Don’t listen to anyone who says film, stats, and player tracking data are the keys to evaluating football players. Those things all matter, but they take a backseat to one aspect of the NFL that reigns above all else: jersey numbers.
A bad jersey number can ruin a career before it gets started. No one is going to take the camp tryout running back wearing No. 47 seriously — he lost before he even had a chance to get going. Now if he can grab No. 27? He can catch the eye of his coach.
The NFL legislates which numbers different positions can wear — it’s under Rule 5, Section 1, Article 2 in the rulebook — but players still have enough choices to pick the right number.
Since jersey numbers are so vital to a player’s success, we decided to piece together the 10 commandments of NFL jerseys.
1. 46 is not an acceptable defensive back number by any stretch
This should be self-explanatory, but someone forgot to tell Detroit Lions rookie cornerback Amani Oruwariye. The fifth-round pick is currently wearing No. 46. For the sake of his future, he better change his jersey number after training camp cuts:
It happens to be true that 46 is only an acceptable number for fullbacks, long snappers, and linebackers who primarily play special teams. Not a cornerback looking to break into the starting lineup.
2. Steer clear of the 60s if you’re a defensive lineman
Defensive linemen are supposed to be the sleeker, faster version of offensive linemen. There’s no series of numbers that weighs down players more than the 60s.
Think about it. When was the last time you saw a game-wrecking defensive lineman wearing No. 64? The most recent to put together a decent season was Kerry Hyder, who somehow managed to rack up eight sacks with the Lions in 2016 while repping No. 61.
Hyder is an outlier here, though. He might have been able to double that output if he had worn No. 91 instead. He had the chance for a do-over when he joined the Dallas Cowboys this offseason, but unfortunately, his new jersey is No. 62.
3. Contrary to what traditionalists say, 10s > 80s for receivers
Receivers rocking numbers in the 80s used to be the trend — Hall of Famers Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, and Terrell Owens all fell into that group. But it’s not as common today.
Now, the best wide receivers are straying away from the 80s toward jerseys in the 10s. Nine of the top 10 wide receivers last season had a jersey number from 10-19. That includes Julio Jones, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Mike Evans, and DeAndre Hopkins. The only one who didn’t was Antonio Brown. That sounds like correlation to me.
Since 2014, there have been 22 wide receivers drafted in the first round. Only three of them — Amari Cooper, Corey Davis, and Mike Williams — have opted for jerseys in the 80s. It’s also worth noting that Cooper switched to No. 19 after he was traded to Dallas, where he’s been lights out.
4. Linebackers can only wear jersey numbers in the 40s if they’re fast enough
In the past few years, quite a few rookie linebackers have been picking numbers in the 40s instead of the 50s as they enter the league. Jarrad Davis, Deion Jones, Devin White, and Patrick Onwuasor are all recent examples.
While it doesn’t fit for every linebacker, it works for them because they’re capable of making explosive plays all over the field. Linebackers wearing 40 need to be fast. It doesn’t make sense on a lumbering run stopper.
The one exception: No. 46, which we already covered.
5. Running backs should avoid the number 39
Sure, Steven Jackson and Willie Parker were great players, but they had to overcome the number 39, which just screams plodding, slow running back. Just look how bulky this jersey appears:
A running back who wears No. 39 is liable for a 14-carry, 27-yard kind of game — an ugly stat line for an ugly number.
6. There is no such thing as a bad jersey number in the 90s
Nos. 90-99 are all money, especially for defensive linemen and linebackers rushing off the edge, like DeMarcus Ware or T.J. Watt. Linebackers who play off the ball can make it work too, but the player has to be a complete badass — think peak Jamie Collins.
7. All the numbers in the 20s are good money too
Whether it’s running back or defensive back, players can never go wrong picking a number in the 20s. There’s something about the aesthetic value of the “2” goes well with every other digit.
Unlike 46 or 39, numbers that start with a “2” make players appear more lightweight and faster. Giants rookie cornerback Deandre Baker initially started off with 35, but quickly changed to 27 by the end of rookie minicamp — he’ll be better off for it.
8. Just about every quarterback number is good except for “8”
Name one quarterback who has worn No. 8 since Steve Young who has any sort of swagger. Trent Dilfer. Sam Bradford. Kirk Cousins. It’s impossible. Don’t even try.
9. 50-55 is the sweet spot for jersey numbers in the 50s
Every number between 50 and 55 looks good, whether it’s a beast middle linebacker, an explosive edge rusher, or a stalwart center.
No. 52 is the peak of this jersey number range. Ray Lewis rocked 52 all the way to a Hall of Fame career. Khalil Mack, another player who wears 52, is well on his way there if he can stay healthy.
10. Truth be told, any jersey number can be great if the player wearing it is great
Alvin Kamara took flak for going with No. 41 when he got the league. It’s not really a number that fits an elusive, slashing running back. Usually bulldozing fullbacks like Lorenzo Neal are the offensive players who wear 41.
Now it’s hard to imagine anything else on him. He’s awesome, and and the number became awesome along with him.
Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey originally wore No. 29, but gave it up to his new teammate Earl Thomas. This year he’s going to try to bring style to No. 44 — and as one of the best players in the league at his position, he can do it.
At the end of the day, any jersey number can be made cool if the player wearing it balls out.
Except No. 46. That’s just a death sentence.