The NFL’s owners, general managers, coaches, and Competition Committee will convene for the annual league meetings in South Florida next week (Sunday-Tuesday) to discuss various rule changes for the 2016 season.
Many will be hotly debated: How can the league better define what is and isn’t a catch? Should instant replay be expanded? How can the concussion protocol be improved?
Overall, owners will be voting on 19 rules proposals, plus several potential new bylaws. But there should be a 20th rule on this list.
This proposal improves the on-field product, helps the teams better connect with their fans, and, frankly, is long overdue to meet the needs of today’s NFL.
The proposal is simple enough: The NFL needs to expand rosters from 53 to at least 57 players.
The idea has been kicked around league circles for years. The man who sold me on it is Neil Schwartz, a 25-year player agent who has represented the likes of Darrelle Revis, Terrell Davis, Janoris Jenkins, Vincent Jackson, and LeCharles Bentley.
“It’s the rare proposal that both the owners and NFL Players Association can and should want to support,” Schwartz said. “And the best part: It won’t cost anyone an extra dime.”
Falcons president Rich McKay, the chairman of the Competition Committee, said roster expansion is discussed almost every year and “definitely gets some interest from a lot of clubs.” In the last week, two general managers called it a “no-brainer.”
But McKay said the NFL is hesitant to change the system. Currently, teams can dress 46 of 53 players for games, leaving seven spots to carry injured or developmental players.
“Right now we’re pretty satisfied with where the system is,” McKay said. “You have the flexibility between 46 and 53 — that’s seven players that can be injured, if you will, to some degree — and you’re not at a competitive disadvantage. We’re looking at it all the time. I wouldn’t say we’re going to take a position this year, though.”
But NFL owners should take note: Roster expansion would alleviate two big problems, and would only improve the NFL without adding extra costs.
It would allow teams to stash more injured players to return later in the season, and allow teams to give street free agents a few more weeks of prep time to get up to speed with the playbook and terminology of their offense or defense.
To the owners who are already shaking their heads about not wanting to pay for four extra players, a reminder:
“You’re already paying those players anyway,” Schwartz said. “They’re on injured reserve.”
When a player goes on IR, he is removed from the roster for the rest of the year (except for a new rule that allows one player to return). However, the team still pays his full salary for the season. And with 46 of 53 players needed to play every Sunday, many teams are forced to put players on IR who don’t necessarily have “season-ending” injuries, because roster spots are so scarce.
At the end of the 2015 season, NFL teams had an average of 12.3 players on IR and the physically unable to perform lists (in addition to the 53 on the active roster), taking up an average of $20.25 million in cap space.
In total, 25 of the 32 teams ended the season with at least 10 players on IR. Why not expand the rosters by four and let a few of those players rehab their injuries and return for the end of the season? The owners are paying those players, anyway. Might as well give them a chance to get back on the field.
For example, Houston quarterback Tom Savage (Schwartz’s client with his partner, Jonathan Feinsod) was placed on IR in the preseason with a shoulder injury that probably would have kept him out half of the season. The Texans thought they were covered at quarterback with Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett, but certainly could have used Savage in the second half of the season when Hoyer suffered injuries and Mallett was released.
And in New England, the Patriots were forced to sign running back Steven Jackson off the street and immediately plug him into the lineup over the last four games. Do you think he was able to digest the Patriots’ full playbook, blocking schemes, blitz protections, and terminology? Of course not.
But with expanded rosters, the Patriots could have signed Jackson several weeks earlier and given him more time to learn the offense.
Another benefit to expanding rosters is that it gives teams a reason to keep veteran players around. In the NFL, you need your backup receivers, defensive backs, and linebackers to play special teams. That eliminates veteran guys such as Champ Bailey, Jerod Mayo, and Andre Johnson, who are too old to play special teams.
But guys like Bailey, Mayo, and Johnson still can bring tremendous value to a football team. They have the savvy to contribute in backup or spot-starting roles and provide invaluable leadership off the field.
“Who wouldn’t want Jerod Mayo working with young linebackers in the film room, or Andre Johnson teaching his technique to young wide receivers?” Schwartz said. “We shouldn’t be so quick to force our favorite players out of the game.
The only criticism we’ve heard is that this would give someone like Bill Belichick too many chess pieces. But there’s an easy response to that: Be a better chess player.
The NFL just concluded an exciting 2015 season that had the most one-score games in league history, and generated approximately $12 billion in revenue. But there’s no reason to stop looking for improvements, and increasing the roster size from 53 to 57 is an obvious and long overdue move that can benefit everyone in the league.