Do NFL Players Choose Their Numbers?

5 December 2021

All football players have their numbers emblazoned nicely and big on the back of their shirts. It is the perfect way to identify players when officiating a game and allows fans to associate favorite players with a number. But, you may wonder how players get their NFL numbers. Are they random, chosen by the team, or do players get the final say?

Do NFL Players Choose Their Numbers?

NFL players do have a choice over their number to a degree, but not as much as you might think. Some players become famous for wearing a particular number, which then retires with them when they stop playing. But, they couldn’t pick a number off the top of their head. There are still rules in place depending on their position and the agreement of the NFL.

Simply put, NFL players have to really want a certain number within their allocated bracket to get the number they truly want. Most will have to make do with a compromise or the most significant number from what is left.

NFL Numbers Are Limited Based On Position.

The concept of players wearing numbers based on positions is nothing new in sports. For example, rugby players will wear a shirt depending on the position they are picked for that game. They may be famous as full-backs at 15 but will wear 11 or 14 if they start on the wing. With the NFL, things are a little different and there are brackets for player numbers.

One of the old quirks to the system was that the smallest numbers tended to go to the players that were physically the smallest – the kickers and quarterbacks – while the bigger guys got bigger numbers. This didn’t always work out and there has been some dispute over why special team players often get the best numbers.

However, Brackets Changed For The 2021 Season.

This is how it works now. Numbers 1 – 19 are reserved for quarterbacks, kickers, and punters, and have been that way for a long time. This expanded to bring in defensive backs, who could previously only play in numbers 20-49. This bracket is the same for tight ends, wide receivers, and running backs, who can also choose from 80 to 89. Before 2021, they had a much smaller pool to choose from.

50 to 79 is reserved for your offensive line and defensive line, with the latter also allowed to use 90-99. Finally, there are the linebackers, who can have anything from 1-59 and 90-99 in a massive shift from the previous rules. A lot of positions don’t get to change numbers in the new rules, but most top punters, kickers, and quarterbacks should be happy with their chosen single-digit number.

Why Did the Brackets Change?

This all came about due to difficulties assigning numbers in a small bracket with new players and retired numbers. It all came from the situation in Kansas with the Chiefs, but could easily happen with any NFL team after so many years with the same system.

Why Are Single Digit Numbers So Popular?

Lots of players did change for the 2021 season, with the majority going for new single-digit numbers. The Miami Dolphins had four wide receivers shift to single-digit numbers. One of the more striking changes is Matt Judon of the Patriots going from 99 to 9. Thematically, it looks like a big upgrade from going just shy of 100 to a bold single-digit figure with the same number. It is still recognizable but powerful.

This says a lot about the psychology of smaller digits. A lower single number makes you look like a first-choice pick and star player. Those that don’t follow the sport would be forgiven for thinking that the player in shirt number 1 is the best on the field – even if that is far from the case.

Can Players Keep The Same Number They Had In College?

There have been calls to change the number allocation system for decades. The use of college numbers is a big part of that. Reggie Bush wanted to keep his number 5 jersey when he went pro because of its association with his time at Southern California. As a defensive back, he was only allowed 20 to 49, and so went with 25 instead.

How Easy Is It For Players To Get The Number They Want?

The process is not easy at all and a player will have to really want to get their number changed to make it work. There are hoops to jump through with the NFL and affiliates. It may not be worth the time or effort unless the number is especially significant. This may explain why so many new players will happily give up their college number and take whatever is allocated by their new team. More experienced players may feel they have earned the right to something a little better.

First, there is the issue of cost. Players end up buying out the remaining stock of jerseys with their names and number on them so that new stock with the new number can go out. Players have to consider if it is worth the cost and hassle to work with the NFL and suppliers to make these changes. Also the issues of recognition. This also leads to problems with an association with a number. Merch and models with that number are no longer relevant. Out-of-date pieces are good collectibles for owners but are difficult to sell.

Do NFL Players Choose Their Own Numbers?

NFL numbers for players is a tricky subject and probably a sore point for those that don’t get their way. The new rules and wider brackets for numbers based on positions mean more chances to get a “better” number. You can already see more players signing up for single-digit jerseys. Not everyone in the sport is a fan of so many single-digit numbers in the game. But, it is easy to see why a player would switch from 99 to 9 given the chance.