Was Patriots' Keeping of TE Rob Gronkowski on Active Roster a Waste of a Spot?

Samer IsmailAnalyst IIOctober 8, 2013

FOXBORO, MA - AUGUST 9:   Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots runs during a preseason game against the Orleans Saints in the first half at Gillette Stadium on August 9, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

On Tuesday, ESPN.com's Ed Werder reported that the New England Patriots are hopeful that All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski will be cleared by Dr. James Andrews to play on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., Fox).

He then went on to make this rather astonishing claim (all emphasis in quotes mine):

If Gronkowski plays, it will validate the team's decision to keep him on the 53-man roster rather than placing him on the physically unable to perform list. If not, the Patriots will have wasted a roster spot because Gronkowski would have been eligible to return after missing six games if he had been placed on the PUP list.

This isn't the first time this argument has been made. It's been made on Pro Football Talk more than once, most recently by Darin Gantt on Saturday:

While getting Amendola would help, the Patriots are rapidly approaching the reality that they’ve wasted a roster spot on Gronkowski the last five weeks. Had he stayed on reserve/PUP, he’d have been able to come back after six. So unless he’s back on the field Oct. 13 against the Saints, they’ve just been dragging him around to be inactive when they could have used the spot on someone able to play.

A few weeks ago, Mike Florio made the same argument:

Whether he gets there in Week Three, Week Four, or Week Five remains to be seen. If he doesn’t get there by Week Six, then the Pats will have wasted a roster spot on a guy who could have stayed on the PUP list.

But, as an old saw says, just because something gets repeated over and over again doesn't make it true.

And Ed Werder and Mike Florio are both very much wrong here.

First off, the Patriots have had healthy scratches among their seven inactives each and every week this season. So even if Gronkowski were on the PUP list right now, they'd still have to deactivate another healthy player every week.

Secondly, and more importantly, they're ignoring one of the key reasons why teams do not "stash" players on the Physically Unable to Perform list on a routine basis.

The reason is simple: Players on the PUP list cannot practice with their team. 

The concern with Gronkowski is primarily one of being able to knock off rust and absorb contact from defenses. If he had stayed on PUP, he might have been able to work on his strength, but he would be unable to work on the contact issue.

So let's use the Werder/Florio scenario and assume that Gronk remained on PUP until after Week 6 (i.e., this week's game against the Saints). He would be eligible to begin practicing with the team during Week 7, and the team would then have a three-week window to either activate him or move him to the inactive roster for the remainder of the season. They would not have to cut a player to make room for Gronkowski until they activated him.

It is highly unlikely that if he began practicing in Week 7 that he would be game-ready in Week 7; it'd be more likely that he would be game ready in Week 8 or Week 9.

So, while the Patriots wouldn't have to cut a player prematurely, the price of having Gronkowski on PUP would be that they would almost certainly have him for fewer games this season.

If Gronk doesn't play until after the bye, Werder and Florio might have a stronger argument. But, right now, it's way too early to call keeping Gronkowski on the 53-man roster a mistake.