Tight end Hunter Henry and defensive back Jalen Mills are not only donning new uniforms this season, they’re also sporting new numbers with the New England Patriots.
Henry switched from No. 86, which he wore with the Los Angeles Chargers, to No. 85. Mills wore No. 31 and No. 21 with the Philadelphia Eagles and switched to No. 2 thanks to a new rule instituted by the NFL that allows skill-position players, linebackers and defensive backs to don single-digits.
“I was never really tied to 86,” Henry told reporters Thursday. “Honestly, I?m not a guy that — I’ve never really been attached to a number. Honestly, I just want to go out there and play. But 85, I saw it. Obviously, I played with one of the great ’85s’ to ever play the game and one of the best tight ends to play the game in Antonio Gates. So maybe it’s a little slight honor to him, and hopefully, I can do the number right for him.”
Henry’s old No. 86 is taken by Patriots tight end Devin Asiasi. Henry wore No. 84 at Arkansas, and Patriots wide receiver Kendrick Bourne scooped up those digits this offseason. Henry sported No. 82 in high school, and wide receiver Devin Smith wears that number in New England.
Mills is one of three Patriots defenders to switch to single-digits. Linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley will wear No. 8 in 2021 after donning No. 51 in the first three years of his career. Outside linebacker Matt Judon picked No. 9, his college number, after signing with the Patriots as a free agent. He wore No. 91 and No. 99 with the Baltimore Ravens.
Mills picked No. 2 because it was his late uncle’s favorite number. Nos. 21 and 31 are taken by Patriots defensive backs Adrian Phillips and Jonathan Jones, respectively.
“When the rule change came into play, I had the opportunity to get that number, and I was like, ‘Why not?’ He wasn?t a real big sports fan, but any time I did play, he did watch me,” Mills said. “Hopefully, I just wanted to represent him with that.”
Mills was excited when the rule change came into effect.
“I never expected it, but I always wanted it,” Mills said. “I was like, ‘Dang, that would be sweet if skill players were able to wear single digits like college players. It?s definitely exciting. I think it’s going to bring a new element to the sport.”
It’s possible that some of the Patriots’ new rookies could choose unconventional numbers, as well. They’re currently wearing temporary uniform numbers 50 through 61. It’s a method used by head coach Bill Belichick to show they still have something left to earn.
The Patriots rookies usually earn permanent numbers before New England’s first preseason game. So, for example, quarterback Mac Jones will probably be wearing No. 50 until Aug. 12. Running back Rhamondre Stevenson, wide receiver Tre Nixon, linebacker Cameron McGrone and safety Joshuah Bledsoe would be allowed to pick numbers in the single digits. Edge defender Ronnie Perkins could pick a single-digit number if he’s classified as an outside linebacker but not if he’s considered a defensive end.