The NFL originally introduced modified IR-return rules last year as part of its Coronavirus guidelines, but it notified its clubs on Tuesday that they will remain unchanged heading into the 2021 season. This means that the New England Patriots and the rest of the league will again be able to bring unlimited players back from the injured reserve list this season.
The NFL’s player personnel department sent a four-page memo to the 32 organizations, but the main points are as follows:
Unlimited IR-return spots: As was the case last season, teams will be allowed to return as many players as they want (or can) from injured reserve. Under pre-2020 rules that number was limited to two players per team per season, but the Collective Bargaining Agreement signed last spring increased that number to three. Covid-19, however, forced the league to adapt — an adaptation that remains in place for at least this season.
Return timeline: As was the case last year, players sent to injured reserve will have to sit out at least three games before being allowed to receive the return designation. Once that happens and they are back at practice, a 21-day window opens: during that window a player either has to return to the 53-man roster or be shut down for the remainder of the season.
Return window: Players sent to injured reserve (or the reserve/non-football injury list) ahead of 4 pm on September 1 will not be eligible to return during the 2021 season. Those sent there afterwards, however, can be brought back. The Patriots have two players already on IR who will not return this season unless released and later re-signed: tight end Dalton Keene and linebacker Raekwon McMillan.
Repeat eligibility: While an unlimited number of players is allowed to return off injured reserve this season, every player can only do so once. If, for example, a player is sent to IR in Week 2 and returns to the active roster after three weeks, he will not be return eligible if he gets sent to injured reserve a second time.
Trades: Players on injured reserve can be traded if they were sent there after the aforementioned September 1 deadline. The acquiring team can then designate the player to return, or immediately activate the player if his previous team has already done so.
The Patriots actively took advantage of the modified rules last season. A total of 12 players were sent to injured reserve only to be designated to return at a later point. While wide receiver Julian Edelman was never activated despite receiving the IR-return designation, the other 11 players were brought back.
That list consisted of offensive linemen David Andrews, Jermaine Eluemunor and Justin Herron, running backs Damien Harris and Sony Michel, wide receiver Gunner Olszewski, tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, linebackers Josh Uche and Shilique Calhoun, and safety Cody Davis. Every one of them missed at least three games before returning to the active roster — something that will also be allowed this season.