There are many things that the NFL does very well to make itself the dominant professional sports league in the USA. But it also has a few things that it really does not handle well at all. One of the most obvious things it lacks when compared to the other major sports is a developmental league. Baseball, basketball, and hockey all have minor or D leagues where young talent can go to learn their craft under contract. This allows them to be signed for their potential, even though they are not ready for the bigs.
Football has no such system. It has tried, NFL Europe probably being the closest it came to having one. But nothing has ever worked out for the long run. In essence, the NCAA has to serve as the developmental system, which is partly why the NFL has much stricter rules on when a college player can come out. But this does not work that well. Declaring for the draft early is an all or nothing situation. Underclassmen who try to go pro but fail are then out of football completely. And the college game is very different, particularly at some schools. One example almost everyone is familiar with is Johnny Manziel. It has been observed that he is having a very hard time learning the Cleveland Browns playbook because he comes from an offensive system at Texas A&M that does not use a playbook in the sense NFL teams do. There are many players coming out of college, both early and after they have used all their eligibility, who have the physical skills and the ability to learn, but just have not been taught and coached in what they need to know in the pros. They also have lined up their entire career as one of the best players on the field, and it usually is not close. Now instead of being out there with only one or two of the players across the line of scrimmage having as much ability, they are facing eleven guys who all are at or near the same level they are, if not measurably better.
The one way the NFL has to develop players that are not ready for Sunday but could grow into a pro-level athlete is the practice squad. These players are paid at a lower salary than those on the 53-man roster, currently $6,300.00 per week, including weeks the team is in the playoffs. (I believe the bye week is included as well, so a player on the PS for the entire season would earn $107,100.00, which will keep you in groceries.) On the practice squad, the players get NFL coaching and line up against NFL talent. As the name implies, they are used to provide extra bodies during practice, serving as scout team players or filling in for injured players who need to sit out. Additionally, they can become a sort of ready reserve that can be signed to the 53 in an emergency, already knowing the team and the playbook. Practice squad players can be signed by other teams, but are more likely to be promoted within the organization simply because, once they clear waivers and do get to the PS, they literally are out of sight of the rest of the league.
The PS is also a way to take a longer look at a player. There simply may not be enough time to evaluate them in pre-season, or there may have been some minor injury issues. On the PS, the investment is low, there is no cap hit , and they can be dropped at any time if the team thinks they have a better option.
This year, the NFL has added two more PS slots, giving each team ten instead of the eight they had in past years. They plan to try this for two seasons and then re-evaluate. This is seen mostly as a chance to develop more of the young talent, keeping players in the NFL that otherwise would have to go about the business of making a living, with the erosion of the conditioning and skills unique to playing football. It is, perhaps, a belated acknowledgement of how bad a job the NFL has done in the area of developing younger players who aren't top draft picks.
There are a number of likely candidates for the practice squad with the Cowboys. They cover the range of reasons teams have for putting players on the practice squad. I have put together a list of players that I think are very likely to not make the 53-man roster, but that have talent and would probably benefit from coaching and more work at the NFL level. I believe these are all practice squad eligible players, but feel free to pass it on if you spot a mistake in here.
A few things about my chart.
- I have tried to stick with players that there have been some positive reviews for, and left off those that just seem doomed. I do not pretend to have perfect information here.
- While you may think that some of these players have a real shot at the 53, there is a bit of an either/or situation. Cornerback is an example. One of those two might make it, but right now, there is no way to say which, and it is possible, even likely, that neither would make the roster given the competition and the uncertainty of how the team will use the available slots.
- You notice some gaps in positions. Tight end, fullback and running back have no viable candidates that I have seen (sorry, J.C. Copeland fans). Don't be surprised if the Cowboys go outside the team for one or two of these types of players.
- I was a little surprised to see how few wide receivers are eligible (based on my understanding of the rules). Three is not bad, but Benford is really a marginal call here. I just was thinking there would be five or six, forgetting that some of the candidates in camp, like LaRon Byrd, have too many years in to be eligible.
- There are likely to be some pretty decent guys on the defensive line on the PS, just ready for call up. It was especially nice to realize that Zach Minter might be eligible. He could need some time to get in better shape.
That is my first look at the guys that don't quite make the team. The remainder of the pre-season, and especially the last pre-season game, is a time for players to make their case to get onto the PS. The Cowboys look like they can make good use of the extra two practice squad slots this season.