Eric is a lifelong fan of NFL football who has been following the game for over 40 years.
If you think you just spotted an NFL wide receiver wearing a single-digit jersey number or a linebacker wearing a number in the teens, rest assured—you probably aren't hallucinating. Starting with the 2021 season, the NFL has expanded its jersey number rule to allow more flexibility at most positions.
This is the first major overhaul of the NFL jersey number rule since 1973, and the result will be something similar to how the numbering system works in college football.
Why did the NFL change its jersey number rule?
As the NFL ages and evolves, strict number regulations have created problems for some teams, particularly those with a lot of retired numbers. This issue led the Kansas City Chiefs to propose the rule change1, as they ran out of numbers in the 20 to 49 range to assign to running backs, tight ends, linebackers, and defensive backs.
The new rule will solve that problem, but it may create a few others. Before we get to that, here is a quick rundown of the new number rule.
The New NFL Jersey Number Rule by Position
- Quarterbacks, Kickers, and Punters: No change. As before, they may wear numbers 1-19.
- Running Backs: Can now wear numbers 1 to 49 and 80 to 89. Under the old rule, they could only wear numbers 20 to 49.
- Wide Receivers: Are now permitted numbers 1 to 49 and 80 to 89, where under the old rule they could wear 10 to 19 and 80 to 89.
- Tight Ends: May wear numbers 1 to 49 and 88-89. They were allowed 40 to 49 and 80 to 89 under the old rule.
- Offensive Linemen: Can wear numbers 50 to 79, just as under the old rule. These remain ineligible numbers.
- Defensive Linemen: No change. May wear numbers 50 to 79 and 90 to 99.
- Linebackers: Can now wear numbers 1 to 59, and 90 to 99. Under the old system, they could wear 40 to 59, and 90 to 99.
- Defensive Backs: May wear numbers 1 to 49, where they used to be allowed to wear 20 to 49.
While college football has readopted the number 00, it remains off-limits in the NFL.
Why the NFL Dictates Which Numbers Players Can Wear
Standardized player numbers help game officials, fans, and broadcasters better understand what is happening on the field. They even help the players themselves.
Officials need to keep track of which players are eligible to receive passes on offense and where they line up. Assigning the offensive linemen a certain number range (50 to 79) creates a simple system that allows officials to know at a glance whether a player is an eligible receiver.
That doesn’t mean offensive linemen wearing jersey numbers from 50 to 79 can’t line up as eligible receivers. However, they need to declare themselves to officials before the start of a play.
Player numbers also allow fans and broadcasters to determine the position of a player quickly and better understand what just happened on a play. This becomes much more difficult with the new rule.
In the past, a player wearing a number in the teens who caught a pass was likely a wide receiver. Now, they may be a wide receiver, tight end, or running back.
Players on the field use jersey numbers to recognize the positions and assignments of opposing players. Quarterbacks and offensive linemen must identify linebackers and defensive backs. Defensive backs must recognize wide receivers, running backs, and tight ends.
It is not enough to simply acknowledge an opposing player in a certain area; they must know what position that player plays in order to figure out what the other team is doing.
NFL Jersey Numbers Rule at a Glance
|Position||New Rule||Old Rule|
How the New NFL Jersey Number Rule Might Impact the Game
Because players on the field rely on standard jersey numbers to identify their assignments and those of their opponents, the new rule might make certain aspects of the NFL game more complicated. It is conceivable that blocking assignments on offense and coverage assignments on defense will become much more confusing for players on the field.
This was a sentiment expressed almost immediately by Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, who asserted that the rule changes might even cause safety issues.2
Brady makes a good point. On the other hand, college football quarterbacks seem able to figure out who is who despite their more casual jersey number regulation. However, college football is a simpler game, and no fan wants to see a regression in the quality of NFL football.
Number changes will make things more confusing for fans, too, and not just because it will be harder to identify players by position. Many NFL veteran players have already declared number changes for the 2021 season.
So, not only will fans need to figure out which players have changed teams due to the usual game of musical chairs brought on by free agency, but also what number they are now wearing.
NFL Jersey FAQ
Here are a few questions often asked about the NFL jersey number rule.
Is 0 a legal number in football?
The number 00 was once allowed prior to the 1973 rule change, but it is no longer a legal number in the NFL. However, in 2020 college football made the number 00 legal in order to offer more options for players looking for those coveted low numbers.
Can NFL players wear single-digit numbers?
Under the new NFL jersey number rule, quarterbacks may wear single-digit numbers along with running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, defensive backs, linebackers, kickers, and punters.
Is No. 69 banned in the NFL?
No, the NFL has not banned the number 69. However, the NBA apparently does not issue the number.
How much does it cost for an NFL player to change numbers?
If an NFL player changes his number on short notice (just prior to a new season) he is financially responsible for any unsold jerseys with his old number. This could end up costing a player a great deal of money, depending on his popularity.
Which NFL players are changing their numbers?
Some of the more famous NFL players who will wear new jersey numbers for the 2021 season include Jalen Ramsey (changed from 20 to 5), Emmanuel Sanders (17 to 1), Julio Jones (11 to 2), Darius Slay (24 to 2), and Leonard Fournette (28 to 7).
Here is an ongoing list.
NFL Jersey Numbers Going Forward
Many fans and players are thrilled to see the NFL relax its jersey number rule. Players who wore single-digit numbers in college can now carry that number into the NFL. It adds a bit of fun that will make for a more interesting league on some level.
It will also solve the problems it is meant to address. As rosters expand, and more numbers are retired, teams need more options for current players.
However, this decision does not appear to be without possible issues. The NFL gradually adopted standardized jersey numbers as it evolved, with the rule most of us are familiar with solidifying in 1973. Today, unlike fifty years ago, there is a definite cool factor to wearing low numbers in the teens and single digits.
In 2004, the NFL began allowing wide receivers to wear numbers from 10 to 19. Nowadays, most receivers wear those low numbers, with relatively few choosing the once-mandatory numbers between 80 and 89.
What will teams do with their quarterbacks, kickers, and punters when every number from 1 to 19 is soaked up by a running back, wide receiver, linebacker, tight end, and defensive back? Will we see quarterbacks wearing numbers in the 20s and 30s?
It likely won’t be long until we find out.