One of the busiest days on the NFL calendar has arrived: roster cutdown day. The New England Patriots and league’s other 31 teams will have to reduce their current rosters from 80 players down to 53 — leaving more than 800 men without a team, in some cases temporarily in others permanently. But what exactly does it mean for the Patriots and the other organizations?
Let’s take a closer look at cutdown day to find out.
How many players will the Patriots have to move?
Following a series of transactions earlier this week — wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, defensive tackle Michael Barnett and cornerback Michael Jackson were let go — the team currently has 77 players under contract. This means that 24 of them will have to be moved off the active team before cutdown deadline one way or another.
What cutdown options do the Patriots have?
Teams have numerous ways to reduce the number of players on their active team — from cuts to trades to injury and other reserve lists.
Cuts: Cut is a general term for parting ways with a player, but there is more nuance to it through the difference between getting released and getting waived. Players who have four or more years of service on their respective résumés — so-called vested veterans — will get released and hit free agency right away, becoming eligible to negotiate with any team.
Players with less experience than that, meanwhile, will have to pass through the waiver wire: based on the draft order, teams can put in claims until Sunday, 12 pm to sign those players to their 53-man rosters (they do need to create open spots on the team for them, of course). If a player clears waivers unclaimed, he also reverts to free agency or is free to return to his original team via the practice squad.
There also is the option to waive a player with an injury designation. If unclaimed, he would automatically revert to a team’s injured reserve list. Patriots defensive tackle Michael Barnett is a recent example for this: he was waived by the team with an injury designation, was not picked up by another team, and is now on IR and out for the year. This brings us to...
Injury lists: To reduce the number of men under contract, teams can also place players on one of the various reserve lists. Injured reserve is the most common one: players that have suffered an injury and will be out for an extended period of time can get placed there. If they are moved to IR before 4 pm on Saturday, they will be out for the season; if moved there after 4 pm on Monday, they are eligible to be brought back via the return spots available to each club.
Those return designations do look a bit different this year, however, considering that teams are able to return an unlimited number of players this year after a three-week period. Mike Floria of Pro Football Talk previously explained them as follows:
The 2020-only rules, which become effective after 4:00 p.m. ET on Sunday, September 6, will allow the team to remove any player with a football or non-football injury from the roster for three weeks. After three weeks, the player will be eligible to return to practice. Once he returns to practice, the team will have 21 days to place him back on the active roster.
The Patriots currently have two players on IR in wide receiver Quincy Adeboyejo and the aforementioned Michael Barnett. Others should be expected to join them either ahead of Saturday’s or after Sunday’s deadline.
Other injury lists worth mentioning are the physically unable to perform list (PUP) and the non-football injury list (NFI). New England has only one player falling under those categories, and he has already been moved to reserve status: special teamer Brandon King will miss at least the first six weeks of regular season action on Reserve/PUP.
Trades: This is pretty straight forward. Teams could simply decide to trade players to get them off their roster. Safety Jordan Richards is a recent example, as he was moved from the Patriots to the Atlanta Falcons in 2018 in return for a conditional draft selection. The move freed up one spot on the team and also increased New England’s draft capital. Player-for-player trades are also common — think: Jacoby Brissett to the Indianapolis Colts for Phillip Dorsett — but they obviously do not reduce a team’s player count.
Other reserve lists: Three other lists exists that could be relevant to clubs, even though they have minimal importance for the Patriots when it actually comes to the cutdown deadline:
Players on those three lists do not count against the 53-man roster, with the Patriots only having players in the opt-out category at the moment. A total of eight players decided to opt out of the 2020 season due to concerns about the Coronavirus pandemic, including linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung and offensive tackle Marcus Cannon. They are ineligible to return this year — something that does not necessarily have to be the case for players on the suspended or Covid-19 reserve lists.
How does the timeline look?
The NFL’s official calendar has the following entries listed today:
9/5/2020: Prior to 4:00 p.m., New York time, clubs must reduce rosters to a maximum of 53 players on the Active/Inactive List.
9/5/2020: Simultaneously with the cut-down to 53, clubs that have players in the categories of Active/Physically Unable to Perform or Active/Non-Football Injury or Illness must select one of the following options: place player on Reserve/Physically Unable to Perform or Reserve/NonFootball Injury or Illness, whichever is applicable; request waivers; terminate contract; trade contract; or continue to count the player on the Active List.
Long story short, the Patriots and other teams — by using the methods explained above — will have to bring their active rosters under the 53-player threshold mandated by the league. The deadline to do that is 4 pm ET.
Transaction may be reported ahead of that deadline, even though teams could wait significantly longer before making any moves public. New England is traditionally among the teams to announce transactions way past the deadline despite obviously already having parted ways with the necessary number of players.
What lies ahead?
Once cutdowns are over, the scramble for talent begins. Clubs have until 12 pm on Sunday to put waiver claims onto non-vested players to potentially fill any holes on their team. The Patriots did that numerous times in the past, with Amara Darboh and Chad Hansen the most recent examples: the two wide receivers were claimed following 2018’s cutdown deadline.
One hour after the claiming period has closed, at 1 pm on Sunday, teams can start filling their practice squads. This year, up to 16 players can be signed with six of those available for players regardless of their experience in the NFL. While the number of practice squad players was increased due to Covid-19, the general rules of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement are still in place. This mid-June story about the practice squad therefore explains what to expect this year.
A little bit further down the line, lies the end of the NFL’s top-51 rule: as opposed to the offseason, all contracts on the 53-man roster will count against the salary cap beginning 12 am on Thursday, September 10 — the day of the regular season opener between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans.
The Patriots are in a rather comfortable financial position at the moment: according to Miguel Benzan, they are $35.38 million under the cap already accounting for the top 53 contracts on the roster.
Have the Patriots already made some moves?
All weekend long, Pats Pulpit will keep you up-to-date on all of New England’s transactions. To get an overview over who has been let go and possibly brought on board, however, is our Patriots cutdown tracker. Make sure to bookmark it, and reload frequently.