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Breaking down the NFL’s 6 new rules for 2021 season

A closer look at the NFL’s new rules for the 2021 season.

Super Bowl LV Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

On Wednesday, NFL owners approved six new rules for the 2021 season. Several rule proposals—like the Eagles’ fourth-and-15 proposal to replace onside kicks—were tabled for further discussion, leaving no major rule changes coming this season. Still, there will be some noticeable differences coming this summer, so let’s break them all down.

A list of the six adopted rule changes are here, but we’ll go into further detail below.

1. Eliminate overtime in the preseason

This one is self-explanatory. Any of the (now) three preseason games that end in a tie score will remain a tie. Previously, overtime rules in the preseason were the same as regular season rules. Regular season overtime will remain untouched, but there will be no overtime in the preseason anymore.

2. Establishes maximum number of players in the “setup zone” during a free kick (kickoff)

This is a bit of an unknown rule, but in 2020, teams that received a kick had to have at least eight players lined up in what they called the “setup zone” up until the moment the ball is kicked.

For the receiving team, this “setup zone” is the space between 10 yards in front of the teed ball (the restraining line) and 15 yards in front of that. So if the ball is teed up at the 35-yard line (as usual on a kickoff), eight players on the receiving team had to be set up between the opponent’s 45-yard line and their own 40-yard line.

Here’s how it looked last year:

The rule change is simple. Prior to this rule change, eight was the minimum amount of players in this setup zone, but there was no maximum. Now there is a maximum of nine, meaning there needs to be at least two players outside of this zone for the receiving team.

Why? Well, the reason is simply listed as “Provides excitement and competition.” The real reason likely has to do with low conversion rates of onside kicks. Previously, teams would crowd this zone with at least 10 players to recover an onside kick. For example:

This is now an illegal formation. Two players will have to be beyond the 40-yard line, leaving fewer players on the receiving team to recover an onside kick.

3. Replay officials can now provide certain objective information to on-field officials

The NFL didn’t fully adopt a “sky judge” this time around but this was a bit of a compromise. Now the officials in charge of replay can assist on the following new rule applications without the need for a challenge:

  • Possession of the ball
  • Completed or incomplete pass
  • Touching of a loose ball, boundary line, goal line, or end line
  • Spot of the ball/player in relation to sidelines, line of scrimmage line to gain, or goal line
  • Down by contact (when not ruled down on the field)

These issues can still be challenged by a team, but now the on-field officials can consult with replay officials if there is a “clear and obvious” issue with the call on the field.

4. Ensure the enforcement of all penalties committed by either team on extra point/two-point conversion attempts

This rule simply adds these words to an already existing rule (new part is bolded):

If a foul results in a retry, Team A will have the option to enforce the penalty from the spot where it attempted the try (previous spot) or from the yard line for the other try option, the location of which is determined by any previously enforced penalty, if applicable.

I believe this simply means they will tack on penalties if they occur on back-to-back try attempts.

5. Add a loss of down to the penalty of a second forward pass

Previously, when a team committed a penalty for two forward passes on one play, the enforcement was simply a 5-yard penalty. Now teams will also incur a loss of down for the same penalty, in addition to the 5 yards.

This new rule addition also impacts the very rare occasion in which the ball crosses the line of scrimmage, then goes back behind the line of scrimmage, then a forward pass is attempted. That is still illegal, but it will now also incur a loss of down in addition to the 5-yard penalty.

6. JERSEY NUMBER CHANGES!

The NFL has limits on what positions can hold what numbers. The main purpose of this is to designate eligible receivers from non-eligible receivers. This year the NFL has loosened those restrictions but kept the eligible/ineligible designations intact. Here are the new legal numbers by position:

QB: 1-19
RB: 1-49, 80-89
TE: 1-49, 80-89
WR: 1-49, 80-89
OL: 50-79
DL: 50-79, 90-99
LB: 1-59, 90-99
DB: 1-49

One note on this rule: If a player desires to change numbers for the 2021 season, they will have to personally buy out the remaining stock of their jerseys from distributors, according to ESPN’s Kevin Seifert. If they want to change next year, they are not required to do so. This is a long-standing rule in the NFL, and it may cause players to wait a year to change numbers.

In addition to these six new rules, the NFL also adopted a new way in which teams will report visits. Here’s the specific language:

Amend Article XII, Section 12.4 of the Constitution and Bylaws to require clubs to submit tryouts and visits to the League office throughout the entire year; however, such transactions will only be reported to clubs from the start of training camp through the conclusion of the Super Bowl, unless it is with a Restricted or Unrestricted Free Agent.