While we are still a ways away before we have to start worrying about the practice squad, I have seen several comments over the course of the past week or so pertaining to players and their practice squad eligibility, so, given the multiple waves of changes that have occurred to the rules legislating eligibility, particularly for the unique circumstances of the 2020 season, I thought it would be helpful to take a bit of a dive into it.
Basically, the long and short of it is, for the first time ever, every single player in the National Football League is now eligible for the practice squad, no matter how many years they have accrued, no matter how many games they have been active for or started. Everybody, who is eligible to be on a team, is eligible to be on a practice squad.
There is just one stipulation, which is that no more than six players for the 2020 season who have any level of prior experience may be on the practice squad at any given time. Prior to the recent addendum that was agreed to due to the pandemic, the new rules under the 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement had already allowed for up to two players of any level of experience to serve on the practice squad.
It used to be that no player with a year of accrued experience who dressed for nine or more games was eligible for the practice squad. It was later changed, which allowed all players with no more than two years of accrued experience, first up to two such players and then four (the current CBA kept the number at four), but now, the rules have been greatly liberalized, and just in time for what may be a very chaotic season.
The 2020 CBA also allowed for the expansion of the practice squad, first from 10 to 12 players during the 2020 season, and then to 14 players beginning in 2022. As a measure to help teams combat roster issues due to the coronavirus, the addendum pertaining to the 2020 season will allow teams to have up to 16 players on their practice squad.
Specifically for the 2020 season, teams will also now be allowed to protect four players, renewing every week, from being signed off of their practice squad by other teams. The Pittsburgh Steelers, for example, signed Deon Cain, Kerrith Whyte, and Tuzar Skipper off of other teams’ practice squad in 2019. However, the protection only goes into effect at the end of the business day on Tuesday, so players can still be poached on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Relating to the new reserve/Covid-19 list, players will also be able to more easily move practice squad players to and from the roster. A player can be immediately promoted from the practice squad when a player from the 53-man roster is placed on this reserve list, and he would not have to be put on waivers in order to be sent back down to the practice squad when the reserve player returns. The Steelers lost Fred Johnson and Patrick Morris off waivers in 2019.
Finally, teams are permitted to promote up to two practice squad players to active status for games, without their counting against the 53-man roster. They may be active for the game, but they must count against the active list, up to 48 players this season. These players will revert back to the practice squad at the end of the next business day. However, each player may only be activated in a season twice under these terms without being on the 53-man roster.
What does this mean, in practical terms? Basically, the Steelers would now be able to keep players like Paxton Lynch, Wendell Smallwood, Curtis Riley, Ryan Switzer, Daniel McCullers, and the like on the practice squad this year, if they should fail to make the 53-man roster. Based on the prior rules, none of them would have been eligible. Additionally, they may protect four of these players, for most of the week, from being signed off the practice squad.
Take Smallwood, for example. Let’s say he doesn’t make the 53-man roster, but is signed to the practice squad. If Benny Snell gets injured and misses two games, the Steelers can keep Smallwood on the practice squad, but have him promoted to the active roster in each of those two games.