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Cowboys already getting creative with their roster-building techniques

New rules on IR offer ways to manipulate the roster to their advantage.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants
Will Lewis be part of the maneuvering?
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

With cuts underway, the Dallas Cowboys are beginning to shape the 2020 roster. It is always an interesting time of year, but as with everything else, things are a bit different than normal. We know the team can sign 16 players to the practice squad. That includes up to six players with unlimited accrued seasons, so the annual race to sign players to the PS will be more intriguing. Another important change for this season is how injured reserve works. Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News lays things out in an article about what the team is planning.

Now, no limit exists to how many players the Cowboys can activate from injured reserve in 2020. The only true restraint is the same player cannot be activated more than once. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, a player can resume practice and play as soon as 21 calendar days from when he was placed on IR, according to official rule language The Dallas Morning News obtained from the NFL.

That’s big. The NFL has always had rules to keep teams from just using IR to “stash” players, trying to limit it to true injuries. In recent years, they have been gradually allowing one or two IR players to return later in the season, but it effectively sidelined them for at least half the games. The decision to greatly loosen things up was driven by the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with all its attendant restrictions and reductions on normal preparation and player evaluation.

It is just about certain at this point that Sean Lee is going to start the season on IR as he deals with a reported sports hernia, a tidbit dug up for the DMN article. Officially the injury is still “undisclosed.” Also listed as likely to wind up on IR is cornerback Jourdan Lewis.

Neither are exactly good news, although the presence of Joe Thomas and the reduced role Lee had in 2019 make his absence more manageable. Lewis is a bit more of a concern, and may have something to do with a recent report.

There would be some true irony in the Cowboys signing the player that induced a severe allergy to paying big money to free agents in Stephen Jones. But the problems in the secondary, the most troublesome on the roster, make it something to watch. And the short time required to bring Lewis back make this a much more attractive situation, assuming Carr would be amenable to a low-cost deal.

Outside those, Gehlken posits that there are two others who have a good chance of going on IR, LB Luke Gifford and WR Ventell Bryant.

For a player to qualify for IR activation, he must be on the club’s initial 53-man roster on Saturday at 3 p.m. when the NFL’s maximum roster size reduces from 80 players. So, the Cowboys hypothetically could retain Bryant and Gifford on Saturday and then quickly place each on IR.

And here is where the creativity comes in. Again, to quote the article:

So, some roster maneuvering would be necessary from the Cowboys to ensure there is no downside in keeping those two players on their roster in favor of healthy ones. A workaround has been identified to this potential obstacle.

Astutely, the Cowboys have explored releasing a vested veteran, someone with at least four seasons of NFL experience who is not subject to waivers and thus cannot be claimed by another team. The release would be done with agreement between the team and player that the transaction is purely procedural, and the player will be re-signed later in the day.

That just looks like excellent resource management, and is something to keep in mind when the final few cuts are made. If you see a couple of experienced players you were certain would make the team released, this is probably what is going on, so don’t get too worried.

However, it is going to make things a bit tight at linebacker. There are only seven on the roster at the moment. Another thing dropped into the article was that Justin March is definitely expected to be on the roster for the first game at the Los Angeles Rams. He has played a big role on special teams in the past, and linebacker is one of the best resources for those players. This also would seem to confirm what everyone was expecting, that UDFA Francis Bernard will indeed earn the Star as a member of the roster.

We have wondered who would be the sixth wide receiver should they keep one, and a move to the IR for Bryant would answer that question. Even more, it would allow them, after three weeks, to have him as a ready reserve without burning a roster spot or having to get him to the practice squad. It’s a good deal for him financially, since he earns his full salary on IR. At the absolute worst, he gets paid and has a leg up on making the team in 2021.

Beyond just the way the Cowboys can benefit from the temporary rules changes, there is a question of whether the league and the NFLPA might consider making these things permanent. The three week provision should be especially attractive to coaches, and there has always been no real reason to limit how many players can return from IR, outside of some paranoia about teams gaming the system. But combined with an expanded PS, which was going to 12 in any case before things were changed by the pandemic, it really makes putting the best roster possible on the field each week easier. That makes for a better product to sell the networks and streamers, which helps the bottom line. Given the worries about a reduction in revenues, that should get a higher priority.

Whatever is done for next year, it’s good to see the team being so inventive in managing things, especially since this means they may need to do a little more shuffling.