While we're all still scratching our heads as to why the Patriots would part ways with a capable player who plays a position they've desperately been trying to fill for the last couple of seasons, let's get into some of the bookkeeping associated with the move.
Placing Josh Gordon on injured reserve . . .
1) . . . DOESN'T END HIS SEASON
It ends his season with the Patriots, in all likelihood. They've already used one of their return-from-IR designations on receiver N'Keal Harry and the other seems ticketed for left tackle Isaiah Wynn. Gordon would technically be eligible to return after eight weeks if he was coming back from a serious injury.
But based on his reaction to the move Wednesday night, and based on the fact that he was out at Wednesday afternoon's walkthrough, his injury isn't so serious that it would require an eight-week absence. Players on IR with minor injuries must be released when healthy. So while he won't be back with the Patriots, odds are he'll be playing somewhere for someone else in due time.
2) . . . FREES UP A ROSTER SPOT FOR MOHAMED SANU
Mohamed Sanu is a different player than Gordon, as we pointed out in our initial reaction to the Gordon IR move Wednesday night. So in terms of the on-the-field impact, this isn't a one-for-one swap. But as far as the roster goes, it can be thought of in those terms.
The Patriots needed a freed-up slot on their 53-man roster after trading a second-round pick to the Falcons for Sanu. Initially it looked like the Patriots would be clearing a spot for Sanu by releasing Eric Tomlinson. The team announced that it was releasing Tomlinson midday Wednesday. But that swap never became official. Instead it was Gordon who was plucked from the roster and placed on IR to make room for Sanu. Tomlinson remains on the team.
3) . . . MAY PREVENT GORDON FROM LANDING WITH A CONTENDER
Even if Gordon spends just one week on IR, that benefits the Patriots. How? Consider his move to IR a delayed release. Had the Patriots simply released him on Wednesday to clear a spot for Sanu, Gordon would've become a free agent and eligible to sign with any team. The Patriots probably wouldn't want that to happen and then see him land with a playoff contender.
By placing him on IR, they can keep him from the free-agent market. If he's released off of IR after the Oct. 29 trade deadline, he (like all players, even veterans, who are released after the deadline) would have to go through the waiver process. That means Gordon would not be free to sign with a team of his choosing. The waiver priority list is based on club records, meaning teams at the bottom of the standings and out of contention would first have a crack at Gordon.
4) . . . COULD LAND A REBUILDING TEAM A DRAFT PICK
Why, you might be asking yourself, would a team like the Dolphins or the Bengals care about plucking Gordon off of waivers? The answer is simple enough: draft capital. Because Gordon is eligible to hit free agency this offseason, he's eligible to qualify for the league's compensatory pick formula.
If the Dolphins claim him on waivers and keep him for the season, they could let him walk this offseason, watch him sign elsewhere, and they may end up with a 2021 pick as a result. Even if it's a Day 3 selection, a half-season of Gordon (and his salary) would be worth it for a team at the bottom of the league and looking to rebuild through the draft.
5) . . . MAY END UP GIVING THE PATRIOTS SOME CAP RELIEF
Notice in the previous graph I pointed out that any team that claims him on waivers would also be claiming his contract. Gordon was a restricted free agent last offseason and signed his one-year tender with the Patriots for $2.025 million. Had he been released on Wednesday to create room for Sanu, the Patriots likely would've been on the hook to pay the rest of that salary for 2019, according to OverTheCap.com's Jason Fitzgerald.
If, by releasing him off of IR following the trade deadline, Gordon gets claimed, then whichever team claims him will also claim the approximately $1 million on salary (and cap space) left on his contract for this season. That's nothing for a team like the Dolphins, for instance, who have about $28 million in cap space right now. But for the Patriots — who are tight up against the cap thanks in part to the money committed to Antonio Brown earlier this year — that money would serve as some slight relief.
They're looking for relief where they can get it, it seems. The Patriots restructured Shaq Mason's contract this week to free up just over $1 million, according to ESPN. They could also try to extend players like Kyle Van Noy, Dont'a Hightower and Devin McCourty for further relief. My understanding is that they haven't yet reached out to McCourty on an extension to this point. If Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio want to swing any more deals between now and the trade deadline, or if they want to sign any additional free agents as the season goes on, they'll need some cap breathing room.
6) . . . REMAINS SOMEWHAT OF A HEAD-SCRATCHER
Keeping Gordon away from a contender while simultaneously freeing up some cap space and clearing the way for first-round pick N'Keal Harry to contribute makes some sense for the Patriots. But at a position where Belichick and Caserio have been desperately searching for talent for two years now, releasing a player like Gordon — who'd proven himself capable of being a key piece when available, who'd earned trust from Tom Brady — leaves questions unanswered.
One injury, particularly to Harry, who missed most of training camp injured, would suddenly give the Patriots a big-body-outside-the-numbers receiving need and ding the overall depth of the wideout group. The team was clearly OK with letting Tomlinson walk about 24 hours ago. Does keeping the tight end-slash-fullback hybrid on the roster clearly represent better value than what Gordon provided?
What happened between the team's announcement of Tomlinson's release and Gordon's placement on IR? For a player who has dealt with as much as Gordon has over the course of his life and has previously acknowledged his own issues with being dependable — typically a hallmark of what Belichick wants in his players — one has to wonder if the team simply determined this was a player it no longer wanted to, or couldn't, depend on.
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