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New rules on NFL jersey numbers explained

By Stuart Dick

Published: 11:16, 9 September 2021 | Updated: 15:31, 23 September 2021

Thanks to a recent rule change, ahead of the 2021 season, a plethora of players have chosen to switch numbers. Why?

Historically, NFL jersey numbers have been determined by a player’s position. However, on April 21, 2021, as the result of a rule change proposed by the Kansas City Chiefs earlier in the 2021 offseason, the NFL elected to relax its rules regarding jersey numbers. As one would expect, the  rule change, hasn’t been met with universal applause, as none other than Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady has described the change as ‘crazy’.

An interesting quirk of the rule change is that any player wishing to change to a single-digit jersey number will be required by the NFL to first buy back all existing, unsold replica jerseys with the old number. Thus, the more famous the player, the more replica jerseys in circulation, and therefore the higher the price of a switch.

As a result, it’s largely been rookies, lesser-known players and players who’ve recently changed teams who have taken advantage of the new rule. For instance, New York Giants’ wide receiver Sterling Shepard, who had worn #87 his first five seasons in the NFL, is now wearing #3. Meanwhile, linebacker Matt Judon, a newcomer to the New England Patriots, has chosen to switch from #99 to #9. In addition, numerous Running Backs, Wide Receivers, Tight Ends, Linebackers and Defensive Backs across the league will don different jersey numbers in 2021. Let’s take a look at the jersey number-related rules for each position.

Jersey Numbers by position

Quarterback, Kickers and Punters

There is no change in the numbers that quarterbacks, kicker and punters can wear. Quarterbacks are still only permitted to wear numbers between 1-19. Previously, only QBs, kickers and punters were allowed to wear single digit numbers during regular season action. As a result of the recent rule change, that is no longer the case.

Running Back

Prior to 2021, running backs were only allowed jersey numbers between 20 and 49, with some multi-purpose players who also play wide receiver allowed numbers between 80 and 89. Going forward, however, we may more running backs wearing numbers in the 80s, and both running backs and wide receivers choosing numbers between 1 and 19.

For example, Tampa Bay’s Leonard Fournette made the move from #28 to #7, while Ravens’ RB Mark Ingram from #21 to #2, and Arizona Cardinals’ backs Chase Edmonds (from #29 to #2) and James Conner (#30 to #6) also moved into the single digits. Meanwhile, Jacksonville Jaguars’ rookie Travis Etienne – who is out for the season through injury – opted from Day 1 to take #1.

Wide Receiver

Wide receivers have traditionally worn numbers between 80-89, though, over the past decade or so, numbers between 10-19 have gained popularity. The 2021 rule change gives receivers the option to choose from any number between 1 and 49, as well as the traditional 80-89.

As a result, a host of wide receivers have decided to change numbers. This group includes the aforementioned Sterling Shepard, as well as Emmanuel Sanders (#88 early in his career, later wore #s 17 and 10, and is now #1), Robert Woods (previously #10 and #17, now #2) and Marquise Brown )from #15 to #5).

Tight End

Tight ends have been limited to numbers between 80 and 89, with the occasional player donning a number between 40 and 49. After the rule change, tight ends will have the same jersey number options as running backs and wide receivers: any number between 1 and 49, or between 80 and 89.

The most notable outlier among tight ends is Atlanta Falcons rookie Kyle Pitts. The consensus best prospect at the position in the past decade, and one of the most enticing young tight end prospects ever, Pitts has opted for jersey #8.

Offensive Line

Offensive lineman are one group who will not benefit from the rule change. Offensive lineman are required to wear numbers between 50 and 79. This serves a practical purpose, as it allows referees and game officials to easily identify O-lineman when calling certain penalties.

Defensive Line

Defensive lineman will continue to be limited to numbers between 50 and 79, and 90 and 99.

Linebacker

The greatest selection of new jersey number options belongs to linebackers. Previously, linebackers were limited to numbers between 40 and 59, and 90 and 99. It’s worth noting that numerous players through the years who transitioned from defensive back to linebacker were seen wearing numbers between 20 and 39. With this rule change, linebackers may now wear any number between 1 and 59, as well as between 90 and 99.

Examples of linebackers now wearing non-traditional numbers include Dallas Cowboys first round pick Micah Parsons, who’s chosen to wear the #11. Meanwhile, Parsons’ teammate, Jaylon Smith, switched from #54 to #9, while Baltimore Ravens ‘backer Patrick Queen switched from #48 to #6.

Defensive Back

Like running backs, receivers and tight ends, defensive backs – cornerbacks and safeties – also now have the opportunity to wear single digit numbers. In fact, DBs can now wear any number between 1 and 49. They were previously limited to numbers between 20 and 49.

Numerous stars DBs have taken the opportunity to change numbers: Los Angeles Rams star Jalen Ramsey switched from #20 to #5, the Eagles’ Darius Slay has changed from #24 to #2, and the Chiefs’ Tyrann Mathieu will now wear #7 instead of #32.