The practice squad in the National Football League is also known as the scout team, and, indeed, that is its primary function. The 10—formerly eight—players that make up each team’s practice squad serve the purpose of helping the starters to prepare for and scout their upcoming opponents.
This is largely why you see the positional numbers complement what is reflected on the 53-man roster. When there is a dearth of one position on the 53-man roster, you are likely to see the numbers boosted on the practice squad.
When it comes to practice, there is no distinction between a player that is on the 53-man roster and a player that is on the practice squad. They also participate in the same drills and prepare in the same manner, attending the same meetings. The difference comes on game day, when they are not eligible to contribute.
Over time, a perception has grown about the practice squad that it is meant to be a developmental program, almost like a minor league system, that allows teams to hold on to players that they want to grow in time, but who are not quite ready to contribute now.
While this is not its intended purpose, it does function in this role at times, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are certainly not unfamiliar with the idea of gaining contributions—significant ones, even—from players who previously spent time on the practice squad.
There is no more notable example, of course, than James Harrison, originally an undrafted free agent in 2002. It took him a few years and a trip to NFL Europe before he finally stuck to the roster, but his playing career since then doesn’t need to be recited.
More recent examples of significant contributors from those who first spent time on the practice squad include running back Isaac Redman and interior lineman Doug Legursky, both of whom have been starters at times for this team.
Nose tackle Steve McLendon bounced on and off the practice squad early on as well, but he is now entering his third season as the team’s starter at the position, and has been a positive contributor to the defense for years.
Just last season, Chris Hubbard made the jump from practice squad player in his rookie year to the 53-man roster in his second year. Josh Harris and Ross Ventrone were mid-season call-ups from the practice squad who turned into contributors and figure to have a good shot at maintaining their posts in 2015.
This year, the Steelers have retained a number of interesting names from their 2014 practice squad, with some names in particular that will be worth watching going forward to see if they can make the jump to the 53-man roster.
It’s hard to pick a lead name from that group, but it might be Alejandro Villanueva, whom I’ve written about recently. He has added significant weight and reportedly has made some progress developing as a tackle. To his advantage is the lack of depth.
Other names who figure to have varying degrees of likelihood in making the jump are outside linebacker Howard Jones, tight end Rob Blanchflower, wide receiver C.J. Goodwin, defensive end Ethan Hemer, and safety Jordan Dangerfield, the majority of whom were rookies a year ago.