The NFL is a brutal, violent game. The league is always looking for ways to improve player safety, but the bottom line is that with advances in strength training, conditioning, and technology, NFL players are faster and stronger than ever.
Every NFL player takes a beating at some point — it’s just a matter of when and how often. Injuries are unfortunately inevitable for most players, no matter what position they play. With that in mind, let’s take a look at which NFL position gets hit the hardest.
Why the NFL is getting more dangerous
The sheer brutality of the NFL is not new. The league has always been known for its hard hits. During the 1960 season, Philadelphia Eagles’ defender Chuck Bednarik laid out New York Giants’ running back/wide receiver Frank Gifford with a hit that would appear borderline criminal today. So the players aren’t necessarily tougher now than they were back then.
The difference is in the size and speed of the players. NPR conducted a study of weight trends in the NFL. The average weight of an NFL defensive tackle has grown from just under 100 pounds in the late 1920s to well over 300 pounds today.
More weight means more mass which means more force. According to the study, New York Giants’ defensive lineman Morris “Red” Badgro would hit opposing offensive players with the equivalent of 970 pounds of force. Former Baltimore Ravens defensive lineman Haloti Ngata (who tipped the scales at 335 pounds) hit players with the equivalent of 1,700 pounds of force. Ngata isn’t slow, either — he ran the 40-yard dash in less than five seconds.
So while getting hit by an NFL player has never been a walk in the park, it’s particularly tough to deal with now.
Which positions get hit the hardest?
A study from Brown University found that in the NFL, running backs are hit the hardest. This makes sense — after all, running backs are running full steam ahead at defensive linemen and linebackers nearly directly in front of them. They’re also one of the most expendable players on an NFL roster, with an average career length that is much less than most other positions.
The authors of the Brown study advocate for significant rule changes to help counteract the extreme violence of the NFL game. Here’s what they had to say:
“We propose the adoption of rules — or in some sports, we champion the enforcement of existing rules — that eliminate intentional head contact in helmeted sports…When coupled with education that leads to modified tackling, blocking, or checking techniques, these rules will reduce head impact exposure and have the potential to reduce the incidence and severity of brain injury….
Hitting is an essential component…But intentional hitting with your head was never part of any sport and is poor technique.”
How the NFL is trying to reduce injuries
The NFL has tried to make the game safer for players in a number of ways over the past few seasons, including:
- Making it illegal for players to lower their heads when attempting a tackle.
- The league has adopted rules meant to discourage kickoff returns.
- Players are no longer allowed to deliver blindside blocks.
- Chop blocks are now illegal on all plays.
- The league has outlawed all horse-collar tackles.
- Receivers running a pass route now have defenseless player protection.
These measures have surely helped. But, unfortunately, the league will continue to see head injuries for as long as professional football is a sport. It’s simply unavoidable.
The players are too big, too fast, and too strong. It’s unclear what the next innovation meant to make the players safer will be, but one thing’s for sure: more innovation is desperately needed.