A lot has changed for the NFL. As it tries to keep on track for the 2020 schedule while overcoming the unique challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has put a lot of temporary rules in place. These, of course, affect the Dallas Cowboys, and that means that any additional explanation is useful.
That’s where a post at our sister site for the Bills, Buffalo Rumblings, comes in. Brandon Beane, the GM for Buffalo, explained how some of the rules concerning the practice squad have changed things, and discussed how it may change the way teams do things this year.
For starters, a lot has been made about the ability to “protect” players from being signed off the practice squad. Beane indicated that list begins on Tuesday at 4 PM Eastern of a given week. It’s not a seven-day protection where you can keep other teams’ hands off your players indefinitely.
“Those four protective players are [made] on Tuesdays at four o’clock each week,” said Beane. “So it’ll be kind of free access to poach prior to Tuesday at four after games are played. Your entire 16 would be able to be poached. And then on Tuesdays at four, we’ll be able to designate four guys that we have for the week.”
Many may have been aware of the ability to protect four of you practice squad members each week, but most probably missed out on that window of opportunity that exists each week. For all but the MNF teams, that gives them two working days to look around and identify who they might want to go after with the knowledge of who might have been lost to injury or a positive COVID test the previous week. At first glance, it might mean that the protection of four players is largely rendered moot. Most teams would want to sign those players away as soon as they could to get them in and start familiarizing them with scheme and plays.
Ah, but there’s the rub. In the current environment, there is an additional delay to consider.
“Here’s the thing that makes it tricky [signing a guy off the practice squad on a Tuesday],” said Beane. “If we went to go get someone off a practice squad, as the rules are right now obviously things can change, but that’s going to be a five-day entry to get them in our building. So, you claim a guy on Monday, he’s mostly going to be virtually meeting with you until the end of the week. So he may not have a live practice with your team that week. Just as it stands now, just to get them in the building. It’s like a re-entry whether it’s a free agent, whatever. It’s that test day one, test day two, off day three, test day four. So all of those are going to have to [have] negative tests before they can enter our facility.”
Note that no matter how the player has tested with his old team, the entire process of clearing him to enter a new facility starts exactly the same way it did for players reporting to camp. It is actually an encouraging sign that the league is taking things seriously and recognize that the player might contract the virus just in the process of getting on a plane to fly to his new team. Rich owners can circumvent some of the risk by arranging for a private flight to bring them in, but as has been frequently demonstrated, at least some of those billionaires still like to pinch those pennies. Even if the PS player gets a bit of red carpet treatment, the new team has no way to be confident he has not been infected since his last negative test.
That makes poaching someone off the PS a more long-range approach. They are very unlikely to be any use whatsoever for at least one game, and probably will need at least a week longer.
The one time that teams might be more willing to look around the league for PS players to snatch is entering a bye week. That gives them the extra time to get the player in practice and ready to be of some help.
A flip side to all this is that there may be some more valuable assets on squads this year, because with the expanded 16-man roster, the league also is allowing up to six veterans to be added with no limit on how many seasons they have played previously. It is an obvious way to stash a veteran who just doesn’t quite make the cut to have him around on the 53-man roster. That means that other teams would have a lot more knowledge about them than they would most PS players, especially rookies. With no preseason games, those are going to be almost complete unknowns outside their own organization. That also may lead to fewer players landing on another team after the cutdown at the end of camp.
Some teams are still likely to look to PS signings, especially if they are hit hard by injury or positive tests. The tolerance of staffs for risk will enter in as well.
Having the four protected players is still useful for a team each week, since they will know who is around for the next game once the deadline hits each Tuesday. With the ability to elevate two players each week to the game day roster, that could be valuable in a case where a player is questionable for the next game. It can really be a way to maximize any veterans that signed to the PS. You can use those protected slots to make sure you have a ready replacement in the wings on game day. Just to show a Cowboys specific case, if the team were to want to go with youth at tight end while carrying only three and keep Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz, and Sean McKeon, they could try to get Blake Bell on the PS as an insurance policy. The team is not restricted to the minimum on PS contracts, and can offer him more money to make sticking around more attractive. He would be a likely player to be protected.
Going a bit deeper, that may also serve as a signal which players a team thinks have potential. Another team may use that as a guide for who is worth taking a risk signing away during the window at the beginning of the week.
It is a minor part of roster management, but the new PS rules make it more of a chess game than ever before. Even if some teams may now be less eager to play.