In this guide, we’ve reviewed 9 of the best football shoulder pads available in 2020, for wide receivers, linemen, and running backs.
We’ve also discussed some key things to consider when buying, to help you find the best pads for your specific needs.
Here are our top three picks:
Varsity AiR Maxx 2.0
Varsity FLEX 4.0
Best Shoulder Pads for Wide Receivers
DEFINITION: wide receivers are lightning-fast speedsters who stick to the side-line. They’re ball-catching specialists, and must be quick on their feet.
As a receiver, you want to be as agile as humanly possible. Therefore, while you want adequate protection, you also need low-profile, lightweight pads in order to keep that need for speed.
As we just touched on, agility is crucial for wide receivers, and these Schutt shoulder pads are extra-nimble.
Designed for wide receivers and quarterbacks, the AiR Maxx pads have an attached back plate, hinged front connection and small arch that provide great protection while also allowing for plenty of flexibility. You have a really good range of motion with these pads, which is what you want as you dodge defenders.
The pads also have what Schutt calls “Biothane” belts. They work to ensure a snug, secure fit without compromising your agility.
Within the AiR Maxx 2.0, individual pads can be removed, for an even greater range of motion. You probably wouldn’t even need to remove them though. The padding is all TPU, meaning it’s nice and light, so you aren’t carrying extra weight that could slow you down.
But at the same time, these pads provide excellent protection – if you get cleaned up, you won’t be left feeling sore. They come with a layer of D3O cushioning – this is a specially-engineered material designed to absorb more shock in less space. Meaning, Schutt can make these pads thinner and lighter without sacrificing protection.
While the shoulder pads may feel stiff at first, they soften after a few wears and become quite comfortable.
Another thing you should know: the Air Maxx 2.0 isn’t exactly cheap. We think they’re worth the investment though, if you’re after the best of the best.
For players looking to carry the least-possible amount of extra weight, the TAG Strike Force II 780 pads are worth checking out.
These pads feature corrugated arches to reduce weight, without sacrificing too much durability. There are holes in the plastic plate, which improve agility and also allow for better breathability, so you won’t overheat or expend extra energy when pushing yourself to perform.
You won’t sacrifice safety either. The Strike Force II uses double EVA padding and a steel spring arch system, which allows the pads to conform to a player’s body for a snug, secure, but comfortable fit.
Additionally, an adjustable neck opening and removable deltoid pads (that protect the top shoulder area) let you customize the cushioning location for maximum comfort. The pads also feature a swivel front and back closure system and 1” belt and buckle hookup, so you won’t have to spend more than a minute or two putting them on.
But perhaps the most noteworthy highlight of these shoulder pads is the price point. They’re several hundred dollars cheaper than most other receiver options, meaning you can get a high range of motion and agility, without sacrificing safety – all at a reasonable price.
3. TAG Pulse SP
Looking for the best-possible speed and flexibility?
TAG have reduced weight from these shoulder pads by using as much EVA as possible in the padding. This is an ultra-light type of foam, which is also very durable.
Since the pads aren’t super-thick, this product offers the agility you need as a receiver to make sharp sprints and quick turns.
However, because the pads are so flat, this isn’t the most protective set of shoulder pads you can buy. Despite this, they’re not cheap either.
On the plus side though, the Pulse SP is quite breathable – you won’t overheat, especially given its low-profile design. There’s also a special moisture-wicking fabric to eliminate that hot, sweaty feeling you get by the end of a game, which is a really nice thing to have.
Best Shoulder Pads for Linemen
DEFINITION: linemen play “in the trenches”. They’re responsible for attacking or defending the quarterback as each play begins. Linemen are often the toughest players on the team.
If you play in the line of scrimmage, you’ll want especially tough pads to be able to cope with the constant tackling and one-on-one contact you’ll be doing.
Since shoulder pads for linemen are often designed to be a little bit bulkier in order to provide better protection, they can also get extremely hot.
These pads offer a solution to overheating, while still making sure you can handle the hits.
Z-Cool technology, a moisture-wicking system made of foam, helps to keep you dry. There are waterproof beads in the padding, which circulate air as you run to help keep you cool.
To even further improve comfort, these pads have been designed to be as light as possible, without sacrificing protection. The Pro-Tecs also feature adjustable deltoid pads, meaning you can get the cushioning right where you want it. While it’s possible to get the exact fit you need, the pads feature a two-strap system that can take some getting used to.
In addition to comfort, the pads also provide great protection. Upon impact, the beads in the layered foam cushions of the Z-Cool system dissipate and redistribute energy waves to the nearby beads, spreading out the force over a larger area.
The end result? You can go harder and faster when playing in the trenches.
Another benefit of this padding design is how tough it is. These pads aren’t going to fall apart in a season like some other ones might, since the energy is dissipated – no single spot is exposed to extreme amounts of force.
5. Schutt XV HD
The best way to ensure the opposing line can’t get ahold of you? Give them nothing to grab onto.
Schutt’s XV HD has no epaulets, so you’re as slippery as an eel.
As one of the only pads on the market to feature this design, the XV has a sloping arch that conforms naturally to a player’s shoulders. This sleek look allows for a better range of motion while also eliminating grab points the other team could use to stop your momentum.
To protect from hard hits, these Schutt pads have an incredibly tough layer of cushioning. High-density, multi-layer EVA foam and “Energy Lock” redundant padding work to disperse force in the main contact areas. On the whole, you’ll feel the padding – but there isn’t too much of it.
The cushioning certainly won’t weigh you down. In fact, the XV is extremely light for a lineman pad, weighing in at only three pounds.
Do note though that the belt-style strap can feel a bit constrictive for some players. Despite this, overall comfort is quite good – the ventilation system provides decent airflow, promoting sweat evaporation to help keep you cool.
While opposing players may struggle to hang on to the XV’s smooth profile, you can grab these pads for a pretty reasonable price.
Essentially, the SP Series is designed to be a) as lightweight as possible and b) as low-profile as possible. However, the level of engineering involved in this design has made for quite an expensive set of pads.
With a super-flat pad profile, these shoulder pads sit extremely low on your shoulders. This thinner padding is made of lightweight open-cell foam, which spreads out the force of an impact over the largest-possible area to lessen the blow to any one spot.
For added protection, these Douglas pads also have extra-thin padding in the shoulders as well as top redundant cushions, designed to disperse impact forces away from the body. But since the pads are so flat, the SP Series won’t compromise your agility or range of motion despite offering reasonable overall protection. For even more increased mobility, the pads feature an extra-wide neck hole to make it easier to scan the field.
Douglas has long been known for top-quality pads and the CP is their top-of-the-line series. The price reflects that – these pads would be a big investment for the casual player, especially because Douglas does not accept returns on CP items.
Despite the price, these aren’t the most durable pads out there – since the cushions are quite thin, they can wear down quite quickly.
Best Shoulder Pads for Running Backs
DEFINITION: running backs have a number of different roles on the football field. They may have to block, receive handoffs from the quarterback, or even receive passes as a part of an offensive play.
RBs really need shoulder pads with a bit of everything. You’ll want something agile, which offers good freedom of movement. But you also need enough protection to protect you when you’re blocking.
These shoulder pads are a great choice for running backs. They’re super-mobile but also very durable.
They come with a lightweight flat-pad design that won’t get in the way. Like the Schutt FLEX 4.0 we looked at below, the Prospect Pro pads have a deep arch and sit quite low on the shoulders. Meaning, they won’t restrict head/neck movement or compromise your field of vision.
The foam cushioning is also designed to sit as close to the body as possible, and there’s a 2-in-1 belt system to minimize grab points. This belt system attaches at two points to the back of the arch and converges into one belt that wraps tightly around your torso, making these pads nice and easy to put on and take off. Even better, they feature stainless-steel hardware – meaning less rust and more durable pads.
Since there’s less padding to wear down over time, and the actual materials are quite strong, these are incredibly tough shoulder pads.
Breathable mesh in the padding and 7mm vent holes work together to ensure you don’t overheat when charging down the field. Plus, built-in air channels throughout the cushioning promote air flow for additional cooling. The Prospect Pro also has a machine-washable, removable body cushion to prevent odor buildup.
Since these pads are designed to be used by a few different positions, they do provide a little less padding than some running backs prefer. The tradeoff? They’re lightweight, durable, have a great range of motion and a reasonable price.
This is a similar shoulder pad to the Schutt AiR Maxx 2.0 we looked at before. However, it’s a better all-around pad, making it a great choice for running backs.
For starters, this is one of the most agile pads out there, which is just what running backs need. It’s not super-light and slimmed-down like a receiver pad though – so it still offers excellent protection.
The other great thing about these pads is how comfortable they are. Although they’re not super-light, the internal padding is nice and soft, meaning you can almost forget you’re wearing them – which is exactly what you want.
What’s more, the durability is excellent given the price.
On the whole, if you’re looking for nimble shoulder pads, but still want fantastic protection, these are a great pick.
Want lighter pads, without sacrificing protection?
The Alt III 950 is perfect for running backs, fullbacks and defensive backs. TAG have developed a specialized padding, which has better energy absorption than conventional foams such as EVA or honeycomb – but with less weight.
You’ll have to pay more – a lot more – for this technology, but there’s really no beating it – this is probably the best cushioning solution on the market right now.
To complement the protection offered by the Hex-Tec padding, the 950 features an adjustable clavicle build-up system comprised of two layers of foam, designed to absorb and dissipate energy from impact.
These pads are also super easy to get into and out of, and offer a reasonably large range of motion. Velcro-removable deltoid pads provide customization options, while Aegis antimicrobial mesh lining controls odor and deterioration caused by bacteria, fungus and other unwanted germs.
But you’ll hardly need the Aegis lining to dispel odors: while plenty of other shoulder pads have portions that are machine washable, the entire thing can be thrown into the washer for easy cleaning.
What You Need To Know
Shoulder pads are a crucial piece of safety equipment – it’s critical to get the right ones.
Here’s everything you need to know about buying shoulder pads for football.
Areas to consider
While all pads are designed for protection, there are several key factors to keep in mind.
Remember, your pads will affect your overall performance – not just the amount of pain you feel when hit.
- Range of motion: different shoulder pads allow for varying range of motion in the arms. Pads should allow you to run, throw, and catch the ball unhindered, while still providing protection.
- Weight: thicker padding can end up weighing quite a lot. You need lightweight pads, especially if you’re a mobile player like a running back or wide receiver who needs to be able to sprint at top speed.
- Rigidity: shoulder pads need rigidity to provide protection. However, rigidity can also hinder movement, so it’s important to find the right balance for your position. Ideally, there should be a bit of flex to match the movement of your arms as you run.
- Contact dispersion: your pads are designed to absorb impacts to the chest and shoulders. However, better dispersion normally means either a) more thickness or b) a higher price. Finding the right balance is key.
- Ventilation: Pads that are properly ventilated let hot air escape, rather than keeping it trapped inside. This breathability helps keep you cool while you’re working up a sweat.
- Comfort: ill-fitting pads will hinder performance, because they’ll be much less comfortable. It’s important to find something that fits well, and that actually feels comfortable to wear.
Shoulder pad terminology
Here are the different parts of a shoulder pad you need to think about when buying.
Consider how each of these aspects fit and feel, as well as how they are designed. For the delotid pads/cup for example, you should consider how thick they are, and whether or not they’re removable.
- Neck: the opening in the pads that fits over your head, normally lined with varying layers of padding along the edges.
- Epaulet: a piece that extends over the shoulder to provide additional coverage and protection. These come in varying lengths for different positions. On lineman pads they’re normally slimmed down to eliminate grab points.
- Deltoid: your deltoid is a muscle at the top of your shoulder.
- Cup: an extension of the epaulet, this piece hangs down over the shoulder to protect the deltoid muscle.
- Body cushion: the padding under the exterior shell that protects the chest and back area.
- Auxiliary/bias: secondary cushioning designed to increase protection.
- Belt/straps: help secure the pads to the player’s body to provide a secure fit. These are actually quite important – how good they are will define how easy or otherwise it is to put on and take off the pads.
Difference between receiver, lineman, and running back pads
While there are versatile shoulder pads designed to work for players in any position, you’re better off picking something designed for your specific role on the field. This allows you to play to your full potential, and avoid spending money on features you simply don’t need.
- Wide receivers: receivers and other mobile positions like quarterbacks should look for pads that are designed for mobility and agility. Since movement is key, this means you want lightweight padding and epaulets with less plastic – the slimmer they are, the more nimble you can be. You’ll also want a flexible shell with decent cushioning to absorb hits, contoured plates, and a low-profile design that won’t ride up and obstruct your view.
- Running backs: running backs also need mobility and agility, but with extra protection for going through traffic. Since the position is prone to tough impacts, but also requires high levels of mobility, lightweight pads similar in flexibility to wide receiver pads are the way to go. You’ll also need to make sure nothing rides up and obstructs your vision while you’re running, so a low-profile design is a must. However, go for something with slightly thicker padding if you want to avoid feeling sore.
- Linemen: as a lineman, you’ll need to look for pads that provide serious protection. Since guys in the trenches take the most hits and the hardest impacts, you’ll want heavy, durable shoulder pads with a smooth profile. These streamlined options make it harder for the opposing team to grab on, so look for pads with low-profile epaulets to eliminate potential handholds. Shoulder pads for lineman should also feature maximum protection on the shoulders and sternum, but still allow enough mobility for the “arms-up” motion. To avoid having to adjust pads between plays, linemen should also consider plated front pads instead of laces.
If you don’t play in one of these positions, consider your role on the field and what would be most critical to your success – are you looking for maximum protection, a good range of motion, or lightweight mobility?
Finding the right size shoulder pads
Ill-fitting shoulder pads are not as effective – if there’s a gap between your body and the cushioning, the force cannot be dispersed properly.
Therefore, it’s important to ensure that your pads actually fit. To do this, use a measuring tape to measure the circumference of the upper torso and shoulder width. Some youth pads are also sized by weight, so knowing a player’s weight can also be beneficial.
Most brands and manufacturers will have online sizing charts which you can compare your measurements against to select the correct size. Pads that fit properly should:
- Cover the player’s sternum, collarbone, upper shoulders and shoulder blades.
- Provide sufficient room in the neck opening.
- Have deltoid padding that extends about 1” from your shoulder.
- Not slip when the straps are tightened.
- Have adequate room on either side of the neck roll.
Special features to consider
New shoulder pad technology is constantly being developed, bringing lightweight cushioning, better shell designs, new ventilation options and much more to the market.
If you’re after the latest in cutting-edge features, you may want to look into some of the following.
- Flat pads: as the name suggests, flat pads are designed to absorb more force in less room. This thinner padding combines closed and open-cell foam, which spreads out the force of an impact over the largest-possible area to lessen the blow to any one spot. You’ll sometimes see it marketed as “D3O” cushioning. This type of padding is great for players who are looking for extra protection without adding more bulk.
- Ventilation: this helps to provide some relief when you’re sweating – whether the weather is hot or not. While many shoulder pads have solid outer shells, some now come with ventilation channels or holes drilled through the shell to allow air to flow through.
- TPU cushioning: this type of padding is virtually indestructible. Thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) is a material which never compresses, degrades or molds, but isn’t too heavy either. It feels slightly different to D3O, and is marginally more durable, but doesn’t quite provide as much protection (assuming the same amount is used). Look for it in Schutt’s AiR Maxx shoulder pad line.
- Z-Cool body-cooling technology: Pads made by Gear Pro-Tec now integrate what they call “Z-Cool” technology to maintain internal pad temperature and also absorb impact. There are waterproof beads in the padding as opposed to just 100% foam. When you take a hit, the beads separate to absorb force while simultaneously flooding cool air around the body.
That’s all, folks!
We hope you’ve been able to find the right pair of shoulder pads for your specific needs, and your position on the football pitch.
If you’re still in doubt, drop us a comment below and we’ll get right back to you.
About the author
Matt is the newest face on the Lift Your Game team.
He’s a former college football player, and also played soccer and tennis in high school.
In his spare time, you’ll either find him at the gym, or on the couch playing Madden!