Change is continuing to come to the NFL in the 2021 season.
After announcing that the 2021 season will now have 17 regular season games, the NFL reportedly is expected to pass a rule that will have less restriction on the jersey numbers that players can wear.
The NFL appears to be going with a jersey structure that is similar to the college game with number ranges for defensive backs, linebackers, running backs and wide receivers into the single digits, with quarterbacks remaining at Nos. 1-19:
Running backs, wide receivers, tight ends: 1-49, 80-89
Offensive linemen: 50-79
Defensive linemen: 50-79, 90-99
Linebackers: 1-59, 90-99
Defensive backs: 1-49
Kickers and punters: 1-19
Some franchise cornerstones have become synonymous with their current number, but it is still fun to imagine them in some new threads in the upcoming campaign.
Here are five New England Patriots who may take advantage of the potential rule change:
Current jersey number: 24 | Potential 2021 number: 5
The No. 24 on the Patriots seems to be reserved for All-Pro cornerbacks, from Ty Law to Darrelle Revis to Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore certainly has done the number justice over the last four seasons, but perhaps it’s time for some new digits since an argument could be made that No. 24 should be retired for Law, a Hall of Famer who spent 10 seasons wearing it with the Pats. So, Gilmore’s future could include a part of his past as he switches to the No. 5 he wore in high school and at South Carolina.
Current jersey number: 11 | Potential 2021 number: 1
Julian Edelman’s potential number change could give new meaning to the phrase one down, one to go. Just drop a digit from the No. 11 he’s worn throughout his career and he’ll be left with the No. 1 he wore in his final seasons at Kent State. Eleven seasons as No. 11 in New England seems numerically fitting, and after an injury-plagued season last year, a new number represents a fresh start — or perhaps a grand finale? It’s also fitting because Edelman switched from No. 11 to No. 1 while at Kent State.
“My jersey was No. 1 in high school for two years and we won championships both years, so I thought it would bring more winning,” he once told Kent State Magazine.
The Pats certainly could use more winning. Of course, Edelman switching to No. 1 would require a number change by Cam Newton. And even if Cam agrees, Edelman will have competition…
Current jersey number: 26 | Potential 2021 number: 1
Truth is, Sony Michel was more effective wearing No. 1 as one of the SEC’s top rushers with Georgia than he has been wearing No. 26 as a first-round pick with the Patriots. Perhaps a return to his college number will also mean a return to his other college numbers, making him No. 1 on his jersey and also on the Pats’ running back depth chart. Wishful thinking perhaps. And again, it’s contingent on another number swap…
Current jersey number: 1 | Potential 2021 number: 2, 13
It’s true that the number change rule doesn’t impact quarterbacks, who still are allowed to wear only 1-19. And it’s also true that Cam Newton has worn No. 1 for his entire NFL career after wearing No. 2 at Auburn while winning a national championship and Heisman Trophy. But if his current number is in high demand from teammates, perhaps Cam will consider switching back to No. 2 to represent his college glory days.
Perhaps he can take No. 13 as an homage to being the quarterback who replaced No. 12 Tom Brady. Or perhaps while the NFL is changing the rules it’ll make an exception for Cam to wear a number from the running backs’ new range since he ran for more touchdowns than he threw last season.
Current jersey number: 53 | Potential 2021 number: 3
It could be a double blast from the past for Kyle Van Noy. He returns to the Patriots, getting his old wardrobe back. And he switches from No. 53 to No. 3, getting his old college number back. Since No. 53 is already worn by 2020 second-round pick Josh Uche, it could be a win-win. During a media session prior to the news of the NFL’s number rule change, Van Noy said there was something in the works with Uche to get his old number back. That might not be necessary now.
Or, even better, if Van Noy goes with No. 3, Uche returns to the No. 6 he wore at Michigan, Dont’a Hightower swaps his No. 54 for the No. 2 he mentioned on Twitter that he wore in high school, Ja’Whaun Bentley goes from No. 51 to the No. 4 he had an Purdue, and Matt Judon takes the No. 9 he had at Grand Valley State, the Pats’ revamped linebacking corp could be a full single-digit unit.
And a former Patriot who could have benefited from this rule change:
Career number: 80 | Number under rule change: 27
Fryar played nine seasons for the Patriots after they picked him No. 1 overall in 1984, during which time he racked up 38 of his 84 career receiving touchdowns. He wore No. 27 during his All-American career at Nebraska but was unable to wear that number in the NFL at the time.