By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The NFL saw a flurry of trades go down before teams made their final roster cutdowns to 53 players on Saturday. There were 16 trades on Friday and Saturday alone, an unprecedented whirlwind of last-minute deals in a league whose very nature isn’t conducive to players suddenly switching uniforms. Bill Belichick and the Patriots were as active as anyone, making four of those trades.
Much of the league essentially treated the final roster cutdown like a roster expansion, finding pieces for the back-end of the final 53 via trades rather than internal options. Going straight from 90 to 53 players enabled one of the most active trading periods in league history.
The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin previously went over the benefits of the NFL expanding its rosters from 53 to 57. But the past weekend’s rampant trade activity makes you wonder how busy the league would be if such an expansion happened specifically before the trade deadline, a time that is typically quiet throughout the league. One way the NFL could make their own deadline more like basketball or baseball would be to expand rosters ahead of it, akin to Major League Baseball expanding rosters from 25 to 40 every Sept. 1.
It’s fair to argue that, with a mid-season NFL roster expansion, the benefits could outweigh the costs.
As far as coverage of the NFL, the rewards are obvious and potentially massive. Trade deadline specials (and sponsors) would inundate TV and computer screens. The NFL Network would feed itself days worth of analysis. Rumors and speculation would explode in the days leading up to it. Perhaps the networks even get themselves a nice little post-deadline ratings bump.
The NFL already has arguably the most entertaining on-field product, postseason, and offseason in sports – this way, it could also potentially have the most entertaining trade season.
Another benefit of a mid-season roster expansion would be for teams dealing with multiple injuries – which is every team in the league, but some more than others. Teams could have the option to remove more players from injured reserve, or at least keep players on IR active. Because teams need 46 active players on Sunday and no more than 53 on the roster, players are often placed on season-ending IR despite not necessarily having season-ending injuries.
The Patriots just had to do so with linebacker Shea McClellin, who missed most of the preseason with an undisclosed injury. A roster expansion would give Belichick the option to keep McClellin on the roster while injured and bring him back when he’s ready, assuming he had an injury that wasn’t of the season-ending variety. The same could even be done for Julian Edelman, who tore his ACL in August but feasibly could have been ready to return in January (or February).
NFL owners remain the biggest obstacle to such a radical rule update, as they would ultimately be the ones to incur any added costs that would come with deeper rosters. But in the case of injuries, teams wouldn’t be adding to their payroll if they are adding or stashing players on IR who are already being paid. They all count against the cap, which Belichick famously said can be maneuvered in a number of different ways.
Any added costs for an expanded NFL roster would come in the form of pay-bumps for players who are added from the practice squad or the street – but those players could still end up being traded anyway. Teams could sign their own practice squad players as a form of protection, a way to facilitate a trade with another team that was planning on poaching them. It could also make teams more inclined to make good old-fashioned football trades.
One of the inherent downsides of even an active NFL trade deadline is that quarterbacks or other big-name players probably wouldn’t switch teams very often. But last weekend proved that even a mid-level trade would ripple across the league. Just imagine if a deal like the one between the Seahawks and Jets, swapping defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson for receiver Jermaine Kearse, happened in the middle of the season. Even if it never ended up happening, imagine how much more buzz would surround the league if the Jimmy Garoppolo trade rumors happened for a starting QB.
It’s worth repeating that all of these players are already being paid. The league first instituted the practice squad in 1990 to curb teams using “taxi squads” of players who were paid in ways other than the team payroll. “Taxi squads” originated with former Browns head coach Paul Brown in 1946 and the rules implemented to stop them now feel stale and antiquated, especially considering the spate of injuries that constantly plagues NFL teams as seasons go along.
Teams could use updated rules for injured players, and the league is always seeking ways to increase interest in its brand. A pre-deadline roster expansion would be a way to have both.
League owners have done a phenomenal job keeping their teams at the forefront of American sports coverage year-round. The NFL’s free agency period, draft, training camp, and preseason portions of the offseason do plenty to keep fans engaged when the games don’t count. A more active and entertaining trade deadline would be one of the league’s final frontiers to dominate the other major sports in terms of attention, buzz, and interest. Possible financial pitfalls are minimal when the grand vision for teams is to make the NFL’s mid-season lull as intriguing as the beginning and end – especially when they can hitch a sponsored client to it all.
The 2017 season hasn’t started yet and almost every trade that went down over the weekend involved bottom-tier assets, but it was still a thrilling couple of days for those following the NFL. It showed the enormous potential the league would have if it expanded rosters at the trade deadline. It proved that teams are willing not just to trade with each other but to be more active in general.
NFL teams would benefit in a number of ways from expanding rosters, but doing so before the trade deadline would create a level of excitement that is simply nonexistent right now. It would create a worthwhile discussion out of what is currently a zero-sum event. It would be just the latest way that the entertainment value of pro football would rule over the rest.
Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, CBS, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @Dolloff985 and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.