We’ll cut to the chase. We’re fairly certain the reason Jarryd Hayne hasn’t been called up to the 53 man active roster for the 49ers has little to do with talent, and all to do with practice squad rules and flexibility in his current contract.
If Hayne were called up to the active roster (53-man squad) for weeks 16 and 17, he would lose the ability to be designated to a practice squad next season. This would essentially reduce the roster spots available to him league-wide from 2,016 (32 teams, 63 spots) down to 1,696 (32 teams, 53 spots). There are also Injured Reserve spots and other designations, but the math stays pretty constant here.
The reason for this is that practice squad rules are pretty restrictive. They’re mostly for first year players, with just two spots per team for second year players. NFL rules dictate that players can only be designated to the practice squad if they been on an active roster for fewer than six games, or on the 45-man active gameday roster for fewer than nine games. Hayne played the first six games of the season for the Niners, before being left inactive (but on the 53-man roster) for the seventh against the Seahawks. On October 31, the day before their Week 8 game against the Rams, the Niners cut Hayne, and he was placed on the waiver wire. When no other team picked him up, San Francisco signed him to their 10-man practice squad.
The practice squad was always seen as a likely initial destination for Hayne, given his relative inexperience in the game. Being a member of the practice squad allows for near-constant reps in practice, not only in his position (RB) but also on the other side of the ball, which should provide a learning opportunity to get across the entire game.
It is in Hayne’s best interests right now not to be called up, or at least until week 17. (Edit: we erred here. He can be promoted to the Active list this week and play the final two weeks while preserving practice squad eligibility). If Hayne had been called up any earlier, his options for 2016 would have been greatly reduced.
Once Hayne hit the practice squad, it was likely in his best interests to stay there, unless he could definitively prove that he was a starter in the NFL. His first six week stint, whilst showing occasional potential, left a lot of questions unanswered, particularly around pass protection and ball security. It’s unlikely than an extra three meaningless late-season games would allay those questions for most NFL teams.
We haven’t seen discussion of this aspect of Hayne’s situation in either the Niners coverage in the United States or here in Australia. Coverage has centred on confusion as to why a team as terrible as the Niners don’t take a chance on someone with some apparent upside, in areas they’re so badly deficient (with a sidebar of ghoulish glee in Australian reporting every time a running back at the Niners gets injured).
This piece by Bay Area writer Tim Kawakani seems typical of the genre – Hayne’s treatment as more evidence of how stupid and terrible the Niners staff are. We’re not going to argue with the general thesis (the Niners are certainly not a good football team), but we question Hayne’s situation being an example of this incompetence.
It’s understandable – most NFL journos don’t obsess over the minutia of obscure NFL roster rules, and obviously most busy Australian scribes covering the sport on a less-than part-time basis don’t look at that either. Hell, how many AFL journalists outside Emma Quayle even understand their own sport’s list rules? But that’s what HPN is here for – the slightly nerdy details of sport.
The other important variable here is Hayne’s non-existent contract for 2016. When Hayne was waived by the Niners, they also waived his 3 year contract – this probably explains why he wasn’t just left inactive and outside the 45-man Active roster over the last two months. With only $108,000 guaranteed on the deal, it was a pretty easy and cheap move that let them keep both their and Hayne’s options open for next season. According to Spotrac, waiving Hayne cost the 49ers an $181,783 cap hit in 2015, and just $5,334 in 2016 in dead money. They can now re-contract with him during next year’s pre-season, and still have the option of leaving him in the practice squad for longer. Hayne, for his part, becomes an unrestricted free agent and can pursue whatever options he can find.
While we’re here – an update on HPN’s earlier Hayne predictions
In early 2014, HPN looked at NRL convert Jarryd Hayne’s prospects of success in his (then) prospective conversion to American Football. HPN correctly predicted that his value would lie as a punt returner, with potential to become a 3rd down running back who specialised in short catching routes. What HPN totally missed was how quickly he could convert to the new code. Our bad. While Hayne’s contributions to the Niners have been minimal, the fact that he was even able to contribute at all in his first season was a surprise. With another year of learning under his belt, Hayne may be able to contribute at some meaningful level in the 2016 or 2017 seasons.
At HPN, we still see his future as primarily a punt returner. But, with a little bit of effort, Hayne might be able to provide some value if he’s split out wide as a third receiver. Hayne has always been good with his hands, and has a proven ability to absorb tough first impacts. His size as a WR would immediately create matchup issues with smaller members of the secondary, perhaps forcing a linebacker to go onto him in man coverage. And, moving him to WR would cure him of his primary deficiency early on; his lack of understanding in pass protection.