Patriots head coach Bill Belichick didn't go so far as to say that linebacker Dane Fletcher will miss the entire 2012 season with what has been widely reported as an ACL tear suffered on Thursday night, but he did express that the news "doesn't look good."
Given the average recovery time associated with an ACL tear, it seems unlikely that Fletcher would be able to return to the field again this season.
If we assume that Fletcher's injury will in fact cost him the season, the Patriots have options as to how they can handle his roster status.
The team could choose to send Fletcher to injured reserve, which would immediately preclude him from playing this season. There are a couple of ways in which he could end up on that list, however, and pros and cons to each.
The team has the option to move to Fletcher to injured reserve right away, but because he has less than four accrued seasons of NFL experience, he would still count toward the 90-man roster limit. The Pats could also choose to waive Fletcher injured, with the hope that he would pass through waivers.
The benefit to that option is that if Fletcher did clear waivers (and revert to the injured reserve list), he would not count toward the 90-man limit, thus opening up a roster spot for the Patriots to sign a player. The risk is subjecting Fletcher to a waiver claim from one of the other 31 teams, a tactic that backfired on the Giants when they waived Jake Ballard injured and he was subsequently claimed by the Patriots.
Another option for the team, and perhaps the safest option should it prefer not to risk losing Fletcher on waivers, is to keep him on the active roster until the forthcoming 75-man roster limit is imposed; by Aug. 27, all NFL teams must shave their roster down to 75 players. At this date, the Patriots would have the option to place Fletcher on injured reserve without subjecting him to waivers, and he would also not count toward the 75-man limit. This would eliminate the risk of losing Fletcher while also in effect create a roster spot to keep another player around.
If the team places Fletcher on injured reserve now or at the 75-man cut-down, he would not count toward the 53-man active roster that it carries into the regular season.
Because of Fletcher's value to this team in the future, it seems as though the best course of action for the team right now would be to wait until the roster cut-down to 75, move him to injured reserve at that time, and have the flexibility of the additional roster spot.