The Best Football Numbers Based on These 20 NFL Stars

The Best Football Numbers Based on These 20 NFL Stars

The best football numbers are worn by the best football players. They’re the numbers everyone imagines when thinking of a certain position. They’re the numbers on the back of everyone’s favorite jersey. They’re the numbers that are remembered forever — the ones we won’t forget. 

From 00-99, we’ve seen players wear them all. Some wear it better than others and we all have different favorite players, but some numbers receive more attention than other numbers. In fact, some numbers are so legendary that teams will retire those numbers, never to be worn again.

That raises the question, what are the best football numbers of all-time and who were the players that caused those numbers to become so popular? I know there’s a few numbers that come to mind right away, but it’s a question that’s more difficult to answer than you’d think. 

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What Are the Best Football Numbers?

The Best Football Numbers Based on These 20 NFL Stars
Alexey Stiop / Shutterstock

Although the NFL has been extremely strict on what numbers each player is allowed to wear based on their position, those restrictions have gotten a little more relaxed in recent years. For example, the NFL recently made major changes to those restrictions in 2021 and beyond.

Here’s a look at what the NFL allows now:

  • Quarterbacks: 1-19
  • Running Backs: 1-49, 80-89
  • Wide Receivers: 1-49, 80-89
  • 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: 1-19
  • Punters: 1-19

With new rules, we’re going to see a lot more single-digit numbers on the field, including running backs, receivers, tight ends, and linebackers. Of course, it won’t change the fact that some numbers are more popular than others based on the stars that have worn them in the past.

Let’s take a look at some of those numbers and who wore them best!

20. RB Emmitt Smith – No. 22

Seasons: 1990-2004 (15 seasons)

Teams: Dallas Cowboys, Arizona Cardinals

Stats: 226 games, 4,409 rushes, 18,355 rushing yards, 164 rushing touchdowns, 515 receptions, 3,224 receiving yards, 11 receiving touchdowns

Hall of Fame Induction: 2010

Other Players to Sport No. 22: Frank Gatski, Bob Hayes, Mike Haynes, Paul Krause, Bobby Layne, Roger Wehrli, Christian McCaffrey, Derrick Henry, Matt Forte, Mark Ingram, Nate Clements

The Dallas Cowboys drafted Emmitt Smith with the 17th overall pick in the 1990 NFL Draft. To this date, no running back has rushed for more yards in their career than Smith — he holds the record by more than 1,600 yards. He also holds the record for most career rushing touchdowns.

19. QB John Elway – No. 7

Seasons: 1983-1998 (16 seasons)

Teams: Denver Broncos

Stats: 234 games, 148-82-1 record, 4,123 completions, 56.9% completion percentage, 51,475 passing yards, 300 passing touchdowns, 226 interceptions

Hall of Fame Induction: 2004

Other Players to Sport No. 7: Morten Andersen, Earl Clark, George Halas, Mel Hein, Clarence Parker, Bob Waterfield, Michael Vick, Boomer Esiason, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Theismann, Doug Flutie

John Elway was drafted by the Denver Broncos first overall in the 1983 NFL Draft. As a starting QB, he only had two losing seasons in his career and won 10 or more games in eight seasons. He has the 11th-most career passing yards and 12th-most career passing touchdowns.

18. OL Jonathan Ogden – No. 75

Seasons: 1996-2007 (12 seasons)

Teams: Baltimore Ravens

Stats: 177 games played, 176 games started, 6 All-Pro selections, 11 Pro Bowl selections

Hall of Fame Induction: 2013

Other Players to Sport No. 75: Joe Greene, Deacon Jones, Lomas Brown, Howie Long, Forrest Gregg, Vince Wilfork, Jerry Mays, Winston Hill

The Baltimore Ravens drafted Jonathan Ogden with the fourth overall pick in the 1996 NFL Draft — the team’s inaugural season. He was an instant starter and became the main threat on their offensive line for the next 12 years. He helped pave the way for Jamal Lewis’ incredible career.

17. RB Barry Sanders – No. 20

Seasons: 1989-1998 (10 seasons)

Teams: Detroit Lions

Stats: 153 games, 3,062 rushes, 15,269 rushing yards, 99 rushing touchdowns, 5.0 yards per attempt, 353 receptions, 2,921 receiving yards, 10 receiving touchdowns

Hall of Fame Induction: 2004

Other Players to Sport No. 20: Ed Reed, Ronde Barber, Brian Dawkins, Mel Renfro, Lem Barney, Louis Wright, Jalen Ramsey, Cliff Battles

Barry Sanders didn’t have as long of a career as most running backs, but his legacy will be remembered forever. He was drafted third overall by the Detroit Lions in the 1989 NFL Draft and recorded more than 1,000 yards in each of the next 10 seasons — including 2,053 in 1997. 

16. QB Drew Brees – No. 9

Seasons: 2001-2020 (20 seasons)

Teams: San Diego Chargers, New Orleans Saints

Stats: 287 games, 172-114-0 record, 7,142 completions, 67.7% completion percentage, 80,358 passing yards, 571 passing touchdowns, 243 interceptions

Hall of Fame Induction: Not yet, but soon

Other Players to Sport No. 9: Sonny Jurgensen, Matthew Stafford, Tony Romo, Carson Palmer, Steve McNair, Jim McMahon, Justin Tucker

No. 9 is one of the best football numbers ever and Drew Brees is the main reason why. Drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the second round of the 2001 NFL Draft, Brees currently holds the records for most career passing yards and completions. He’s also 2nd in passing touchdowns

15. TE Tony Gonzalez – No. 88

Seasons: 1997-2013 (17 seasons)

Teams: Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Falcons

Stats: 270 games, 1,325 receptions, 15,127 receiving yards, 111 receiving touchdowns, 11.4 yards per reception

Hall of Fame Induction: 2019

Other Players to Sport No. 88: Alan Page, Marvin Harrison, Michael Irvin, Drew Pearson, Lynn Swann, John Mackey, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Greg Olsen, Torry Holt

Tony Gonzalez is the greatest tight end to ever play and is a large reason why No. 88 is one of the best football numbers of all-time. 

He was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs 13th overall in 1997 and has the third-most career receptions, sixth-most career receiving yards, and eighth-most career receiving touchdowns

14. LB Ray Lewis – No. 52

Seasons: 1996-2012 (17 seasons)

Teams: Baltimore Ravens

Stats: 228 games, 2,059 tackles, 99 tackles for loss, 41.5 sacks, 31 interceptions, 3 defensive touchdowns, 96 passes defensed, 19 forced fumbles, 20 fumble recoveries, 1 safety

Hall of Fame Induction: 2018

Other Players to Sport No. 52: Mike Webster, Patrick Willis, Clay Matthews, Dave Edwards, Robert Brazile, Khalil Mack

There’s no question Ray Lewis is one of the greatest linebackers of all-time, making No. 52 one of the best football numbers ever. 

He was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens 26th overall in 1996 and spent his entire career with the team. He holds the NFL records for most career solo tackles and career combined tackles

13. QB Peyton Manning – No. 18

Seasons: 1998-2015 (17 seasons)

Teams: Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos

Stats: 266 games, 186-79-0 record, 6,125 completions, 65.3% completion percentage, 71,940 passing yards, 539 passing touchdowns, 251 interceptions

Hall of Fame Induction: Not yet, but soon

Other Players to Sport No. 18: Charlie Joiner, Roman Gabriel, Emmitt Thomas, A.J. Green, Randall Cobb, Jeremy Maclin, Kenny Britt, Sidney Rice

When you think of No. 18, Peyton Manning is the first player that comes to mind. He was drafted first overall by the Indianapolis Colts in 1998 and has the third-most career passing yards, third-most career passing touchdowns, and fourth-most career passing completions.

12. QB Joe Montana – No. 16

Seasons: 1979-1994 (15 seasons)

Teams: San Francisco 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs

Stats: 192 games, 117-47-0 record, 3,409 completions, 63.2% completion percentage, 40,551 passing yards, 273 passing touchdowns, 139 interceptions

Hall of Fame Induction: 2000

Other Players to Sport No. 16: Len Dawson, George Blanda, Norm Snead, Jim Plunkett, Jake Plummer, Jared Goff, Frank Gifford, George Musso, Ed Healey

No player has worn No. 16 better than Joe Montana, though many have tried. He was a third-round draft choice of the San Francisco 49ers in 1979, leading them to four Super Bowl victories (including two-straight) and winning three Most Valuable Player awards in the process. 

11. RB Walter Payton – No. 34

Seasons: 1975-1987 (13 seasons)

Teams: Chicago Bears

Stats: 190 games, 3,838 rushes, 16,726 rushing yards, 110 rushing touchdowns, 4.4 yards per attempt, 492 receptions, 4,538 receiving yards, 15 receiving touchdowns

Hall of Fame Induction: 1993

Other Players to Sport No. 34: Thurman Thomas, Cornell Green, Andy Russell, Herschel Walker, Ricky Williams, DeAngelo Williams, Earl Campbell, Joe Perry

The Chicago Bears selected Walter Payton with the fourth overall selection in 1975. He would go on to record the second-most career rushing yards and fifth-most career rushing touchdowns over his 13-year career. He rushed for over 1,200 yards in 10 different seasons.

10. DE Bruce Smith – No. 78

Seasons: 1985-2003 (19 seasons)

Teams: Buffalo Bills, Washington Redskins

Stats: 279 games, 1,224 tackles, 200 sacks, 2 interceptions, 7 passes defensed, 43 forced fumbles, 15 fumble recoveries, 1 defensive touchdown, 41 tackles for loss, 2 safeties

Hall of Fame Induction: 2009

Other Players to Sport No. 78: Anthony Munoz, Mike Kenn, Bobby Bell, Jackie Slater, Richmond Webb, Art Shell, Bruce Armstrong, Walt Sweeney, Tarik Glenn, Carl Hairston, Curley Culp, Stan Jones

No other player has recorded more sacks in their career than Bruce Smith, which is why his No. 78 is one of the best football numbers ever. 

He was drafted first overall by the Buffalo Bills in 1985 and also has the eighth-most career forced fumbles. He recorded more than 10 sacks in 13 different seasons — including 19 in 1990. 

9. WR Terrell Owens – No. 81

Seasons: 1996-2010 (15 seasons)

Teams: San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals

Stats: 219 games, 1,078 receptions, 15,934 receiving yards, 153 receiving touchdowns, 14.8 yards per reception

Hall of Fame Induction: 2018

Other Players to Sport No. 81: Carl Eller, Tim Brown, Art Monk, Anquan Boldin, Jackie Smith, Calvin Johnson, Doug Atkins, George Connor, Dick Lane, Andy Robustelli, Torry Holt, Amani Toomer, Nate Burleson, Peerless Price

Terrell Owens was one of the biggest personalities the NFL has ever seen. He was drafted in the third round of the 1996 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers. He has the eighth-most career receptions, third-most career receiving yards, and third-most career receiving TDs.

8. QB Brett Favre – No. 4

Seasons: 1991-2010 (20 seasons)

Teams: Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers, New York Jets, Minnesota Vikings

Stats: 302 games, 186-112-0 record, 6,300 completions, 62.0% completion percentage, 71,838 passing yards, 508 passing touchdowns, 336 interceptions

Hall of Fame Induction: 2016

Other Players to Sport No. 4: Jim Harbaugh, Jason Hansen, Adam Vinatieri, Derek Carr, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson, Phil Dawson, Alphonse Neemans

The No. 4 is easily one of the best football numbers ever and it’s solely because of Brett Favre. In fact, only three Hall of Famers have ever worn the number. He has the third-most career completions, fourth-most career passing yards, and fourth-most career passing touchdowns.

7. DE Reggie White – No. 92

Seasons: 1985-2000 (15 seasons)

Teams: Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers

Stats: 232 games, 1,111 tackles, 198 sacks, 33 forced fumbles, 20 fumble recoveries, 3 interceptions, 2 defensive touchdowns

Hall of Fame Induction: 2006

Other Players to Sport No. 92: Michael Strahan, Haloti Ngata, James Harrison, Ted Washington, Shawn Ellis, Albert Haynesworth, Dontari Poe, Leonard Williams

Next to Bruce Smith, there has never been a defensive end as dominant as Reggie White. Drafted fourth overall in the 1984 draft by the Philadelphia Eagles, White has the second-most career sacks. He had more than 10 sacks in 12 seasons — including 21.0 sacks in 1987.

6. LB Lawrence Taylor – No. 56

Seasons: 1981-1993 (13 seasons)

Teams: New York Giants

Stats: 184 games, 142 sacks, 9 interceptions, 2 defensive touchdowns, 11 fumble recoveries

Hall of Fame Induction: 1999

Other Players to Sport No. 56: Chris Doleman, Pat Swilling, Len Hauss, Andre Tippett, Derrick Johnson, Bill Hewitt, Joe Schmidt, Darryl Talley, Brian Cushing, Shawne Merriman 

The New York Giants selected Lawrence Taylor with the second overall pick in the 1981 NFL Draft and he would spend his entire 13-year career with the team. With 20.5 sacks in the 1986 season, he was named the league’s MVP and went on to have the sixth-most career sacks

5. WR Randy Moss – No. 84

Seasons: 1998-2012 (14 seasons)

Teams: Minnesota Vikings, Oakland Raiders, New England Patriots, Tennessee Titans, San Francisco 49ers

Stats: 218 games, 982 receptions, 15,292 receiving yards, 156 receiving touchdowns, 15.6 yards per reception

Hall of Fame Induction: 2018

Other Players to Sport No. 84: Shannon Sharpe, Roddy White, Gary Clark, Antonio Brown, Joey Galloway, Sterling Sharpe, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Cardarelle Patterson

Randy Moss will go down as arguably the second best receiver to ever play. Despite having just the 15th-most career receptions, he has the fourth-most career receiving yards and second-most career receiving touchdowns. He also wore No. 81 and No. 18 in his career. 

4. RB Jim Brown – No. 32

Seasons: 1957-1965 (9 seasons)

Teams: Cleveland Browns

Stats: 118 games, 2,359 rushes, 12,312 rushing yards, 106 rushing touchdowns, 5.2 yards per attempt, 262 receptions, 2,499 receiving yards, 20 receiving touchdowns

Hall of Fame Induction: 1971

Other Players to Sport No. 32: O.J. Simpson, Marcus Allen, Edgerrin James, Franco Harris, Ricky Watters, Eric Weddle, Maurice Jones-Drew, Devin McCourty, Tyrann Matthieu, Jamal Anderson, Cedric Benson

What Jim Brown was able to accomplish in just nine NFL seasons is nothing short of incredible. The Cleveland Browns selected him sixth overall in the 1957 draft He has the 11th-most career rushing yards and sixth-most career rushing touchdowns, despite just the 30th-most rushes

3. DB Deion Sanders – No. 21

Seasons: 1989-2005 (14 seasons)

Teams: Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, Baltimore Ravens

Stats: 188 games, 512 tackles, 53 interceptions, 10 defensive touchdowns, 10 forced fumbles, 13 fumble recoveries

Hall of Fame Induction: 2011

Other Players to Sport No. 21: LaDainian Tomlinson, John Hadl, Eric Allen, Tiki Barber, Patrick Peterson, Eddie Meador, Cliff Branch, Frank Gore, James Brooks, Charles Woodson, Ezekiel Elliott, Aqib Talib, Dan Fortmann

You aren’t nicknamed ‘Prime Time’ without valid reason, which is the case with Deion Sanders. He did a little of everything, recording 22 interceptions in his 14 seasons— 9 from interceptions, one from a fumble, 6 from punt returns, 3 from kick returns, and 3 receiving touchdowns. 

2. WR Jerry Rice – No. 80

Seasons: 1985-2004 (20 seasons)

Teams: San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks

Stats: 303 games, 1,549 receptions, 22,895 receiving yards, 197 receiving touchdowns, 14.8 yards per reception, 87 rushes, 645 rushing yards, 10 rushing touchdowns

Hall of Fame Induction: 2011

Other Players to Sport No. 80: Steve Largent, James Lofton, Cris Carter, Rod Smith, Isaac Bruce, Andre Johnson, Donald Driver, Eric Moulds, Kellen Winslow, Jack Butler, Tom Fears, Len Ford

The greatest wide receiver to ever suit up in the NFL, it’s no surprise Jerry Rice’s No. 80 is on our list of the best football numbers of all-time. Over his 20-year career, he has the most career receptions, career receiving yards, and career receiving touchdowns among receivers. 

1. QB Tom Brady – No. 12

Seasons: 2000-present (22 seasons)

Teams: New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Stats: 304 games, 232-70-0 record, 6,875 completions, 64.0% completion percentage, 80,291 passing yards, 591 passing touchdowns, 193 interceptions, 26 rushing touchdowns

Hall of Fame Induction: If he ever retires

Other Players to Sport No. 12: Aaron Rodgers, Terry Bradshaw, Bob Griese, Jim Kelly, John Brodie, Roger Staubach, Joe Namath, Joe Ferguson, Ken Stabler, Randall Cunningham, Marques Colston, Rich Gannon, Andrew Luck, Gus Frerotte, Vinny Testeverde

One thing all the players above have in common is that they’ve retired from the NFL, yet Tom Brady is one that’s still playing. His seven Super Bowl wins isn’t just the most among NFL players, it’s more than any NFL franchise — a stat that proves just how dominant he is. 

He has the most career passing touchdowns and will soon have the most career completions and career passing yards.

Who Will Sport the Best Football Numbers Next?

With so many players changing numbers at the start of the 2021-22 season and so many new numbers by different positions, it’s refreshing to take a look back at some of the greatest players to wear some of the best football numbers of all-time. There’s a reason they’re so popular. 

It’s safe to say these numbers listed above aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The real question is whether any future or existing players will wear the number better than those we listed above. With the careers they had, it’s going to take an incredible career to dethrone them. 

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What we can do is remember these players for what they were — revolutionary to the sport we all love and enjoy today. If you truly want to ‘tip the hat’ to the players listed above, do what the rest of us are doing and wear the best football numbers ever by sporting their iconic jerseys on Football Sunday. 

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