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Trying to make sense of the Patriots’ decision to place Josh Gordon on injured reserve, release him at a later point

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Related: Patriots place wideout Josh Gordon on injured reserve

New England Patriots v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

The New England Patriots are in the middle of a busy week. Not only did the team acquire wide receiver Mohamed Sanu via trade from the Atlanta Falcons and sign free agent special teamer Justin Bethel, it also moved three players off its active 53-man roster — among them wideout Josh Gordon: the 28-year-old was placed on injured reserve yesterday, and is expected to get released at some point further down the stretch.

The reports around the move naturally create plenty of questions, so let’s try to answer the most pressing with the information that is available through reports, NFL rules, and the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Why is Gordon on injured reserve now?

Players can only be placed on IR when they are injured, hence the name of the list. In Gordon’s case that injury reportedly is two bone bruises in his knee; he had already experienced issues earlier this season and worsened the situation in Week 6 when he tried to make a tackle on a fumble return. Gordon left the game against the New York Giants, did not return despite being spotted on the sidelines, and subsequently missed an entire week of practice as well as the Week 7 game versus the New York Jets.

The injury itself, of course, was classified as a minor issue — there was a belief that Gordon would be cleared to play again as early as this Sunday against the Cleveland Browns. So why make the move in the first place, if he was as good as healthy again? This is where the team’s salary cap situation in combination with the aforementioned trade for Mohamed Sanu comes in play, and where things get a bit more complicated.

What happens next for the wide receiver?

As noted above, the expectation is that the Patriots will eventually release Gordon from injured reserve at some point in the near future. After all, teams are not allowed to stash players on IR if they are only dealing with minor injuries. As a result, the team and the player will likely sign a settlement: Gordon will be released and is not allowed to return to New England until after a predetermined period of time, but he will be free to join other teams.

The timing of the expected release is important, though, as the NFL’s trade deadline is coming up next week. Veteran players such as Gordon released ahead of the deadline can be signed by any team, after the deadline they would pass through the waiver wire. New England, depending on the injury and the terms of a potential settlement agreed upon at the release, will therefore likely prefer waiting until after October 29 to let Gordon go.

What’s the Patriots’ motive behind all this?

There are two basic reasons why waving Gordon after next week’s deadline is better than releasing him right away instead of placing him on IR:

1.) The waiver wire is like the draft: the worst teams pick first, the best come later. Waiving Gordon instead of straight-up releasing him increases the chances of him landing with a non-competitor.

2.) There is a salary cap benefit to this, which we will now dig into a bit.

As noted above, New England’s salary cap situation likely plays a big role in the decision to move the team’s number two wide receiver — one that has caught 20 passes in six games for 287 yards and a touchdown — to injured reserve and later let him go. After all, the team could save up to $952,000 in case Gordon gets waived with an injury settlement after the trade deadline and ultimately claimed by another team.

Over The Cap’s Jason Fitzgerald explained the situation as follows:

[I]f Gordon was released today he would be a free agent that was free to sign with any of the 31 other teams in the NFL and also collect the balance of his salary, about $1.08 million, from New England. However, if Gordon was eligible for waivers it would mean that if his contract was claimed the responsibility for the $1.08 million would go to the team that claims him. That solves some cap issues for New England.

Of course, any potential cap relief will only come when Gordon is actually released so for the time being he is still on New England’s books. So how does Mohamed Sanu and the cap situation fit into all this? The team needs to fit Sanu’s $3.5 million under its cap despite currently having only $2.9 million available; a short-term move like a potential restructure — keep an eye on right guard Shaq Mason — could create some space now with the Gordon money being added to that a little later.

Basically, this course of action gives the team more financial wiggle room and depending on other moves could be tied to a bigger picture that the Patriots currently see but nobody outside the organization has any clue of yet.

Could Gordon return to the Patriots even if waived?

In theory, Gordon could return to the team after his expected release. Of course, two things would need to happen for a reunion to materialize:

1.) Gordon needs to go unclaimed on the waiver wire.

2.) Gordon needs to remain unsigned until the settlement period plus three weeks is over.

Putting those two factors into account, it seems highly unlikely that Gordon returns to New England this year if he is indeed released off IR. After all, he simply is too talented for teams to not take a shot at him and a financial investment made would not be substantial.

How will New England fill his roster spot and role in the offense?

With Gordon on injured reserve for the moment, the Patriots’ active roster stands at 52 with one spot open. In the short term, the team will either promote a player from its practice squad or add an outside free agent to the fold. In the long term, however, the spot is expected to go to first-round rookie N’Keal Harry — a high-upside X-receiver whose skill set is similar to Gordon’s and who could play a big role moving forward.

Harry, of course, started the year on IR himself after injuring his ankle during the preseason. He recently returned to practice as the first of two players designated to be reactivated off the reserve list, and will be eligible to play in a game in Week 9 against the Baltimore Ravens. Essentially, the Patriots will therefore spend one game without a big perimeter receiver on their roster in the mold of Gordon and Harry.

In the meantime, the team’s wide receiver corps will be headed by Julian Edelman, Phillip Dorsett, Mohamed Sanu and rookie Jakobi Meyers. Dorsett is the primary perimeter target among the four, with Sanu’s versatility also allowing him to play on the outside quite a bit — if the team chooses to use him this way after just a few days in the system. As with the entire Josh Gordon situation, we will have to wait and see.