As nearly every NFL fan is aware, the NFLPA and the owners negotiated a new agreement this offseason — one that narrowly passed the players’ vote, and will now control the game of football for the next 11 years. While the minutiae of legal agreements can seem boring, the fine print of this particular document very literally has a huge impact on the NFL, the players, owners and fans. Since we have some time on our hands unencumbered by mini-camps, OTAs or training camps, it seemed like a good time to explore the changes that the new CBA brings, and maybe some interpretation of how it may affect the league going forward.
In this inaugural post of the series, I thought we’d look at changes to roster size. The 2020 CBA made a lot of changes to roster sizes, and I’ve seen a lot of confusion and mistaken information, even among professional NFL writers in the weeks since the adoption of the labor agreement.
In this article, I’d like to discuss the following four topics:
- Gameday Active List
- 53-man roster
- Gameday Inactive List
- Practice Squad size
The four topics are actually interrelated, meaning that it might not be possible to talk about each one completely independently of the others since the changes made by the current CBA connect these different roster aspects like strands in a spider web.
Gameday Active Roster
The CBA starts its discussion of roster size with the gameday Active List, so I’ll start in the same place.
Here’s the language of the CBA:
Beginning with the 2020 regular season, the Active List limit shall be increased from forty-six players per Club to forty-eight players per Club; provided, however, that such a Club’s Active List includes a minimum of eight players whose primary playing position is Center, Guard or Tackle (collectively, “Offensive Lineman”).
Okay... I think I’ve got this. As long as the team has eight or more linemen active, they have 48 roster spots available instead of 46, which was the maximum number of active gameday players under the old CBA.
So, to have 48 Active Players, there need to be eight players for the five positions of LT, LG, C, RG, RT. Got it.
But, what happens if the team doesn’t have a minimum of 8 linemen active? Do we go back to 46 players?
Well, not necessarily.
For the sake of clarity and avoidance of doubt, for any game for which a Club’s Active List includes fewer than eight Offensive Linemen, such Club’s Active List limit shall be forty-seven players. These limits may not be reduced by the Clubs for the duration of this Agreement; provided, however, that individual Clubs may carry fewer than forty-eight players on their Active List during the regular season or postseason, but no fewer than forty-four players.
So, if the team doesn’t have at least eight linemen active, then the maximum number of active players is reduced to 47. I understand that.
This last part is interesting; there’s also a minimum number of active players on gameday established by the CBA of 44. I’ve never seen a team willingly field less than the full complement of active players allowed, though I do remember one game where the Vikings didn’t have 46 healthy players, and went into a game shorthanded from the opening kickoff.
So, with the increase in the number of players active on game day, does that mean that the roster size has been increased from 53 players?
The answer to that question isn’t simple.
Let’s look at the language of the CBA again:
During the regular season and postseason, a Club’s Active/Inactive List shall not exceed 53 players unless a Club has chosen to elevate either one or two players from its Practice Squad to its Active/Inactive List, in accordance with the procedures set forth in Article 33, Section 5 of this Agreement.
The rule under the old (2011) agreement was simple: the roster was limited to 53 players.
The new 2020 agreement says that the team can “elevate either one or two players from its Practice Squad” and cites Article 33, Section 5.
Well, I guess we’d better find out what that section of the CBA has to say.
Temporarily elevating Practice Squad Players to the gameday roster
Article 33 covers Practice squads. Section 5 is more than two pages long, with at least 15 sub-sections with a lot of technical details. Here is my summary of the points relevant to this discussion of roster size:
- In each game of the regular and postseason, a Club may choose to elevate either one or two players from its Practice Squad to its Active/Inactive List without the player first terminating his Practice Squad Player Contract and executing an NFL Player Contract. In other words, the elevation is temporary — the player will revert to the Practice Squad the next business day following the game. I find it interesting that the temporarily elevated player does not have to be active on game day.
- Any player who is elevated for a regular season or postseason game shall automatically revert to the Club’s Practice Squad on the first business day following such game without being subject to waivers. This is a big change from the previous CBA.
- The player will be paid the minimum Paragraph 5 salary for the game(s) in which he is elevated.
- A team may only elevate a given Practice Squad player for a maximum combination of two regular season or postseason games in the same League Year.
- After elevating a player for two games in the same year, if the team wants to elevate him a third time, then we basically go back to the system outlined in the 2011 CBA:
- the player must first terminate his Practice Squad Player Contract and execute an NFL Player Contract
- If the Club wants to return the player to the Practice Squad, then the Club must request waivers on that contract, or terminate the contract if the player is not subject to waivers, before re-signing the player to its Practice Squad. This basically means the club has to risk losing the player via waivers or free agency, depending on the player’s status.
The Section also outlines the possible outcomes if a player who has been elevated for more than two games is waived (presumably in an attempt to return him to the practice squad):
- If that contract is not claimed by another Club, the player becomes a free agent and is free to sign with any Club
- If he is claimed by another Club, then the “counter” is reset for the player with the new club, and he can again be elevated up to a maximum of two games, subject to the rules set forth in Section 5
- If he clears waivers and re-signs to the Practice Squad of his original Club, the player may not be elevated under the special Section 5 conditions for the remainder of that regular or postseason.
In summary, NFL teams still have a 53-man roster, but that roster can be expanded at the Club’s discretion to 54 or 55 players in any given week by temporarily elevating players from its Practice Squad. The permanent roster remains at 53 players, since the elevated player(s) will revert back to the Practice Squad, but it creates some strategic and tactical roster flexibility for teams if they choose to use it.
It is not an unlimited resource, however. Any single Practice Squad player can only be moved risk-free under the the provisions of Section 5 for a maximum of two games per year. Beyond that, basically the same rules are in place that applied to Practice Squad movement under the old CBA.
One detail that I didn’t include in my summary above is that these moves will always take place late in the week (relative to the day the team is playing). The CBA specifies that the roster moves that take place under Section 5 can only happen on the last day that roster moves are allowed for that Club in the given week.
It will be interesting to see if teams try to maximize their game-day roster (55 total / 48 active) every week, or if they use these provisions to increase the roster size on a more targeted basis.
Gameday Inactive List
Under the old CBA, it was easy. A 53-man roster with a 46-man gameday active list meant that each team would name 7 players inactive each week.
Now, that number can be different.
The game day Active List will probably be 48 for most teams in most weeks, but it could be 47 (if they don’t have 8 linemen active), and could fall as low as 44 based on the provisions of the CBA (though this seems unlikely).
The game day total roster size can be either 53, 54 or 55 players, depending on whether or not the Club made use of the one or two possible Practice Squad elevations that week.
The number of players on the Inactive List will be a function of the other two numbers. By way of example, if a club elevates ONE Practice Squad player to get a total roster size of 54, and has 48 players Active for the game then the Inactive List will have 6 players on it. If the Club elevates TWO Practice Squad players and has 48 active, then the Inactive List would have 7 names on it.
Practice Squad Size
There are a lot of complex rules for who is eligible for the Practice Squad, movement on and off the PS, and how these players get paid, but when it comes to the size of the Practice Squad, the answer is fairly straightforward. According to Article 33, Section 1(a):
In the 2020 and 2021 League Years Practice Squads shall not exceed twelve (12) players per Club. Beginning with the 2022 League Year and for the remainder of this Agreement, Practice Squads shall not exceed fourteen (14) players per Club.
So, this year and next, the Practice Squad will have 12 spots, and then from 2022 to 2030, that number will be 14 players.
Remember that the Practice Squad does not really “shrink” when players are temporarily elevated from the Practice Squad under Section 5 rules — their spots on the PS remain available, and the player returns to the PS the first business day after the game.