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2021 NFL roster cuts: How does injured reserve work and what does it mean for the Patriots?

Related: Patriots roster cuts tracker: News, rumors, instant reactions

New England Patriots v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

With roster cutdown week over, the New England Patriots can now start fully focusing on their regular-season opener against the Miami Dolphins next Sunday. This process, however, could also include making additional roster moves: Teams are now able to move players to the injured reserve list while having the opportunity to bring them back to the active roster at a later point during the season.

Injured reserve, of course, looks quite different in 2021 compared to previous years — so let’s dissect what it is and what it means for the Patriots.

What is injured reserve?

In its essence, injured reserve allows teams to stash players that have suffered an injury that would keep them out for a prolonged period of time.

Until 2012, every player moved to the list was shut down for the remainder season without the option to be brought back. Since then, however, teams can return talent off IR — one player at first (tight end Visanthe Shiancoe was New England’s first ever choice to be brought back in 2012), and later two — after a certain period of time has passed — a player had to miss at least eight weeks before being eligible to player in a game again.

Those rules, however, have changed this year.

What has changed for the 2021 season?

The NFL-NFLPA collective bargaining agreement that was signed in 2020 allowed teams to return three players off IR per season compared to the previous two. However, the Coronavirus pandemic altered the picture once again. Teams can now bring back an unlimited number of players if those moved to injured reserve meet the following two requirements

1.) The player was moved to injured reserve no earlier than Tuesday, Aug. 31, at 4 p.m. ET

2.) The player has missed at least three weeks of regular-season play.

Players sent to IR before the roster cutdown deadline on Tuesday, Aug. 31, at 4 p.m. ET, meanwhile, are ineligible to be brought back this season. The Patriots have five players falling under this category: linebackers Raekwon McMillan and Anfernee Jennings, tight ends Dalton Keene and Troy Fumagalli, and offensive lineman Marcus Martin were moved to IR ahead of Tuesday’s deadline and will therefore not play this season unless released off the list with a settlement.

This means that all players currently on New England’s active roster and practice squad are in theory — if their injuries allow it — eligible to be reactivated in case they get moved to injured reserve.

What implications does this have on the Patriots?

New England returned to the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium on Tuesday with only one quarterback rostered, new starting quarterback Mac Jones. This means they will need to add a backup before the eventual start to the season.

The Patriots could decide to move a player to injured reserve on Wednesday (or at a later point) to clear up his roster spot, without having to worry about any return spots being taken. Wide receiver N’Keal Harry, who is dealing with a multi-week shoulder injury is a likely candidate.

Players that are moved to injured reserve, by the way, will still be counting against New England’s salary cap.