In what is in my opinion some very good news, it sounds as though the NFL is on track to retain several of the Covid-19 roster-related rules changes that were implemented last season to help teams navigate the potential and sudden loss of availability of players due to the virus.
According to Tom Pelissero, while there is nothing official yet, alterations such as the retention of a 16-man practice squad and removal of limitations on how many players can return from the Reserve/Injured List (and how long they must be on there, are expected to be kept.
Both sides particularly liked the modified IR rules, which allowed players to return in three weeks instead of eight and removed the cap on the number of players designated for return. Teams had more flexibility, and players often got extra time to recover from minor injuries.
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) June 2, 2021
It has been expected for some time that this was a distinct possibility. They were popular and sensible changes that many felt should have been place all along. No other major league in the country had such a restrictive injury list as the NFL, and I think it was an inevitability that this would eventually change.
Pelissero writes that the change to the Reserve/Injured List was particularly popular, both on the part of the NFL and the NFLPA. It no longer required players to be on the list for eight games, shortening the timespan to just three, and any amount of players—rather than only two—could be designated to return. In a prior time, no player placed on the Reserve/Injured List was able to return to his team that same season.
This used to be a major issue that cost teams young talent. The penalty of losing a player for the remainder of the season by placing him on the Reserve/Injured List forced teams to carry injured players on the 53-man roster, and would result in their waiving those on the lower rungs of the roster to call up or sign another player at the position played by the injured party to secure depth.
One example in my memory was in 2010 when Aaron Smith was injured. Even though it was apparent that his odds of returning that year were incredibly slim, head coach Mike Tomlin elected to carry him on the 53-man roster in the hopes that he could make it back in time for at least the Super Bowl.
He wasn’t, but as a result of his being carried, the Steelers needed offensive line depth. They brought up Steve McLendon from the practice squad, and waived rookie fourth-round outside linebacker Thaddeus Gibson. He would be claimed by the San Francisco 49ers and they would never get him back before he flamed out of the league. They did once attempt to reclaim him to no avail.
As for the practice squad, it was already written into the CBA agreed to last year that the practice squad would expand to 14 players in 2021, but it was elevated to 16 last year. Other than the marginal increase against the salary cap, it’s hard to complain about the opportunity to have more players at your disposal.
Pelissero does warn that there is still a lot to be discussed about these and other issues, and that we might not have anything official until closer to training camp, but I think it’s a good bet that these changes become permanent. In case anyone asks, the practice squad elevation rules from last season were a part of the CBA, not a Covid-19 protocol adaptation, so they were already permanent.