A Proposed Solution for NFL Roster Management Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Patricia Traina

NFL training camps are scheduled to begin in a little less than a month, and the league, as it’s done all along, remains insistent that it intends to play a full season.

As such, the NFL will soon be rolling out policies to help the 32 teams navigate these uncertain times brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is sure to cover everything from A to Z regarding football operations.

One of the biggest areas that need to have guidelines in place is roster management in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak on a team.

Earlier this month, the league sent a memo to all 32 teams with guidelines for social distancing, restricted access by tiers and increased cleansing and sanitation mandates, but did not address the handling of rosters as teams do eventually hit the field.

So what happens if a team has an outbreak?  The official answer remains to be seen, but in researching what other leagues have done, I came up with a few different concepts that I think might work for the NFL, the biggest being the "Team 9" concept.

What is “Team 9” and What are the Benefits?

Already there has been talk of increasing practice squad limits to 16 men, but I could see the league taking that a step further by implementing a concept that the short-lived XFL implemented known as “Team 9.”

"Team 9" was a 40-member squad of players who received pro-level coaching. Those players received coaching and strength and conditioning guidance and were able to work on their craft just like the members of the eight XFL teams did. The lone exception was that "Team 9" players did not compete in weekly games.

Still, the concept was a good one because if an XFL team needed a player at a specific position on short notice, the team could call up a "Team 9" member to fill in.

"Team 9" could serve as a replacement for the weekly workouts teams are known to have to create “short lists” of players they keep on speed dial in the event of an opening.

By having a group of players based in a neutral location where COVID-19 cases are under control, this concept would eliminate the need for NFL teams to hold weekly group workouts and it could also potentially produce a more game-ready player.

How the NFL Could Deploy This System

It’s not yet known how often or on what days teams will be testing players for COVID-19, but it is assumed that testing will take place multiple times a week, including, presumably, within 24 hours of game day.

So what happens if a player or cluster of players tests positive?

The first course of action would be to quarantine those players for a minimum of 14 days. To accommodate for a minimum 14-day quarantine, the NFL could adopt Major League Baseball’s “injured list” concept in which a player placed on a short-term exemption list and doesn’t count against a team’s roster. 

If the player is well enough to be activated at the end of his exemption term, he would be eligible to be immediately added back to the roster.

The NFL currently doesn’t have such a system in place (though it used to years ago). Currently, if a player is placed on injured reserve, he is done for the season unless the team designates him as one of the three players designed for return.

Even in those instances, the player still must sit on injured reserve for a minimum number of weeks, not counting the “evaluation” window teams have in determining if he’s ready to return.

That process would likely have to change for a player who specifically tests positive for COVID-19. If that happens, the minimum a player would be unavailable to his team would be 14 days while he isolates. 

In the meantime, the NFL could allow for teams to place the player on a 15-day minimum exemption list, at which point a team would have to draw from its practice squad first to fill the position.

To be eligible to tap into the "Team 9" talent pool, a team would have to lack sufficient depth to replace a player or players diagnosed with COVID-19.

To be clear, the above-proposed plan would only apply to COVID-19 cases. Injuries that normally pop up in football would, under this proposed scenario, follow existing rules that are already in place so as to avoid creating a strain on tapping into the reserve talent pool that's on stand-by given a still somewhat unpredictable virus.