The other day my father-in-law asked me a question about the practice squad and how it works in the NFL. I had a general idea, but long after our conversation my head kept spinning with questions. Did I really understand how they work in 2021 or was my knowledge antiquated? While it’s not the most exciting topic for everyone, I’m guessing my father-in-law and I are not the only people with questions. The further I dug into the research, the more interested I became in the evolution of the practice squad.
Before jumping in too far, I want to note that thanks to the collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) and other negotiations, a lot has changed over the past few decades with practice squads. I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow, but protections for players and teams have increased dramatically over the years in a myriad of ways. Several of those changes are noted in the sections below. While being a practice squad player isn’t the ideal path for most, it can be a way for players to make a little money while being just one step away from an NFL roster.
History and Expansion
Let’s start with the basics. Every NFL team has a practice squad (sometimes historically referred to as a taxi squad). The concept for the squad began in the 1940s, but wasn’t adopted until the mid-1960s and had a brief disappearance in the 1970s. The squad was more formally adopted with the 1993 CBA that established the practice squad as a 5-player group. That number has expanded several times including a few planned expansions in the 2020 CBA that brought the squad to 12 in 2020 with another expansion planned in 2022 to bring the number to 14, however the practice squad has temporarily expanded to 16 for the 2021 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Promotion and Eligibility
Each team is allowed to activate 2 players from their practice squad before a game without officially promoting them to the main roster (prior to 90 minutes before kickoff before inactives are submitted). Recent rule changes allow these players to go directly back to the practice squad (do not pass go and do not pass through waivers) following the game without having to pass through waivers and potentially get signed by another team. A player is only able to be elevated in this capacity twice per season and if they are promoted a third time, the team must sign the player 53-man roster.
Players are eligible for the practice squad if they have played less than 9 games on an active NFL roster during one season or have spent fewer than 3 seasons on a practice squad already (a season is considered at least 6 games on the practice squad) with an exception that was added over the past few CBAs. Each team is allowed to have up to 6 veteran players on their practice squad (an increase from past years). A veteran player can now be a player with any amount of experience in the NFL. The Patriots used this new rule recently when they put veteran K Nick Folk on the practice squad earlier this year.
Players aren’t guaranteed anything except that week’s salary when on a practice squad, they are week-to-week hoping for a call-up. The 2021 minimum salary for a non-veteran practice squad player is $9,200 per week ($165,600 for 18 weeks) and a veteran player is $14,000 per week ($252,000 for 18 weeks). That is the minimum however, players have been paid more depending on circumstances to keep players with the team or honor contracts. Unlike a guaranteed active roster contract, if a practice squad player gets released, they get nothing assuming the haven’t been elevated to the active roster.
One additional protection for practice squad players is if a player is signed to the active roster, they receive at least three weeks worth of pay regardless of whether the player spends three weeks on the roster or not, usually the league minimum. This protects the player from being signed for one game, then cut and having to pass through waivers without any future path and no salary. The practice squad life can be a journeyman experience for some.
Signing and Protection
This is the piece of the practice squad that has evolved a lot over the years. Players on practice squads are free to sign with other NFL teams at any point as long as they are being signed to the active 53-man roster, with a few newer exceptions. Every week, each team can designate 4 players on their practice squad to protect. They are not able to be signed by another team during that week. Additionally, a practice squad player is not allowed to sign with their team’s upcoming opponent within 6 days of the game or 10 days if the team is on a bye week. This essentially protects against a team stealing an opponents game plan the week of the game and is something that Bill Belichick would occasionally employ in the past.
Overall the world of navigating practice squads is an absolutely fascinating business, at least to me. Over the years, Bill Belichick has been a master at manipulating this group as evidenced by a few of his moves earlier this year to open roster spots and move players around (i.e. Nick Folk) which is why some of these rules could come into play more often for the New England Patriots than some other teams. There is no doubt that some of the evolution in rules has come because of Belichick, as with other NFL rules changes over the years, which makes his mastery of it even more enjoyable to watch. Keep on eye out for future practice squad movement and feel more confident in understanding the implications of each move.