NFL jersey number rules, explained: Why these players changed numbers for 2021 season

Football is a game of inches — and numbers.

If you’re an NFL fan, you might notice something looks a bit off when you’re watching games this season: Receivers with single-digit numbers, running backs with numbers in the 80s, tight ends with numbers in the teens. 

Your eyes don’t deceive you: These are all legitimate numbers now for wide receivers, tight ends and backs, with the NFL relaxing the rules on which position groups can wear certain numbers moving forward. While it can be a bit discombobulating to watch, the reasoning behind the NFL’s first major number rules change since the 1970s is actually a pretty good one.

Here’s what you need to know about the NFL’s changes for the 2021 season:

What is the new NFL number rule?

For the 2021 NFL season, several position groups — namely wide receivers, tight ends, running backs — are getting fresh number brackets, meaning number options for an individual player have nearly tripled.

Previously, only quarterbacks, punters and kickers could have single digit uniform numbers. Now, that group has been expanded to include tight ends, wide receivers, running backs and defensive backs. 

Here’s how the new number groupings break down:

Why did the NFL change jersey numbers?

There are a few reasons why the NFL decided to change the jersey mumber rules. The chief reason, though, comes from the team in Kansas City.

The sheer size of rosters (53 players in total, plus practice squad players) can make it difficult for teams to assign numbers to certain position groups, especially for teams which have more than a few retired numbers.

The Chiefs, who proposed the rule change, have four numbers retired in the 20-49 number range: That number grouping previously was reserved for running backs, linebackers and defensive backs.

With COVID-19 changing roster rules in 2020 to include expanded practice squad rosters, the limitations on number assignments caused an issue for the Chiefs and several other teams in the NFL, leading to the proposal, which owners approved earlier in 2021.

With the number brackets relaxed and expanded, it opens up several more position groups outside of QB, punter and kicker to have single-digit numbers: Wide receivers, running backs and tight ends have greatly expanded number options moving forward. The offensive and defensive lines, though, won’t get any changes. Same goes for punters, kickers and quarterbacks.

The number change hasn’t been accepted by all: In fact, Tom Brady has been one of the more vocal critics of the rule. Brady — whether he’s just trolling in his old age or he legitimately does not like the rule change — thinks the rule could complicate matters for offenses.

“Good luck trying to block the right people now !! !!,” Brady wrote on his Instagram story when the rule change passed. “going to make for a lot of bad football.”

How much does it cost to change an NFL jersey number?

Just as one simply does not walk into Mordor, an NFL player simply does not change his number. The price to for an NFL player to change his number is pretty hefty — depending on the player.

In order for an NFL player to change his number for the upcoming season, he must buy out the existing inventory of retail-ready NFL jerseys; Meaning, any jersey ready to be sold at a Dick’s Sporting Goods or Nike Store has to be purchased by the player.

Dalvin Cook, who wanted to change his number for the upcoming NFL season, was tasked to pay $1.5 million, the price of the remaining in-stock jerseys across the country. That number deterred Cook from wanting to change from his No. 33, but he’s expected to change for the 2022 NFL season.

If a player wants to change his number for a following season, with proper notification to the NFL, he can change his number without issue.

NFL number changes

Here’s the full list of players, mainly wide receivers, who have changed their numbers for the upcoming season to take full advantage of the rules:

Incoming rookies are the first class to benefit from the NFL jersey number change. Here are some prominent rookies who are taking advantage of the new numbers for the 2021 season:

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