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Crunching the Numbers: New rules for rosters and practice squads

With the numerous changes in the roster rules as well as with the practice squad, a little clarity is never a bad thing.

Pittsburgh Steelers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

With the New Collective Bargaining agreement which was signed in March, the 2020 season brings a different set of rules when it comes to NFL rosters, especially on game day. Throw in dealing with COVID-19 for the season, and new rules for each team’s practice squad went from being changed a little to a lot. So how exactly have rosters, active players on game day, and practice squads changed for the 2020 season?

In the 2020 season’s first installment of Crunching the Numbers, we’ll take a look at the exact breakdown of the roster, both during the week an on game day, as well as the new numbers when it comes to the practice squad.


NFL teams will still begin the season with 53-man rosters. Some people believe there was an expansion to 55, but not exactly as you will see. Teams will cut down to 53 players before Week 1. If a team chooses, they may elevate two players from the practice squad to the active roster each game without making a corresponding move (meaning releasing a player or assigning them to a reserve list). This is where the 55 number comes into play. But teams are not required to move up two players.

So why would teams not use this every week? It’s simple—because a player can only be pulled up twice before they will have to clear waivers in order to go back to the practice squad. This may or may not be of ultimate importance as most players could just be poached by another team from the practice squad anyway (more on that later). But at the conclusion of any game in which a team elevates any players from the practice squad, they revert back the next day unless the team makes a corresponding move. So for every day but game day, rosters are at 53.


There was also a change in 2020 for the number of players who are active on game day. Instead of 46, teams can have 48 players active as long as eight of them are offensive linemen. Since players who are inactive still receive the same pay, this will not affect anything with the salary cap but will simply give each team two more players on game day.

With this new rule, along with the previous one dealing with players being elevated from the practice squad on game day, inactive lists will vary in 2020. Depending on the number of players on the active roster for the game, inactive lists could consist of five, six, or seven players each week. Basically, it will be whatever the team’s active roster is minus the 48 players they have active.


Another change for 2020, this time due to Covid once again, is teams will not have to make their roster moves by 4 PM the day before a game. Instead, teams will be able to adjust their rosters up to 90 minutes before kick off when game day inactives are announced when dealing with players going on the Reserve/COVID-19 List.


The number of players on NFL practice squads have gone through several changes throughout the 2020 offseason. Initially expanded to 12 due to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the 2020 amendment due to dealing with the global pandemic expanded this number to 16 for the season.


Thanks to Covid, NFL teams 16-man practice squads can now have up to six players with an unlimited amount of accrued seasons. In the past, only players eligible for the practice squad (based on years accrued in the NFL and the number of years on an NFL practice squad each season) could be signed. But due to dealing with COVID-19, teams can keep almost half of the practice squad with players who would normally have had to make the active roster or else be out of a job.


NFL practice squad’s have yet another adjustment thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Every Tuesday, each NFL team (assuming they have a game the upcoming week) can protect up to four players on the practice squad to where they cannot be signed by another team until the following week. The reason for this new rule is for teams to make sure they have players available at positions where they may not be at full strength going into the game. For example, if the Steelers are only carrying three running backs and two of them are dealing with injury, there’s a good chance the Steelers would protect one or two practice squad running backs in case they are needed to be elevated to the active roster for the game.


NFL teams are only carrying 80 players in training camp in 2020 unless they chose to run split practices at separate facilities. The Steelers are currently operating with an 80-man roster. So on cut-down day in September, the Steelers will have to release 27 players. But if they choose to compose their 16-man practice squad completely with players they had at training camp, the team will only be parting ways with 11 players.

Hopefully these numbers have helped clear up many of the questions some have about rosters heading into the season. When rules change, sometimes there can be some confusion among the fan base. Perhaps many of you already knew these numbers and were up-to-date on everything which was adjusted by the CBA. On the other hand, perhaps this is your first time hearing of some of these new rules. Either way, hopefully you are now prepared for the news of when players are being signed to the practice squad, roster promotions on game day, or inactive lists are announced when we finally see our beloved Steelers back on the field for game action.