The Rise of Positionless Defense in the NFL

Omar Zahran
8 min readSep 13, 2023

Do-it-all safeties, shifting defensive linemen, and the never ending pursuit of confusing and perplexing modern offenses

Anyone that has spent any amount of time over the last few years watching the NBA has probably heard a term used so frequently that it borders on cliche. That term is “positionless basketball”. The game of basketball, like most sports, is constantly tweaking and evolving. What worked in the 1980s is not what will work today. Positionless basketball is the idea that players have become so versatile that simply assigning them to a specific role is counterproductive. Positionless basketball dictates that working within these confines is archaic and that the best 5 players available should be the ones on the court.

The idea has taken hold in NBA circles, and has led to new descriptors for players such as “3 and D wing” or “shot creator” as opposed to the centers, forwards, and guards of old. While this has become the norm in basketball, the same sort of widespread adoption has not been fully embraced in football. The NFL for all of its new wrinkles is still very much positionally defined, especially on defense. This is why a recent comment by New York Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale about the team’s new linebacker Isaiah Simmons was particularly interesting. Martindale said of Simmons:

“He’s perfect for this defense. … It’s not about what position we’re gonna play him; we’re gonna play him wherever we need him because he can do so many different things. I’ve talked before about positionless defense. He’s perfect for that.”

Martindale has long been known as one of the more inventive minds on the defensive side of the ball, and his willingness to shuffle his players around like chess pieces is an indication of the rise of new schemes in football aimed at slowing down the high-powered offenses of today. What we could be witnessing is the rise of positionless defensive football.

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