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2017 NFL practice squad primer: Rules, size, eligibility, salary

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A short primer on how the practice squad process works.

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Hardly a year goes by without the NFL tinkering with the rules governing the practice squads for its 32 teams. This year for example, as part of the International Player Pathway program, the four NFC South teams will each carry one additional overseas player on their practice squads - but those four players cannot be activated during the season.

Last year, the NFL announced that it had agreed with the NFLPA to once again allow a 10-man practice squad for NFL teams. In 2014, the two sides had already agreed to expand practice squads from eight to 10 players for the 2014 and 2015 seasons, but the agreement was limited to those two years, so a new agreement was necessary.

That agreement brought with it some other changes for the practice squad, which may be just as important as the expanded number of players.

Up to four “veterans” per practice squad

The league now allows four players per practice squad to have two accrued seasons, making it easier for teams to have experienced players on their practice squad. An accrued season means a player was on full pay status for six or more regular-season games on a club's active/inactive, reserved/injured or reserve/physically unable to perform lists

This rule change covers basically the entire rookie classes of 2015 and 2016, both drafted and undrafted players, regardless of how many NFL games they played. The Cowboys are not going to attempt to smuggle their top draft picks onto the practice squad, but it could be an opportunity for fringe players with two accrued seasons like LB Mark Nzeocha, or an as yet unsigned two-year veteran.

Six-game minimum to count as one practice squad season.

A player must have a minimum of six games – up from the previous three games – on a practice squad in order for that season to count as one of that player’s three permissible seasons of practice squad service.

Ultimately, these recent rule changes mean that teams can keep more players, and more experienced players, on their practice squads than before.

Practice squad basics

  • Each NFL team can have up to 10 players on its practice squad.
  • Practice squad players ... practice with the team. They do not play in games.
  • Not all players are eligible to be signed to NFL practice squads (see eligibility rules above).
  • Practice squad players are paid per week and can be released at any point during the season.
  • Practice squad players are free to sign with other NFL teams, but they have to be signed to the 53-man active roster of the acquiring team. A practice squad player cannot be signed to another practice squad unless he is first released.
  • A practice squad player can not sign with his team's upcoming opponent, unless he does so six days before the upcoming game or 10 days if his team is currently on a bye week.
  • If a practice squad player is signed to the active roster, he will receive a minimum of three weekly paychecks, even if he is released before spending three weeks with the new team.
  • In order to be signed to a practice squad after being released, a player must first clear waivers, and is subject to waiver claims by other teams

Salary

Practice squad players earn significantly less than players on the active roster, but they still take home a solid weekly paycheck. In 2017, NFL practice squad players make a minimum of $7,200 per week that they are on the practice squad.

If a player remains on the practice squad for an entire regular season (at a minimum salary of $7,200 per week), he would earn a minimum of $122,400 over the full regular season if he keeps his spot on the practice squad. If a team makes the playoffs, these payments continue for as long as the team is in the playoffs.

To protect their players from other teams, or because they really like the potential of a given player, some teams pay their roster squad players significantly more. There is no limit to how much a team can pay a player on the practice squad, although the practice squad contracts do count against the salary cap.

Last year for example, the Cowboys paid TE Rico Gathers a reported $499,990 salary to keep him on the practice squad (and keep him away from the Raiders).

The upside of the practice squad is that if a player is called up to the 53-man regular roster, either by his own team or by another team, he automatically signs a contract with the $465,000 minimum NFL salary. And because three weeks of that contract are guaranteed, even if that player is released, waived or traded before the three weeks are up, being called up comes with a $82,058 guarantee (3/17th of $465,000).

At the end of the day, every Cowboys player has to pass through waivers before the Cowboys can re-sign him to their practice squad, which always carries the risk of that player being picked up by another team.

Final roster cuts to 53 players have to be done by Saturday, Sept. 2, 4:00 pm ET.

The claiming period for players placed on waivers during the final cut to the 53-man rosters across the league will expire at 12:00 noon EST on Sunday.

Starting at 1:00 pm ET on Sunday, teams can begin signing players to their practice squads.