Before the start of practice Thursday, Washington Football Team Coach Ron Rivera chatted with one of his assistants about the difficult decisions that loomed. The team’s roster of 80 players has to be trimmed to 53 by 4 p.m. Saturday, and because of the unusual offseason and absence of preseason games, determining whom to keep and whom to cut will require more guesswork than in years past.

“I said, 'You know, we’re going to cut two or three guys that really should probably make this team but they haven’t had a chance,’ ” Rivera recalled while talking to reporters. “I understand last year one of the guys that really showed well was Steven Sims. And look at him now. He’s a guy that’s got an opportunity. He’s a return guy for us; he’s a slot receiver for us.

“These are all things that are playing into our decision-making and have, honestly, really created a situation where we do get bogged down in our conversations because we don't know.”

Because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the NFL offseason has been void of any live, full-contact football. Training camp rules were altered to create an extended acclimation period, leaving the on-field evaluation to only 14 padded practices.

Fourteen close-but-not-quite-true-contact practices to project how players might perform in real games.

“And quite honestly, that's the unfair thing for a lot of these young guys,” Rivera said.

This year, as both head coach and de facto general manager, Rivera has the final say over not just Washington’s game plans but also its roster. Kyle Smith, who was promoted this year to vice president of player personnel, has been a regular on the sidelines at practice, and his input carries significant weight in the decision-making.

But so, too, do the opinions of the assistant coaches and the rest of the team’s personnel department, Rivera said. This year more than ever, additional eyes and information will be needed.

“There are a lot of discussions because what’s going to happen is you’re going to have a scout or two or a coach or two that’s adamant about a guy and yet we have nothing to go on other than, ‘Okay, I watched his college tape,’ or, ‘I’ve watched his pro tape when he was with the other team, and I’ve seen him do this; I know he can do this.’ But we haven’t seen it, because we haven’t been able to compete the right way, the way that you need to compete so you’re able to tell whether or not a guy has that kind of ability,” Rivera said. “That’s the hard part for us.”

The new collective bargaining agreement that was signed in March was amended for 2020 to account for the coronavirus protocols. This year, practice squads can have 16 players (up from 12), and six of those spots can go to players of any experience. But cutting players with the intent to put them on the practice squad carries risk. Players with fewer than four accrued seasons (at least six games a season) must first be put on waivers, making them available to be claimed by other teams. If no team claims them, they can re-sign to the practice squad.

Per the new CBA, teams can expand their 53-man roster to 55 players during the season, as long as one of those extra spots goes to an offensive lineman. Practice squad players can be bumped up to the active roster to fill in for an injured player for a week and then go back down to practice squad without having to go through waivers. This “elevation addendum” is good for only two call-ups for a practice squad player, though. Should a team want to promote him a third time, it would have to add him to the 53-man roster, which requires a corresponding roster cut.

Determining which players to keep in the first 53 must also factor in who might get claimed by other teams if waived and who could fill an injury void.

“There are a lot of things that are going to impact the decisions,” Rivera said.

Then there are the changes to injured reserve. The CBA that was agreed upon earlier this year allowed teams to recall up to three players from injured reserve after eight weeks, as long as those players were on the initial 53-man roster. For 2020, an unlimited number of players can be recalled from reserve lists — be it injured reserve, the non-football injury list or the reserve/covid-19 list — after three weeks. Teams have a 21-day window after the third game to decide whether to activate players.

The flexibility is a bonus in a year with many unknowns. But it also ensures that most 53-man rosters that are sent to the league office Saturday afternoon will change multiple times in the subsequent days.

The rules and circumstances also will affect Washington’s thinking on a number of positions, notably on the offensive line. Fourth-round rookie tackle Saahdiq Charles has been sidelined for the entire padded portion of training camp because of a calf injury. The team traded for veteran tackle David Sharpe, but Charles’s recovery — in addition to the team’s lack of depth at tackle and the elevation option for practice squad players — may prompt Rivera to keep more offensive lineman than he has had on past rosters.

“If there’s one position that you can’t have a catastrophe at, in terms of catching the virus, it’s offensive line,” Rivera said.

But the same could apply to quarterback, where Dwayne Haskins was appointed the starter but Rivera has yet to declare a backup. Kyle Allen appears the most likely candidate, but do they keep Alex Smith on the active roster or place him on injured reserve the day after the 53 comes out?

“We have to look at where we are as a team; we have to look at who fits what,” Rivera said. “… We have some pretty interesting decisions to make, and we’re going to work through those things.”

Read more: