The NFL started to mandate position-specific jersey numbers in 1952, although it gave exceptions to “nationally known” players at the time of the new rule. As the era of free substitution began in 1949, it was necessary to identify players by number, particularly with regards to being an eligible receiver.
The modern structure that accounted for all positions on both sides of the ball and removed most of the wiggle room in the rules was codified in 1973. That structure stood for decades with a few expansions (most prominently allowing receivers numbers outside of the 80 to 89 range). Curiously, jersey numbers in the 90s were forbidden except for preseason games for 33 years until the league opened the range to linebackers in 1984.
There were still those who flaunted the rules, like Giants linebacker Brad Van Pelt, who entered the league in the seminal 1973 jersey numbering season. The Giants designated him as a backup kicker, allowing him to wear number 10, which was permitted until he signed with the Raiders, where he jumped all the way to number 91.
Todd Christensen was also a notable exception with his number 46. In his first NFL preseason, he lined up as a fullback with the Cowboys and so was able to port his number over to tight end with the Raiders. When tight ends were granted numbers in the 40s in 2013, it was a subtle nod to Christensen.
A number can be an identity to players, and so a push was made to open up large swaths of numbers, which was proposed by the Chiefs in April. Once approved by the owners, the rule change opened up a gold rush for coveted jersey numbers. The ones attracting the most attention were single digits assigned to positions other than quarterbacks, punters, and kickers. Most skill-position players have the first half of the possible numbers at their disposal; linebackers can select from 69 of the 99 possible jersey numbers.
Players with numbers facilitated by the new rules, Week 1, 2021
(Note: This is a snapshot list of when the rule officially took effect and will not be updated.)
The list below shows players who, as of opening day, are wearing numbers that are outside the range permitted for their positions under the old rules last year. A player must have been on an active roster, reserve list, or practice squad as of Sept. 8, 2021, to be included in this list. Numbers, position, and status are according to NFL.com, however we made a corrections to numbers or positions that were in error and did not conform to the new rules. All teams have at least one player on this list. Excluded from this list are any players designated primarily as “long snapper,” as they are not always centers, and players are frequently wearing numbers for a different position.
Two players on the Seahawks, oddly, are out of compliance with the new rules, as our partner site Football Zebras reported.
Notes: *player on injured reserve or other reserve list, †player on practice squad, ‡position changed, and player is allowed to keep old number, §player’s number changed, but does not conform to the rules of the position
Jeremy Snyder contributed to this report.