If the NFL is just one giant game of poker, then the COVID-19 pandemic is closely guarding each player’s hand this summer.
It could be difficult for the New England Patriots to fill the remaining holes on their depth chart through trades before the 2020 NFL season begins next week.
The truncated 2020 preseason is changing the way teams typically conduct business. Because of the pandemic, all preseason games were canceled and training camp was shortened. Fans were not allowed in the stands for training camp, and media reporting rules on practice were tightened as a result.
Therefore, it’s tougher than ever to gauge roster locks and bubbles prior to Saturday’s cutdown date.
“There’s a lot less shopping of players this year than what there would normally be, where teams could anticipate the way it was going to go,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Friday during a video conference. “You could kind of tell what other teams were going to do for most roster spots and you kind of knew who was available.
“If a team was going to release a player, they’d rather trade him and get something for him than release him and not get anything. So, I would say it was a little more defined. Maybe that will change in the next 24 hours. It might, but I’d say that’s where we are for now.”
The Patriots acquired cornerback Mike Jackson in a trade with the Detroit Lions in early August but haven’t swung another deal since practices began.
The Patriots made three trades before cuts last summer, four prior to Week 1 in 2017, one in 2016 and two more in 2015. This year, the Patriots are having a difficult time even assessing which players could become available through waivers or free agency, and some of the new practice squad rules are further complicating matters.
Players with any level of NFL experience can sign to practice squads for the first time this season.
“That?s a big change because in the past, if you released a player that wasn?t practice-squad eligible, you know that player would be available,” Belichick said. “Honestly, that player would probably, 99 percent would want to play on a roster.
“With the practice squad, I think there?s an argument for a player to — do you want to be on a practice squad knowing that you?re very close to playing on a team in a situation you know you’re comfortable with versus going to another team where as soon as they find somebody better, they might want to replace you with somebody else?”
A chatty Belichick also brought up this year’s new injured reserve rules, which allow teams to bring back an unlimited amount of players after just three weeks. A player must make a team’s initial 53-man roster to be allowed to return, however. Players placed on injured reserve before Sunday are out for the season.
He also referenced the ability to temporarily bring players up off of the practice squad to the active roster and send them down without exposure to waivers. NFL teams can do that with two practice squad players per week. Each practice squad player can be temporarily brought up to the active roster twice per season and not in consecutive weeks.
“So when you say ‘available,’ I’m not sure that — even though it’s the same guys that might be available this year from last year, just say hypothetically you took last year’s guys that were all available,” Belichick said. “If all those guys actually would have been available in this set of rules, and especially with the three-week IR situation, I think the practice squad — if you have an experienced player on the practice squad, it’s a lot easier to get him up. You have those couple free activations. You have the three-week IR rule, so I think that might change a little bit.”
The Patriots typically value players more if they have past experience with someone in the organization. (Patriots quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch was with the Los Angeles Rams in 2018 and 2019. Patriots front office consultant Eliot Wolf has experience in the Cleveland Browns’ and Green Bay Packers’ front offices.)
The Patriots might have to wait until those players become available through waivers Saturday at 4 p.m. ET to pounce.
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