Revised injured reserve rules keeping NFL teams competitive

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The day after making final roster cuts, the Tennessee Titans put three players on injured reserve.

And they haven’t stopped.

Derrick Henry is just the biggest name in a revolving door that has seen the Titans make 19 moves putting players on injured reserve and play a NFL-high 80 different players — 11 more than the next closest teams, Indianapolis and Carolina (69 apiece).

With Tennessee currently atop the AFC with a 7-2 record halfway through the season, general manager Jon Robinson doesn’t even want to imagine how he would have managed his roster without the NFL’s current injured reserve and expanded practice squad rules.

“I don’t even want to go there mentally, I don’t know if my brain could take it,” Robinson said. “But I mean, it would be challenging, it would be tough. You would end up having to release some players, release healthy players in order to get positions that have injuries at those spots.”

The Titans have plenty of company using the NFL rules first changed in 2020 for the coronavirus pandemic and retained for this season. According to Sportradar, 23 NFL teams have put at least 10 players on injured reserve at some point since the preseason, and every team has used at least 55 different players already.

Going on injured reserve in the NFL used to mean a player’s season was over.

In 2012, the NFL allowed teams to designate one player to return, then doubled that in 2017. The coronavirus pandemic led to the biggest change yet: Allowing NFL teams to bring back an unlimited number of players from injured reserve, which was extended for this season.

Players must spend at least three games on injured reserve. That plus the expanded practice squad and the ability to promote a couple of practice squad players for games has essentially expanded the roster well beyond 53.

Whether the unlimited return rule, or the expanded practice squad, are kept will be decided in the next offseason.

“We will discuss future options for the rule with the relevant committees and the NFLPA after the season,” NFL senior vice president of football and international communications Michael Signora said.

Baltimore coach John Harbaugh calls the ability to bring back an unlimited number of players huge allowing the Ravens to navigate injuries that started with losing running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards and cornerback Marcus Peters. They currently have 13 on IR with three others designated for return.

That’s why the Ravens (6-2) have kept only 50 or 51 on their roster at times to be ready when players return for the AFC North leaders.

“Thank goodness for the roster flexibility,” Harbaugh said. “Let’s hope that stays in place going forward, because I don’t really see too much downside to it. I’m sure they’ll tighten it up somehow, but it’s been very positive.”

Saints coach Sean Payton calls the current injured reserve rule cost effective. New Orleans (5-3) is second in the NFC South despite having used 68 players.

“If a player can come back in four, five, six weeks, the fans want to see a starter getting paid (playing) and not someone else sitting on IR getting paid,” Payton said. “So, it makes a lot of sense.”

New York Giants coach Joe Judge has used 68 players this season, said fans want to see the NFL’s best players play. Yes, coaches’ jobs will be easier, but the result is a better product.

“The ability of having somebody and not losing them for the year, I think that’s just a plus for everyone involved,” Judge said. “You don’t want to see any of your players not play.”

Unlimited return also is good for players needing more than a couple of weeks to recover from an injury.

The Colts got three-time All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson back from injured reserve after he missed the first three games of his career with a sprained right ankle this season. Cleveland put running back Kareem Hunt on IR on Oct. 19 and got wide receiver Jarvis Landry back from a knee injury after three games.

Tennessee has gotten a pair of defensive starters back in safety Amani Hooker and linebacker Jayon Brown.

Cleveland left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. has dealt with ankle injuries this season, but hasn’t gone on injured reserve like teammate Jack Conklin.

“I feel like it’s very helpful to those players that know for a fact they won’t be out there for X-amount of weeks,” Willis said. “I feel like it’s very helpful for them to go on, get healthy and then come back.”

When the Titans put Henry on injured reserve, they refused to put a timeline on a potential return this season because they don’t have to. If he heals up before the Titans’ season ends, they will have a chance to bring back the man who was the NFL rushing leader when he broke his right foot.

The current rules also allowed them to sign Adrian Peterson, the 2012 NFL MVP with nearly 15,000 career rushing yards.

Peterson signed first to the practice squad, giving Tennessee a chance to see what he looked like with the offense before putting him on the roster.

When these rules are discussed at the NFL spring meetings in March, the Titans GM knows what he wants.

“I would certainly be in favor of kind of keeping things the way they are,” Robinson said.


AP Pro Football Writers Dennis Waszak and Schuyler Dixon and AP Sports Writers Noah Trister, Tom Canavan, Brett Martel, Tom Withers and Michael Marot contributed to this report.


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Teresa M. Walker
Teresa M. Walker
Sportswriter covering NFL, NHL, NBA, all of TN