Hardly a year goes by without the NFL tinkering with the rules governing the practice squads for its 32 teams, and with the pandemic adding an extra degree of complexity, here’s a rundown of the key things you need to know about the practice squad in 2021.
16-man practice squads
The NFL is carrying over the 16-man practice squad from last year to allow teams more flexibility as they continue to deal with the pandemic. A 16-man squad allows teams to maintain more depth, but it will also impact roster strategies around the league.
Up to six “veterans” per practice squad
The league now allows six players per practice squad with an unlimited number of accrued seasons, making it easier for teams to have experienced players on their practice squad.
Additionally, the league allows up to four players per team who have earned no more than two accrued seasons. An accrued season means a player was on full pay status on a club’s active/inactive, reserved/injured or reserve/physically unable to perform lists. This covers basically the entire rookie classes of 2019 and 2020, 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 one or two accrued seasons like QB Ben DiNucci, LB Azur Kamara, or DE Ron’Dell Carter.
Finally, all rookies are practice squad eligible, along with all players that were on the active list for fewer than nine regular season games during their one accrued season.
Up to two “promotable” players
The NFL allows teams to promote two players from the practice squad to the 53-man roster (effectively creating a 55-man roster), but these players revert back to the practice squad after the game.
One COVID-related promotion.
In addition to the two promoted players, teams can promote one additional practice squad player within 90 minutes before kickoff in the event of a late COVID-19 positive test result. Teams may think about keeping a QB around on the PS specifically for the scenario where the entire regular QB room falls under COVID protocols, as happened last year with the Broncos, who suddenly found themselves without a QB on gameday.
Up to four “protected” players
In principle, practice squad players can be signed to another team’s 53-man roster at any time. However, each team is allowed to protect up to four of their practice squad players per week, meaning they cannot be signed by another team.
The reason for all these new rules and expanded rosters is the refusal by the NFL to postpone games when COVID-19 protocols put teams at a competitive disadvantage; the expanded practice squad roster is designed to alleviate that.
General practice squad basics
- Practice squad players practice with the team. They do not play in games, unless they are promoted (see above)
- 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 (with the exception of the four protected players described above), 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
Practice squad players earn significantly less than players on the active roster, but they still take home a solid weekly paycheck. In 2021, all players with two or fewer accrued seasons make a minimum of $9,200 per week that they are on the practice squad. Veterans with more than two accrued seasons get a minimum of $14,000 per week.
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.
The upside of being on 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 $660,000 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 $101,000 guarantee (3/18th of $660,000).
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.
Teams reduced their rosters to 80 players today, and the final roster cuts to 53 players have to be done by Tuesday, Aug. 31, 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 4:00 PM ET on September 1st.
Starting at 4:00 pm ET on September 1st, teams can begin signing players to their practice squads.