Welcome to the busiest day on the NFL calendar. Welcome to roster cutdown day.
The New England Patriots and other 31 teams in the league will have to reduce their current rosters from 80 down to 53 players by 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday, leaving more than 800 men without a team — in some cases temporarily, in others permanently. But what exactly does it mean for the league and the Patriots organization in particular?
Let’s take a closer look at cutdown day to find out.
How many players will the Patriots have to move?
After not making any moves on Monday, the Patriots still have a full complement of players on their active roster. In order to get from 80 to 53, they will therefore have to move on from 53 players — and they have several options how to do just that.
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: The result of cutting a player is the same — he is off the active roster — but there is some nuance to it because the league makes a distinction between players getting released or waived. So-called vested veterans, who have four or more years of service under their respective belts, will get released and hit free agency right away; they are eligible to negotiate with any team without having to pass through he waiver wire.
Players with less experience than that, meanwhile, will have to do just that. Based on the 2022 draft order, teams can put in an indefinite number of claims on players. The Patriots are 21st in the waiver priority order.
They and other teams have until Wednesday, 12 p.m. ET to sign those players to their 53-man rosters — meaning that spots on the active team need to be open or created for those players. If a player clears waivers unclaimed, he enters free agency just like the vested veterans do. A player would then be free to sign with any team’s active roster or practice squad, including his original one.
Additionally, teams can waive a player with an injury designation. If he goes unclaimed, he would automatically revert to a team’s injured reserve list. This brings us to...
Injury lists: To reduce the number of players under contract, teams can also place them on one of the reserve lists available. 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 sent there. If they are moved to IR before 4:01 p.m. on Tuesday, they will be out for the season; if moved there at a later point, they are eligible to be brought back via the return spots available to each club.
The NFL tweaked its return roles a bit compared to the last two seasons. Whereas an unlimited number or players were allowed to return off IR and other reserve lists in 2020 and 2021, teams can only bring back eight this year. Four games must have elapsed after being sent to IR before a player can return to the active roster.
After reaching an injury settlement with Malcolm Butler earlier this month, the Patriots are left with two players on IR: cornerback Joejuan Williams and linebacker Ronnie Perkins are both out for the year. Based on years past, the expectation is that other players will join them before Tuesday’s cutdown deadline.
Other injury lists worth mentioning are the physically unable to perform list (PUP) and the non-football injury list (NFI). New England currently has two players on NFI: kicker Quinn Nordin and offensive lineman Andrew Stueber; the belief is that neither will return to the field this season. Reminder: players are ineligible to join either list if they have practiced or played in a preseason game.
Trades: Not much to explain here. Teams could simply decide to trade players to get them off their roster. New England has made several such moves this offseason, sending away linebacker Chase Winovich (to Cleveland), guard Shaq Mason (to Tampa Bay), wide receiver N’Keal Harry (to Chicago) and quarterback Jarrett Stidham (to Las Vegas).
Additionally, clubs can also acquire players via trade. Obviously, though, they need space on their 53-man roster and under their salary cap to make such transactions work.
Other reserve lists: There are other reserve lists that could be relevant to clubs, and they are somewhat relevant to New England this year. The two worth mentioning are:
The Patriots used reserve/retired earlier this year when running back James White decided to call it a career. Likewise, they will use reserve/suspended ahead of the cutdown deadline: defensive tackle Daniel Ekuale has been suspended by the NFL for the first two games of the regular season. He will not count against the 53-man roster until reinstated.
How does the timeline work?
NFL Operations has the following two entries listed on its calendar for Tuesday, Aug. 30.
Prior to 4:00 p.m., New York time, clubs must reduce rosters to a maximum of 53 players on the Active/Inactive List.
Simultaneously with the roster reduction to 53 players, clubs that have players on 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/Non-Football Injury or Illness, whichever is applicable; request waivers; terminate contract; trade contract; or continue to count the player on the Active List.
Players who are on the Reserve List or Exempt List and are not counting against the 90-player limit will begin to count against the 90-player limit.
tl:dr 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 p.m. ET on Tuesday.
Transactions 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. Why? That’s just the way it is.
What lies ahead?
Once roster cutdowns are over, the scramble for talent begins. Clubs have until 12 p.m. ET on Wednesday to put waiver claims in to acquire non-vested players to potentially fill any holes on their team. If they are awarded a player, they have one hour to make room for him on their active 53-man roster.
The Patriots have done so numerous times in the past, with wide receiver Malcolm Perry the most recent example: New England added him to its active team last year after claiming him off waivers following his release from the Miami Dolphins.
One hour after the claiming period has closed, at 1 p.m. ET on Thursday, teams can also 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. The NFL once again adopted rules from the last two seasons in that regard.
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 a.m. ET on Thursday, Sept. 8 — the day of the regular season opener between the reigning world champion Los Angeles Rams and the reigning AFC East champion Buffalo Bills.
When it comes to their cap, the Patriots are in a somewhat challenging position at the moment: according to Miguel Benzan, the Patriots have $6.15 million in cap space at the moment. They will likely have to add to that number to successfully operate during the regular season and account for in-season expenses.
Have the Patriots made some moves?
As noted above, New England has not made any transactions yet. That means they will be quite busy on Tuesday. In order not to get lost amidst all the action, please make sure to bookmark and regularly visit our Patriots Roster Cuts Tracker.