The Ravens are down to the final days before they must slash their roster to 53 players — the deadline is Saturday, Sept. 5, at 4 p.m. Eastern — and as with everything else in the COVID-affected 2020 season, this year’s roster-building process comes with a twist, or two of them, that could have a big impact.
First, the NFL has amended its practice squad rules this year, allowing teams to carry 16 players, up from 10 in previous years. (The new collective bargaining agreement had increased that limit to 12, and then it was further expanded for this year because of the pandemic.) In addition, the league has changed the eligibility rules, opening the door for more players to be available for practice squads.
And in another change that applies only this year, teams can place an unlimited number of players on short-term injured reserve, and those players need to sit just three weeks, as opposed to eight in previous years.
Here is a closer look at what those changes mean:
Practice squad changes
In a couple of ways, the brutal cuts at the end of training camp won’t slice quite as deeply this year.
Rosters were capped at 80 in training camp, down from 90 previously, to create more effective social distancing, and with a 53-man roster and 16-player practice squad, essentially the Ravens can keep 69 players.
The Ravens already began their cutdown earlier this week, releasing three players and placing wide receiver DeAndrew White on injured reserve. So of the 76 players remaining on the roster, essentially just seven need to go. The Ravens have an extra punter and long snapper in training camp, and they won’t be kept on the practice squad, so the Ravens should be able to retain all but a handful of players in the organization.
Of course, Ravens players might be claimed via waivers after they are cut. Every other team has intel on Ravens players, although the lack of preseason games or joint practices has limited that. But the Ravens expect to fill most of their 16-man practice squad from within.
The Ravens though, surely will be watching other teams’ cuts, and that’s in part because of another practice-squad modification for this year. The practice squad is designed for young, developmental players, and in the past, veterans with a certain amount of NFL experience were not eligible. This year, though, six of the 16 practice squad spots are available to any player, regardless of experience.
One other rule change, agreed to in the new collective bargaining agreement, also helps practice squad players: Each week, teams can promote two practice squad players to the active roster, giving them 55-man rosters for Sunday.
Head coach John Harbaugh said for that reason, making the practice squad this year carries more weight than in the past.
“You have to assume that there’s a possibility that those guys will be playing any given week,” Harbaugh said. “You can bring two guys up each week from your practice squad to actually play. So making the practice squad, in many ways, is like making the team this year.”
Injured reserve changes
Perhaps even more significant is the one-time change to short-term injured reserve:
- An unlimited number of players can be designated to return from IR
- Players can return from IR after three weeks instead of eight
Last year, just two players could return from injured reserve. The new CBA had increased that number to three, and that rule was modified for this pandemic-altered season. As in the past, however, players must be on the initial 53-man roster to be eligible to return from injured reserve. Anyone placed on injured reserve before the 53-man roster set, such as cornerback Iman Marshall, is out for the season.
How might this all affect the Ravens?
Take a player such as Matt Skura. The Ravens are still trying to gauge whether their starting center is fully recovered from the major knee injury he sustained late last season. He began the preseason on the physically-unable-to-perform list and has been ramping up his activity since returning to practice.
Harbaugh said Skura had “no hiccups, no issues” during the team’s live stadium scrimmage Aug. 29, adding, “We’ll know by next week where he’s at. … We’ll see how he’s doing with it as we get close to the game.”
With the new IR rules, Skura could be placed on injured reserve, could strengthen his knee for an additional month and then be back in the lineup in early October. Similarly, the Ravens might have plans to place defensive tackle Justin Madubuike on short-term injured reserve. The promising rookie tweaked his knee during the Ravens scrimmage and is “week to week,” Harbaugh said. Again, by keeping him on the initial 53-man roster, Madubuike could return much earlier than in previous years.
Of course, those players would need to be on the initial 53-man roster for that to happen, which would take someone else’s roster spot, if only for a day. Might the Ravens perform some more roster gymnastics to make that happen?
In 2016, the Ravens released running back Justin Forsett in a wink-wink, nod-nod move, re-signing him two days later. That allowed them to keep safety Matt Elam and defensive lineman Carl Davis on the initial 53-man roster; both were injured but the Ravens wanted to keep the door open for their possible return.
Regardless of whether the Ravens go that route with Skura or Madubuike, the three-week hiatus for short-term injured reserve, with an unlimited number of players eligible to return, suggests that a record number of players across the league will be placed on injured reserve this year.
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