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NFL jerseys: What is the deal with all of these low numbers?

Specific numerals for certain positions are no longer valid

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Cleveland Browns
WR Amari Cooper
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

It used to be any football fan could tell what position a player is as he lined up just by viewing his jersey number. That is no longer the case.

Why the change? And, is there a connection between lower numbers and production?

A new rule

In 1973, the NFL standardized jersey numbers by position. Then in 2021, the NFL rulebook made a change to the jersey numbering system that blew up the old system.

Cleveland Browns v Denver Broncos
WR/KR Josh Cribbs

The reason? With practice squads elevating to 16 players plus the various injury lists, many positions were running out of numerals. Plus, many teams have a laundry list of retired jersey numbers that cannot be used. This became a problem.

There was an excess of numbers between 1-19 with each team. Usually, these numbers were reserved for quarterbacks, receivers, and specialists. But even with these athletes, 19 numbers were far too many with plenty left unused.

In order to absorb as many jersey numbers as possible, the league decided to revamp the jersey numbering system and spread out as many digits as possible. The new rules now allow defensive backs, tight ends, linebackers, fullbacks, and running backs access to these numbers in addition to receivers, quarterbacks, and kickers.

This was proposed to the league’s competition committee by the Kansas City Chiefs. The owners approved it in April of 2021. The Philadelphia Eagles submitted adding the number “0” in 2023 which was also approved. Currently, the only digits not available are “00” last used by Oakland Raiders center and Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Otto.

Quarterbacks - 1973-2021: #1-19; 2021: #0-19

Punters, kickers - 1973-2021: #1-19; 2021: #0-49, 90-99

Running backs, fullbacks and H-backs - 1973-2021: #20-49; 2021: #0-49, 80-89

Tight ends - 1973-2021: #40-49, 80-89; 2021: #0-49, 80-89

Wide receivers - 1973-2021: #10-19, 80-89; 2021: #0-49, 80-89

Offensive linemen - 1973-2021: #50-79; 2021: #50-79

Defensive linemen - 1973-2021: #50-79; 2021: #90-99

Linebackers - 1973-2021: #40-59, 90-99; 2021: #0-59, 90-99

Defensive backs - 1973-2021: #20-49; 2021: #0-49

Not everyone is a fan of the new system. It has a tendency to confuse fans who think a player plays one position when in fact he lines up at another. This has also not been a proponent of several offensive coordinators and quarterbacks who view the change as being a bit more complicated with blocking assignments. What used to be an easy assignment to spot a linebacker wearing numbers in the 50s or 90s is now having to be more prepared than the player assigned to block wearing a small number is indeed a linebacker.

Cincinnati Bengals v San Francisco 49ers
CB Charvarius Ward #7 of the 49ers defends Bengals WR Ja’Marr Chase #1. Ward wore #35 previously while with the Chiefs and #40 in Dallas, both traditional defensive back numbers. Chase wore #1 in high school as well as at LSU.
Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

While QB Tom Brady was still in the league, he expressed how disappointed he was with the new jersey number changes. His belief is that there would be sudden safety issues for the offensive side of the ball such as identifying blitzing players or identification of exactly who the middle linebacker is.

He stated on Instagram:

“Good luck trying to block the right people now! Going to make for a lot of bad football! Why not let the linemen wear whatever they want too? Why have numbers? Just have colored jerseys...why not wear the same number? DUMB.”

Quarterbacks who are not in favor of the new jersey number rule have a valid point. They are tasked with identifying linebackers and defensive linemen before setting protection prior to receiving the snap with each play. Identifiable jersey numbers for these defenders made the job much easier.

Pre-snap intelligence and the ability to make quick decisions based on personnel is a process. Now, signal callers must keep tabs on which players are lined up at what position which adds a coating of uncertainty.

But the fact remains, now the number of options for certain positions has tripled alleviating the logjam.

Changing a jersey number may come at a cost

Now that smaller numbers are available, many players jumped at the chance to change. Several had single-digit numbers at the college level regardless of position and was an opportunity to connect to those glory days. It may have even been a high school number.

When Aaron Rodgers was traded from the Green Bay Packers to the New York Jets in 2023, he changed his jersey number from #12 to #8. The reason was that jersey 12 was a retired number of former Jets great Joe Namath. Rodgers then took his college number.

A player doesn’t simply change his number, though.

If the athlete is requesting to change his jersey number, the first step is to find out how many unsold jerseys are available in sporting goods stores. If the answer is zero, or if the player doesn’t have any jerseys printed and for sale, or if no other player on the roster has that numeral, then the athlete has the green light to proceed.

But if the player has unsold jerseys out in various shopping outlets, he is required to purchase all of the existing inventory of retail-ready NFL jerseys regardless of the quantity. An example of this was RB Dalvin Cook of the Minnesota Vikings. His professional number is #33 whereas his Florida State University digit was #4 and available with the Vikings. However, it was estimated that Cook would have to spend $1.5 million to secure all of the available jerseys before he could be approved for the change. Cook decided to retain his double 3s and save his money instead.

What then transpired was no more #33 jerseys were produced for the 2021 season which eventually played out. In 2022, he was able to change to #4 with minimal payment. When he signed with the Jets in 2023, he reverted back to #33 because FS D.J. Reed owned the #4 number.

Brady remained cautious and dissatisfied about the change to the smaller numbers:

“So, one guy has got a 6, one guy has 11, one guy has got a 9. And they change every play when you break your routes and get to your spot. It’s going to be a very challenging thing. It’s a good advantage for the defense, which that’s what it is. What if I let the offensive linemen wear 82 and No. 9? They wouldn’t know who was eligible. Well, that’s not fair. You’ll get your tail kicked. At least identify who the D-line, the linebackers, and the safeties are.”


Other than that, if a player wants to switch his jersey number for the following season, he can change it without issue with proper notification to the league.

Wide receiver’s digits in the teens

While the NFL stuck with receivers and tight ends with jersey numbers in the 80s as a standard, when the American Football League began play in 1960, they allowed receivers to have numerals in the teens.

The reason was that the AFL right out of the gate had a vision of a passing league. The NFL was very run-oriented at the time which produced low scores. The AFL thought that games that produced scores in the 30s would be more interesting and exciting for fans. And since the AFL was the new kid, they needed to develop fanbases in each city plus wanted as much national press as they could generate.

The NFL’s stance on throwing more than 20 times a game was that it was a foolish idea that would end up resembling basketball scores instead of the traditional gridiron game.

Because AFL offenses would be opened up to more passing, each club would need more receivers on each roster. The thought process was more available numbers would be needed.

Quarterbacks and kickers were the only players using numbers 1-19 and usually comprised of just four players. So, with all the available numbers, the decision was made to open up the extra jersey numbers for receivers while tight ends remained stuck in the 80s.

When the AFL merged all 10 teams into the NFL in 1970, this practice was not adopted by the established league.

Oddball jersey numbers

There have been cases when certain players have not been aligned with the NFL’s numbering system.

QB John Hadl of the San Diego Chargers wore #21. Oakland Raiders center Jim Otto donned #00. From 1970-1986, Chargers WR Charlie Joiner was the only receiver in the league to wear a number in the teens with his #18.

These three cases were because of a grandfather clause of an AFL player who was now employed in the NFL.

Early in his AAFC days, Browns’ quarterback Otto Graham wore #60

Hadl was a Two-Time All-American and named Two-Time All-Big 8 in his college days at Kansas. Later, he would be selected as the school’s Player of the Century and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. In high school, he was named All-State. His number at Kansas and Lawrence High School was #21.

He was selected with the 10th pick in the first round of the 1962 NFL draft by the Detroit Lions and was also drafted by the Chargers in the AFL draft. The AFL was offering a lot more money with rookie contracts so he chose San Diego. Through a league waiver, they allowed him to wear his college number if he signed with the new league which needed talented athletes.

Otto wore #50 in his rookie year but switched to his famous “00” which he used until he retired after the 1974 season. The numbers represented “aught, oh” which was a homonym of his last name. The double-digits must have been lucky because he never missed a game and played in 210 consecutive games. Otto was named to nine AFL All-Star teams, and three NFL Pro Bowls, and was selected as a member of the NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team.

Joiner joined the AFL in their final year before the merger in 1969. He wore #81 at Grambling State, but when he was drafted by the Houston Oilers, receiver Jim Beime had that number. So, Joiner flipped the numerals and wore #18 instead. Later, that 1-8 would be retired from his tenure with the Chargers.

Changes in jersey numbers by year:


Jersey numbers first standardized by position group across NFL


Defensive linemen allowed to wear 90-99; centers allowed to wear 60-79


Linebackers allowed to wear 90-99


Wide receivers allowed to wear 10-19


Defensive linemen allowed to wear 50-59


Linebackers allowed to wear 40-49


New system put into place

Often players would have numbers that did not fit their playing position. But a lot of players would wear a number for an offensive position, and then their defensive position’s number would be out-of-place. Prior to 1950, all players played both ways. When the NFL accepted three teams from the All-America Football Conference in 1950, that league had unlimited substitutions. The NFL liked this idea and followed suit.

Before 1964, there weren’t any kicking specialists so those players wore whatever their offensive or defensive position numbers happened to be. The kicker was the center or the middle linebacker. A lot of quarterbacks and safeties were usually the punters. The first specialist appeared in 1964 when the Buffalo Bills drafted kicker Pete Gogolak, the inventor of the soccer-style kick.

Oddly enough, when the number “0” became available to every club, players were drawn to the new numeral. Maybe it was the ability to be the very first to wear it on teams that have been in business for many, many decades and with some even a century. Before the 1973 standardization of numbers became a rule, only 19 players had worn that number.

The number “0” is available to every player except offensive and defensive linemen.

WR Calvin Ridley of the Jacksonville Jaguars looks at the number as an “O” instead of a zero. Denver Broncos LB Jonathon Cooper wore that numeral while at Ohio State, so the transition was a no-brainer. Another linebacker, Byron Young of the Los Angeles Rams, chose it because the “0” represented his fight to gain a roster spot in the NFL when he was told he had zero chance of ever being a professional athlete.

Baltimore Ravens v Cleveland Browns
CB Greg Newsome #0, LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah #6
Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

After all, before you begin with “1”, you start with zero.

Cleveland Browns CB Greg Newsome chose #0 because he wanted a fresh start after a roller-coaster season in 2022. Last year he struggled at nickel when he was moved from his customary outside corner position. The new number represents the ability to gain more production and make that next jump.

Is anybody there? Does anybody care?

The overall consensus of fans is “Whatever.” Basically, the attitude is that they are just numbers. College football has been doing this for years, so the ability to adapt to NFL teams is pretty seamless.

One thing it does create for some fans is now a secondary jersey will have to be purchased when there is nothing wrong with their favorite player’s jersey as it was.

The status quo of “being used to the old numbers” is gone along with phone booths, TV rabbit ears, cassette recorders, Betamax, carbon paper, slide rules, fax machines, and hot water bottles.

The lone argument to keep it the way it has always been would have to be tradition.

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers
LB Anthony Walker
Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

In baseball, the uniform numbers originally corresponded with where in the batting order a player was penciled in on the lineup card. Babe Ruth batted third and wore #3. In basketball, numbers were stopped at #55 in order for a referee to signal the jersey number to the scoring table using one hand as in three fingers followed by four fingers for jersey #3-4.

One thing for certain: Quarterbacks will have to learn a completely different numbering system. Instead of seeing a player and instantly knowing what position he plays, homework will have to be done prior to each contest.

Offensive linemen are in the same boat. The new method may lead to confusion which is inevitable and leads to more sacks.

Many suggest that single-digit jersey numbers are considered cool.

Are the new rules regarding the smaller numbers a good thing for the league? Just ask Tom Brady:

“It’s a stupid rule.”


What do you think about the new changes allowing more players to wear the smaller digits?

This poll is closed

  • 22%
    I think it is a good thing
    (17 votes)
  • 41%
    No sir, I don’t like it
    (31 votes)
  • 35%
    (26 votes)
74 votes total Vote Now