How An NFL Depth Chart Works
Every NFL team has a depth chart that remains up year-round. It will be more updated towards the beginning of the season with players that make the roster, and then as cuts resume during the preseason, things get more fine-tuned. Each team will layout their depth chart in the formations they run on the offensive and defensive side. Defensively teams will usually line up in a 4-3 formation consisting of four defensive lineman and three linebackers, or a 3-4, three defensive lineman and four linebackers. These are the two traditional formations that are most used. Teams will go towards a nickel and dime package, and that is where you can look at the extra secondary players within the depth chart to see who would be on the field.
Throughout an offseason, a coach and front office will add and subtract players from their team. This happens for every team as they have players retire, go to free agency, or get traded to other teams. There is also the NFL draft, where teams will add players to their roster. Whether they jump in and start or fill a backup role is going to be up to them and their coaching staff. This is when we begin to see the depth chart morph into what we can predict for the upcoming season.
Offensively things stay a bit standard, although you might get a team that starts an extra tight end over a slot receiver but otherwise, it is three wide receivers and one tight end in addition to the rest of the offensive positions. Outside of the fullback position, teams will have more than one player at each position. The player in the first spot will be the starter and behind them is the order of depth by backup players. If a running back position lists Christian McCaffrey, Mike Davis, and Trenton Cannon, then McCaffrey is your starting running back, Davis is his backup, and Cannon is Davis' backup.
Why Depth Charts Are Important For Fantasy Football
If you are one of the many fantasy football players worldwide, depth charts should be part of your pre-draft and mid-season research. Knowing who the backups are is a great way to get an edge on your opponents. When an injury occurs to a running back, you can jump right on the backup off the waiver wire. While depth charts don't always tell the whole story, they are a pretty strong indicator of who is next in line due to injuries. This is one of the significant reasons the depth chart changes, as mentioned below. Overall you need to be aware not only at the running back position but also within an offensive line. If multiple starters or even one is out, it can derail a team sometimes.
At the skill positions, you can generally see the designated roles players have. A starting running back could be simply a workhorse back and play every down or give way to the backup on passing downs. Just because a player is listed as a backup doesn't mean they are irrelevant to the offense. Tarik Cohen of the Bears is listed as a backup running back, but he was solely used in the passing game and had a vital PPR role in fantasy football. For wide receivers and tight ends, you are going to have usually three wide receivers listed. Your first one will be the top receiver, and then it will trend downward. You can assess who is used out of the three more often and see who would bump up in injuries.
For those playing dynasty fantasy football, not every rookie is going to jump into a starting role, and depth charts are a great way to gauge how the team views them moving forward. If they are a real work in progress, they might be lower on the depth chart than a proper backup where the coaching staff views them as a player that is nearly ready to be a starter and would trust them like that if an injury in front of them occurred.
The Most Important Positions For A Team To Have Depth In
While every position is certainly important to have some depth in, we have seen injuries occur to specific ones that completely demolish a team's play. The offensive line remains the most crucial, as you have a starting unit rarely makes it through a full season in complete health. It is wise for teams to have offensive lineman who can play different positions along the line. This helps coaches shift and move around players into different roles to help cover for injuries. The offensive line is the glue of the offense. If they can't protect their quarterback and give him time to throw, it is tough for the offense to move the ball. The same goes for the run game, where we have seen injuries just completely make a run game obsolete. If you were to look at another position on the offensive side, a backup quarterback plays more of a role than you'd think. The teams that undergo quarterback injuries without a backup plan are then left scrambling and starting a quarterback who gives them a small chance to win.
With much of the game being so offensive and pass-oriented these days, the secondary on the defensive side needs to have some depth. Safeties have become a bit more injury-prone, it seems, over the last decade, and it has led to some teams being vulnerable in their last line of defense. Overall secondary players need some depth just due to playing against 3-4 wide receivers with confidence. If you have a weak cornerback out there in a three-wide receiver set, opposing teams will undoubtedly key in on that matchup. We have seen this year in and year out where good teams exploit bad secondary players and make those teams pay. It isn't even in the scenario of injuries. Two good corners aren't enough in the modern-day NFL. Having an extra pass-rusher or two on your roster is also a big help when you can rotate them in and out on specific downs.
The Reasons Why Depth Charts Can Change
Injuries are by far the biggest reason a depth chart can change. However, just because a player is injured doesn't mean they are automatically taken off the depth chart. The only questionable player for a week with a minor injury that won't cost him any time, he will stay on the depth chart but would be moved down if he doesn't play. You can see the adjustments updated later in the week to reflect this news. There is an injured reserve where teams can put a player on the reserve because they know the injury will keep them out for a while, and that frees up space for another roster spot. The NFL added a 3-game injured reserve, so now those week to week injuries can result in a roster spot for a team compared to the long term injured reserve in prior years where if they were out 3-4 weeks, they'd usually stay on the roster.
Coaches will also move around their depth chart to reflect struggling and strong performing players. This isn't as frequent, but we have seen quarterback changes midway throughout a season and also emerging wide receivers, and running backs start to get more work in an offense. Rookies will often find themselves shuffled around the depth chart over the course of a season. For example, if a team is down and out of the playoff race, they can make some moves and get younger players more playing time to get a look at what they have for the future. Roster changes throughout a season will also be reflected in the depth chart. The NFL doesn't have a hectic trade deadline like other spots, but there are always multiple roster moves made between the practice squad.
NFL Depth Chart FAQ
What Is An NFL Depth Chart?
An NFL depth chart is set by each team that shows offensive, defensive, and special teams players in order of starters to backup players. This shows who are the regular starting players and who will back them up.
How Often Do NFL Depth Charts Change?
NFL depth charts can change every week, and they often do give injuries are very frequent in the NFL. When injuries occur, coaches will adjust depth charts and also make strategic moves throughout the season based on performances or roster moves.
When Do NFL Depth Charts Come Out?
The NFL depth charts can be seen year-round but are adjusted at certain times throughout the offseason. A more finalized look at what the typical depth chart will be throughout the season will appear after final roster cuts are made before the season starts.
Do Special Teams Players Show On NFL Depth Charts?
While we are often focused on the offensive and defensive side of depth charts, you can view special teams players. This goes for punters and kickers, but you can also see who the long-snapper or place-holder is.
How Many Players Are On An NFL Depth Chart?
There are 53 players that are spread out across offensive, defensive, and special teams positions. Each has its own spot on the depth chart in the order of starters to backups. This number might be higher in the offseason before roster cuts.
What Is A NFL Practice Squad?
Each NFL team has a practice squad where they can carry a small number of players to call up when needed. They are not actively on the roster and need to be activated. Therefore they will only show on the depth chart when active.
Do Injured Players Show Up On A NFL Depth Chart?
If a player not on the injured reserve, they will still be on the depth chart. They will likely be shown lower at their depth chart position if they are officially ruled out for a game. Active players remain on the depth chart, whether they are injured or not.