There are just a handful of days left in August, and Friday marks the start of the final week of preseason practices for teams across the league. Most teams are set to hold their final training camp practices on Friday, September 4 in advance of rosters being trimmed down to 53 players by 4 PM New York Time on Saturday, September 5. With that in mind, as the pandemic continues to rage across the country impacting multiple walks of life, it may be important to keep the special practice squad rules in mind when projecting roster cuts this season.
The biggest changes for this season is that the practice squad is expanded to 16 spots and that all players, regardless of experience, are eligible this season. That means that players who have been ineligible for the practice squad in seasons past because they had too many accrued seasons will be eligible this year.
Q: How many players can be on a practice squad this year?— Cap Space=$31,486,135 (@patscap) August 28, 2020
A: Sixteen. The maximum number of practice squad players who can have 3 or more accrued seasons is six.
The first of those changes, the expansion to 16 spots, means that the number of players in camp who will not be on the active roster or practice squad to start the season is very small. The Seattle Seahawks currently have 80 players in camp, but with Rashaad Penny on the Physically Unable to Perform list, Colby Parkinson and Darrell Taylor on the Non-Football Injury list and Kyle Fuller set to go on the Commissioner’s Exempt list for the first two weeks of the season, it’s possible the team could have just seven camp players who do not make the active roster or practice squad.
Reports so far have tended to indicate that Parkinson would be activated to the active roster prior to the start of the regular season, however, if he stays on NFI through roster cuts it certainly simplify things. For Darrell Taylor, who had not yet been cleared to run as of August 17th, starting the regular season on the NFI list seems like a near certainty at this point.
However, getting back to practice squad size and the six spots available for players with three or more accrued seasons, this is a rule that would seem ripe for abuse when combined with the expansion of gameday rosters to 55 and the fact that veterans don’t go through waivers after being released. Just as an example, a player like Geno Smith, who has seven accrued seasons and served as Russell Wilson’s backup during 2019 is eligible for the practice squad this season. For a player like Smith, the practice squad wasn’t an option in years past, however, under the new rules Smith could occupy one of the half dozen spots for players with three or more accrued seasons.
Specifically, under the new CBA teams have the right to promote two players from the practice squad to the gameday roster each week. What that means is that the Seahawks could decide to keep Anthony Gordon or Danny Etling and release Geno Smith at roster cut time on September 5. Smith, as a veteran not subject to waivers, would then be immediately available to sign to the practice squad without having to pass through waivers.
Now, one other change that is important for 2020 is that pay for practice squad players has been capped. In seasons past, teams have been able to bid for practice squad players, such as how the Seahawks paid Alex McGough the active roster league minimum to stay on the practice squad in 2018. However, this practice was eliminated in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement players approved in the spring, so practice squad players will be paid at one of two rates during 2020.
- Players with 2 or fewer accrued seasons: $8,400 per week
- Players with 3 or more accrued seasons: $12,000 per week
While it might seem foolish to hope that a veteran with seven accrued seasons like Smith would take a pay cut from $61,765 weekly pay on a league minimum contract for veterans with seven credited seasons down to $12,000 for the practice squad. However, this is where another new feature in the CBA could come into play, with teams now possessing the ability to teams to promote two players from the practice squad to the active roster for gameday each week. This was put into place in order to allow teams to promote any individual player to the active roster for gameday twice during the season without having to expose that player to waivers to return to the practice squad.
However, between the COVID rules and the new CBA, teams could now put a player like Smith on the practice squad, allowing him to practice and participate in team meetings all week and then use the two promotion spots to move them to the 55 man gameday roster. Then, after the game, rather than using the ability to automatically return that player to the active roster, the team could terminate Smith’s contract before again signing him to the practice squad.
Players who are promoted from the practice squad to the active roster are paid for the week at the league minimum salary for a player with the number of credited seasons they have earned during their career. So, for a player like Smith, that means in a week in which he is promoted to the active roster for gameday he would be paid the same as he would earn on a league minimum contract. Putting it all together, a team with a good relationship with a veteran player could take advantage of the practice squad rules changes this season to effectively carry a 55 man roster through the season.
This in no way implies this is what the Seahawks will or should do with Smith this season, it’s simply an example that shows what a team could do with a veteran player under the new rules in 2020. Of course, it could create a situation like Seattle dealt with in 2018, when defensive lineman Tom Johnson went back to the Minnesota Vikings after the Hawks released him early in the season, but had planned to bring him back just days later.
So, what that means is that a team would need to have a strong relationship with a player in order to attempt this, and it’s unlikely that a team will try this with a position that can be as important as the backup quarterback. However, it would not be a surprise to see a team work the system with those veteran players at less crucial positions like a third or fourth tight end or a fullback who is also a significant special teams contributor. That means it wouldn’t be as much of a surprise to see a player like Luke Willson or Nick Bellore bounce between the practice squad and active roster this season, as the team works to protect its younger players and avoid exposing them to waivers. This could be particularly true in a pandemic impacted season, as teams unexpectedly find themselves looking for depth if a position group is hard hit by COVID.
A similar issue of COVID rapidly impacting depth has been seen at multiple colleges in recent weeks, specifically at Oklahoma and LSU just in the past week.
Holy cow. Lincoln Riley won't say which position group it is, but says he had one group essentially wiped out -- all but one -- by a COVID test. He said it's a position group that needs "multiple" guys on the field together. #Sooners— Jason Kersey (@jasonkersey) August 25, 2020
The #LSU offensive line has been hit by COVID-19, with all but four linemen either testing positive or quarantining due to exposure, sources confirm to The Athletic. First reported by @theadvocatebr.— Brody Miller (@BrodyAMiller) August 26, 2020
Between regular testing and the potential for a team to see an entire position group wiped out quickly by positive tests or a quarantine, 2020 could be an interesting season in which teams could be more protective of their younger players than usual. For example, a player waived on Monday could become very attractive to a team that sees a wave of positive tests Tuesday morning before the waiver deadline, meaning it may not be as easy to slip younger players through waivers.
What it all boils down to is that the unique practice squad rules for 2020 could mean that when teams get to making roster cuts in eight days, there could be some significant surprises.