FRISCO, Texas – This should sound familiar by now, but things are going to look a bit different this coming weekend.
Just like everything else in the NFL – and the world – the fight against COVID-19 is going to change the way NFL teams trim their roster down.
The timeline is still essentially the same. The Cowboys have until 3 p.m., central time, on Saturday to reach the 53-man roster limit. They've started that process already, as they made seven roster moves on Wednesday.
Everything else, on the other hand, feels completely different. For starters, with a roster that's 10 men smaller than normal, the Cowboys have fewer cuts to make. They're also working with a much larger practice squad this season, which will give them more angles to consider.
"The fact is we've got two big things going on," said Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy. "One, we've got to get our 53 selected but also the 16 [player] practice squad in order. This is a different process because of the makeup this year of the practice squad and then from that ultimately you want to be having a jump start on the home opener in Los Angeles."
Yes, these strange times have temporarily changed a lot of the understood norms about NFL roster building. In addition to expanding to 16 players, practice squads have been tweaked a number of ways to help teams combat the circumstances. For starters, six practice squad spots can be used on players of any experience level, rather than the traditional requirements of little to no NFL experience. On top of that, front offices can designate up to four practice squad players per week who are protected and cannot be signed onto another team's roster.
Teams also, obviously, aren't facing the same restrictions of a normal training camp. If this was a standard season, the Cowboys would be gearing up to play their fifth and final preseason game on Thursday night. In fact, they'd be in Houston, given that the preseason finale was slated to be a road game against the Texans.
Without preseason games on the schedule, there's no need to balance roster decisions against the ability to play on Thursday night. That's likely why the Cowboys began making roster moves on Wednesday, and why they may continue to do so well before the Saturday deadline.
McCarthy acknowledged on Wednesday that it changes the focus of this week from what it would typically be.
"It just puts you on a different timeline," he said. "Then you factor in the fact that you haven't had an offseason, you didn't have preseason games, the ability to be prepared for your first game, I would think every team, every coach and staff, their awareness in the activity that they're putting into this week is different getting ready for the opener and we're no different."
The lack of preseason game also raises an interesting question about how teams might improve their rosters. It's common to see clubs churn their roster depth in a variety of different ways during cut down weekend. Oftentimes, they'll make waiver claims on players that have been cut by other teams. It's also normal to see weekend trades, as front offices will try to get something in return for an unneeded player, rather than simply release him.
The Cowboys have employed both of these tactics in the past. Adam Redmond, who was recently released, was a waiver claim back in 2018. That same summer, they traded cornerback Charvarius Ward to Kansas City in exchange for offensive lineman Parker Ehinger.
Asked about it Wednesday, McCarthy was honest. Without preseason tape to evaluate, the Cowboys are flying a bit blind as they look for ways to add to the team.
"When you don't have the evaluation on video, you are going off the pro reports for the veterans and college reports for rookies," McCarthy said. "It definitely involves a little bit more of a leap."
It's not going to change the fact that the roster needs to be cut down – and will be. But it's certainly going to be a change from the norm.