a lot more leeway as far as how many players they roster at one time. There are absolutely no restrictions to the roster size, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) — which is used by 48 states in the United States.
With that said, there is a rule that restricts a high school football team from having two players on the field at once with the same number on their jersey. Since players can only have 0-99 on their jersey, coaches would need to be careful when substituting if they have more than 100 players on their roster (some players would be forced to have duplicate numbers).
The good news is most high schools have nowhere close to 100 or more players on their team. Most coaches limit themselves to anywhere from 40-50 players, especially since they need to fill up both varsity and junior varsity teams — and in some cases modified teams, depending on the school.
How Many Players Are on a Youth Football Team?
Youth football is very similar to high school football in terms of roster size. There are no real limitations or restrictions when building your team, but there are common occurrences that most coaches follow. At the end of the day, it’s 100% up to the coach to determine who makes the team.
A lot of this comes down to how many players decide to sign up for tryouts. Some coaches decide to roster up to 50 players, but other coaches say that high of a roster creates a world of headaches. With that said, most coaches have anywhere from 25-35 youth football players on their team.
While having too many youth football players can create headaches, so can having too little. In some cases, youth football teams are forced to shut down due to not having enough players to roster — or simply having too small of a team. This makes for some tough decisions by the coach.
What Is a Two Way Player in Football?
Growing up, many football players are extremely skilled at multiple positions. That’s why you’ll often find youth and high school football players that play both offense and defense. It not only gives them more playing time, but it increases their IQ by seeing the field from two different angles.
For example, a quarterback on offense in high school might also play safety on defense. Since safeties are often trying to read the opposing quarterback, safeties have a unique perspective in that they play quarterback. They can read the opposing quarterback much easier than anyone else.
A two-way football player is much more common in youth and high school football — compared to the NFL and college football. You won’t find any two-way football players in today’s NFL because most players are focused on one position and one position only. It also increases the player’s chances of being injured in a game, which no coach wants.
It should be noted that someone who plays both running back and wide receiver (or wide receiver and tight end) isn’t considered a two-way football player. This is because they’re playing two positions on the same side of the field. To be a two-way football player, you must play both offense and defense.
What Is the PUP List?
Once training camp and preseason starts in the NFL, one of the most common and confusing terms that get thrown around is the NFL “PUP list”. It’s a list no NFL player wants to be on, but it is much better than being placed on the Injured Reserve List, which we’ll dive into a little bit below.
There are two different PUP lists you must know — the Active/PUP and the Reserve/PUP lists. The main difference between the two is that the Active/PUP list is utilized during the preseason and the Reserve/PUP list is utilized during the regular season.
PUP stands for Physically Unable to Perform and it is used for football-related injuries. These players are allowed to meet with the team and work out with the team, but they can’t practice or play with the team.
When placed on the Active/PUP list, it normally means the player either suffered an injury or is still recovering from a previous injury. To come off the list, the team’s medical staff must first clear the player. Once cleared, they can practice and play with the team.
If a player is placed on the Reserve/PUP list, they must sit out for the first six weeks of the season. After those first six weeks, the team has a six-week window to take them off the list. During that six-week window, the player must either return to the team, be placed on Injured Reserve, or be released.
If a player is placed on the Active/PUP list and then taken off the list during the preseason, they are not allowed to be added to the Reserve/PUP list in the future. Any player on the PUP list won’t count towards the 53-man roster but will count towards the preseason 90-man roster.
In the event a player is placed on Injured Reserve, they must remain on that list for a minimum of six weeks. Teams are allowed to return two players from the IR each season, so long as that player has spent at least eight weeks on the list.