If you’re still trying to understand exactly what Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome was doing with his 53-man roster this weekend, look no further than a tweaked rule for the 2016 season.
Since 2012, the NFL has permitted teams to choose one player on injured reserve to return later in the season, but teams were previously required to designate that player at the time they were placed on IR. Starting this year, teams no longer have to decide in advance which player they want to pull back from IR, leading to some different strategy such as what the Ravens exhibited over the weekend.
“It gives you some options that you didn’t have before,” said head coach John Harbaugh on Saturday before the roster manipulation began. “You’d like to be able to have more guys available for that, obviously from just a coaching football standpoint. The fact that you can leave it open toward the end of the year to see who gets hurt in the future after the 53-man cut and also who progresses with their injury the best and what your needs are [gives you more roster options].”
The rule still requires the designation to return to be used on a player who was placed on IR after the initial 53-man roster was finalized, explaining why safety Matt Elam and defensive tackle Carl Davis made the original roster before being sent to IR on Monday. Instead of potentially subjecting other players to waivers, the Ravens chose to cut veteran running back Justin Forsett on Saturday and waited to sign return specialist Devin Hester, leaving their roster spots open for Elam and Davis to temporarily occupy.
Forsett officially re-signed with the team on Monday afternoon.
Under the old rules, the Ravens may have simply passed on giving either Elam or Davis the designation since neither was projected to be a starting player, but they now have both in play as options to return later in the season. Should Baltimore suffer a serious injury or two at the safety position, Elam suddenly becomes a more attractive option as he continues to work his way back from arthroscopic knee surgery. In a similar light, a deep group of defensive linemen would look more vulnerable with a few injuries over the first several weeks of the season, making Davis a more appealing choice after he’s fully recovered from the ankle injury sustained in the preseason finale.
In order to keep Elam and Davis in play to return in past seasons, the Ravens would have needed to carry both on the 53-man roster or designate one for a return and carry the other on the active roster, leaving less roster flexibility in the process. It’s quite possible that both will remain on IR all year if the Ravens sustain a long-term injury to a more significant player in the coming weeks and would then prefer to use the return designation for that individual.
The rule still does not allow a player to return to the active roster until he’s been on IR for at least eight weeks, but that individual may return to practice after six weeks.
You can certainly question whether the modest reward was worth potentially alienating — or even losing — a former Pro Bowl player in Forsett, but the Ravens felt it was worth the risk to give themselves the optimal roster in the present with a couple more options for later in the season.