How New England Patriots Will Benefit from NFL's New 90-Man Rosters

Samer IsmailAnalyst IIApril 24, 2012

Who will Patriots QB Ryan Malllett be handing off to in the 2012 preseason?
Who will Patriots QB Ryan Malllett be handing off to in the 2012 preseason?J. Meric/Getty Images

On the Monday before the 2012 NFL Draft, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello tweeted that the NFL had unexpectedly approved a policy change that had been tabled at the most recent owners' meeting:

NFL roster limit has been increased from 80 to 90 players, effective 4 pm ET tomorrow.

— Greg Aiello (@gregaiello) April 23, 2012

This change makes permanent the "temporary" increase in preseason rosters instituted last year as a result of the lockout; in 2010, league rosters were capped at 80 players.

This change will have several impacts on the way NFL teams run their preseasons.

The most important is that it means the extra 320 jobs that appeared last season will again be available in 2012 and beyond. Thus, since the NFL draft is still capped at seven rounds, there should once again be a mad dash to sign undrafted free agents. Unfortunately for free agents, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement sets an aggregate limit on the signing bonuses a team can pay to undrafted rookies each year, so there will be a lot of undrafted rookies taking a chance to crack a roster for little or no money upfront.

(One additional point to note is that it will have almost no effect on teams' salary cap positions. Until the rosters are finalized, only the top 51 salaries on a team count against the cap. Street free agents almost never crack the top 51, and if they do, they push another salary off the top 51, so the salary cap would increase only be the difference between the two contracts.)

On the other hand, that influx will not be quite as large as some teams expect, because the new rules also change the way roster size is counted:

Under the old rules, only players who had actually signed contracts and were not on reserve counted against the roster. The new rules, however, basically include every player under contract to a team.

How does that affect the Patriots?

  • Wes Welker did not count against the old 80-man limit, as he has not yet signed his franchise tender. Under the new rules, however, he will count against the 90-man limit.
  • Patriots fullback Eric Kettani and wide receiver Shun White, who are both on military reserve because of their obligations to the Navy, will claim two more of the additional spots that have opened up.
  • The players the Patriots select in this weekend's draft will count as soon as they are drafted. In the past, they did not count against the 80-man limit until they signed their contracts.
  • Should players get injured during the preseason—as happened to 2009 rookie Tyrone McKenzie in rookie minicamp—those players will count against the 90-man limit even after they are placed on injured reserve.

Thus, a team at the 90-man limit will not be able to replace a player on injured reserve unless it cuts an uninjured player—which may make for some uncomfortable decisions around the league this offseason.

All in all, these changes will benefit New England for two main reasons:

  • They are already adept at identifying "sleeper" undrafted free agents. At least one UDFA rookie was signed by the team in nearly every season under head coach Bill Belichick, among them QB Brian Hoyer in 2009 and LB Dane Fletcher in 2010. The Patriots' ability to find these hidden gems should help them in a market with a suddenly larger supply.
  • They are also adept at managing the roster. Seldom do the Patriots manage to go through an entire season without several notable injuries; the Patriots somehow held the 2011 secondary together with, it seems, nothing more than chicken wire and duct tape. In recent seasons, while they have lost some of their rookies to waiver claims, they've also managed to get production out of other teams' castaways, most notably in 2010 with Danny Woodhead and in 2011 with Brian Waters.

Those advantages should begin to appear as the Patriots fill out their roster with drafted and undrafted rookies.