Back in June, Behind The Steel Curtain published an article answering questions pertaining to the practice squad. As discussions about the Steelers projected 53-man roster increase as the preseason progresses, so do speculations as to who will make the 11-man practice squad, For reference sake, here are the rules for practice quad eligibility.
NFL practice squads consist of up to 10 players unless the team has an international exemption (which the Steelers do for 2019) and can therefore carry 11. Only certain players are eligible for each team’s practice squad.
It is possible a player could be eligible for the practice squad of one NFL team and not another, but the scenario is highly unlikely. If a team does not carry 53 players on their active roster for every week of the NFL season the year before, that particular franchise can only carry players in their first two years of practice squad eligibility rather than three years. I’m not sure a team has actually done this for quite some time, so it does not really factor into practice squad eligibility often. It is basically used as an incentive for teams to keep 53 players on the roster rather than try to save money by not carrying a player who would otherwise be inactive on game day.
Players are practice squad eligible for up to three years. A player uses a year of practice squad eligibility if they receive a paycheck for six weeks (either regular season, bye week, or playoffs) for either of their first two years of eligibility. If a player is on their third year of practice squad eligibility, they only have to be on the practice squad for one week in order for it to count as a year served.
Each team is also allowed to carry up to four players on their practice squad who have two or less accrued seasons in the NFL. In other words, every player drafted or signed as an undrafted free agent in 2017 and 2018 are still eligible to be on the practice squad, even if they played in every game in both seasons. But remember teams can only keep four of such players. Additionally, players who have accrued seasons but were active in nine or fewer games during the season do NOT count towards these four positions. Players such as Mason Rudolph and Marcus Allen would be examples of this rule, as they were both on the 53-man roster in all of 2018 but Rudolph was inactive every week and Allen was only active for one game.
At the end of the preseason when every team goes from 90 players down to their 53-man roster, all players who have been released must clear waivers before signing to a practice squad. Remember a team putting in a waiver claim is strictly to add the player to their 53-man roster. Any “vested veteran” who would be released during team cut downs where they do not have to clear waivers would not be eligible for the practice squad due to their years of service. The only scenario where a practice squad player would not have to clear waivers after cut downs would be if they were not even on a 90-man roster and therefore not released.
A phrase commonly used at the end of the preseason is for a team to “sneak” a player on to the practice squad. This process is simply referring to having the player clear waivers and not be signed by a different team. In 2015, Coach Rex Ryan tried to sneak Ross Cockrell on to the Buffalo Bills practice squad while he was dealing with a minor injury. Instead, the Steelers claimed Cockrell and signed him to their 53-man roster.
Once players clear waivers, they are free to sign with any NFL team either on their active roster or practice squad. Once a player is signed to the practice squad, they cannot be “poached” to another teams practice squad. The only way a practice squad player can sign with another club is if they have been released, or if they are being added to the active 53-man roster. If a team signs a player from a different team’s practice squad, they are required to pay the player for at least three weeks of active roster pay even if they choose to cut the player sooner. Additionally, the player will continue to take up a spot on the 53-man roster while they are receiving their salary, so there is little incentive to cut the player before the designated three weeks.
There is also a provision with adding a player from an upcoming opponent’s practice squad. A team can only sign a player from another team’s practice squad if it is more than six days in advance of when the teams play, or 10 days in advance if the teams are meeting after their bye week.
When a practice squad player is elevated to their teams 53-man roster, if they are then released at a later time they must once again clear waivers before re-joining any practice squad. Whether the player is staying with the same franchise when they are activated or if they are signed by a different team, they still must clear waivers. This is not a rule strictly for practice squad players, as any player who is not a vested veteran must clear waivers if they are cut by a team.
When it comes to pay, there is a significant difference between practice squad players and active players. The minimum a practice squad player can be paid was $7,600 a week in 2018 and will be $8,000 a week in 2019. While these are minimum amounts, there is nothing (aside from the salary cap) keeping a team from paying a player more while on the practice squad. For example, Howard Jones was on the Steelers practice squad in 2014 and the following season he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers because they gave him the league minimum salary for active players even though he was on the practice squad.
A season in which a player is only on the practice squad does not count as an accrued NFL season. For example, B.J. Finney spent all of 2015 on the Steelers practice squad before making the 53 man roster in 2016. So while he has spent four seasons in the NFL, he has three accrued seasons.
When it comes to traveling with the team or being on the sidelines during games, the practice squad is much like a player on injured reserve. It is solely at the discretion of the team as to how they handle these players for game days.
As the August 31 roster cut-down date approaches, make sure to stay tuned to Behind The Steel Curtain for an updated list of players who will be eligible for the practice squad in 2019.