This is the most nerve-racking week on the NFL calendar, as players battle for the final spots on the initial 53-man rosters, which must be on file with the league by 4 p.m. Saturday, a week ahead of the season opener.
The angst isn’t limited to players, however, as coaches and front office personnel struggle with the decisions about which bubble players to keep.
Changes to the collective bargaining agreement this season will make some roster-management decisions easier, the most significant of which are an expansion of the practice squad and changes to the injured reserve list rules.
Practice squads originally were expected to increase by two to 12 this season and next, then to 14 in 2022. However, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the NFL and the Players Association agreed to immediately increase them to 16 this season. If COVID-19 protocols are still in place for 2021, practice squads will remain at 16.
This creates more jobs, and it’s possible that 69 of the 80 players teams had in camp could stay with the organization.
A big benefit is revamped practice squad eligibility. Previously, a player could not be on a practice squad if he had more than three accrued seasons in the NFL. Under the new rules, teams can keep up to six players on the squad regardless of their service time.
Players still must pass through waivers this weekend before they can be placed on the practice squad, so there’s always a risk of a team losing someone it had earmarked for the squad. The risk is somewhat mitigated by the fact that there is no preseason game tape, so teams will likely be more apt to keep players they’ve worked with through training camp than sign players sight unseen.
In addition, each Tuesday, teams will be allowed to protect up to four players on their practice squad from being poached by other clubs. In the past, practice squadders were free to be signed to any other team’s 53-man roster at any time.
Also this season, teams can temporarily expand the roster from 53 to 55 by promoting two practice squad players. This allows for game-day rosters to increase from 46 to 48, though one of the additional players must be an offensive lineman.
As for the injured reserve list, teams are now allowed to bring back an unlimited amount of players after they have missed at least three games. In the past, a club could bring back only two players from IR, and they had to sit out a minimum of eight weeks.
Once an injured player is designated to return to practice, clubs have 21 days to activate that player.
After the release of receiver Mohamed Sanu, defensive lineman Michael Barnett and cornerback Michael Jackson, the Patriots’ roster currently stands at 77. Traditionally, New England releases some players on Friday before making the final cuts Saturday.
Trades are always part of the cutdown equation. Last year, the Patriots traded for offensive linemen Jermaine Eluemunor and Korey Cunningham, both of whom are now in the mix for the right tackle spot vacated by Marcus Cannon, who opted out of the season.