It took a full 16 weeks, but for the first time all season, the Pittsburgh Steelers made a roster transaction involving the release of a player that has directly to do with securing depth in the face of injuries, waiving first-year lineman Derwin Gray in order to promote linebacker Tegray Scales from the practice squad.
In most seasons prior to 2020, these sorts of transactions are routine, with the end-of-the-roster guys always under perpetual threat of being released and exposed to waivers because they happen to be the most expendable player at a position that has depth, in favor of a position that does not.
There are several reasons that the Steelers have been able to avoid making such a move prior to now during the 2020 season, primarily due to new rules changes, some of which are, at least for now, unique to the 2020 season, though with the potential for being retained.
The most important change was the fact that, as part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams are permitted to carry veterans of any level of experience on their practice squad—up to four, though raised to six for this year—and they may ‘elevate’ two players per week from the practice squad to serve as 54th or 55th players on the roster before reverting to the practice squad.
The ability to elevate players has had a major effect on roster stability, because it allows teams to manage short-term injuries much more easily. Instead of releasing or waiving a player to bring somebody up for depth, they can just elevate somebody.
The problem is that each player may only be elevated twice in a single season, and Scales had already been elevated in each of the past two weeks. In order for him to dress today, he had to be signed to the 53-man roster unless he was to be called up as a Covid-19 replacement (which the Steelers don’t have in this case, since nobody is on the Reserve/Covid-19 List).
The 2020-exclusive (as of now) new Reserve/Injured List rules that allow teams to place players on reserve for as little as three weeks makes it much easier to navigate short-term injuries, simply placing that player on reserve and calling up his replacement without having to release anybody or be without the injured player for at least eight games if they were placed on reserve.
Gray had been on the 53-man roster since the second week of the season, when he was signed from the practice squad after Zach Banner suffered a torn ACL in the opener. He had played 16 snaps last week, but was viewed as the low man on the totem pole, with the recently-claimed Danny Isidora obviously now being viewed as the superior guard depth option. Should he clear waivers, which is likely, Gray is sure to be re-signed to the practice squad, and perhaps brought back to the 53-man roster once Allen returns.