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A brief history of roster sizes in the NFL

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A look at NFL roster sizes and associated rules from 1920 to 2020

Football Player Sammy Baugh Getting Tackled

I recently wrote an article on the changes to roster size under the new CBA, and, in the comments section that followed, there was a lot of discussion that revolved around roster expansion, active/inactive lists and practice squad rules.

I thought it might be worthwhile to add a bit of context to the development of these elements of NFL rosters.

In the beginning...

In the early years of the APFA / NFL from 1920 to 1929, roster size fluctuated between 16 and 18 players, with no inactive list or practice squad. There were 11 players on the field who played offense, defense and in the kicking game, with either 5 or 7 players on the bench, depending on which year it was.

For the next three seasons from ‘30-’32, rosters were either 20 or 22 players.

‘33 & ‘34 saw a bit of experimentation, where rosters were 25 players for the first two games, and were then cut to 22 from Game 3 onward.

In 1935, the roster settled at 24 players for a season, before increasing to 25 players for the next two seasons (‘36 & ‘37).

Breaking the 30-man barrier

The next five years saw two increases in roster size:

  • 38-’39: 30 players
  • 40-’42: 33 players

The effect of world war

As World War II left its mark on America, the league contracted and rosters contracted with so many healthy young men gone off to war. In 1943-44, rosters were down to 28 players, but they returned to the previous level of 33 players for the ‘45 & ‘46 seasons.

Post-war roster expansion

In 1947, the league went retro to the ‘33 & ‘34 seasons. In ‘47, the roster was 35 players for the first three games, dropping to 34 players for the balance of the 12-game season.

The next couple of years saw more experimentation, as the roster size was 35 in 1948, but only 32 in 1949.

“Free substitution”

1950 marked a significant rule change in the NFL, with ‘free substitution” allowed. The league started the season with a 33-man roster, but increased to 34 in early September.

From 1951-54 the league saw its first consecutive stretch of 4 years without a roster size change since 1929, with rosters set at 33 players during those four seasons.

‘55-56 marked the third time in which the NFL adopted a split roster size: 35 players for Weeks 1 & 2, followed by a cutdown to 33 players for the rest of the 12-game season.

The next several years, from 1957 to 1963 saw a lot of movement up and down in roster size, with pre-season cut downs and even early-season changes to roster size being implemented. In these seven years, roster sizes fluctuated between 33 and 38 players with no real definable pattern.

The AFL appears and relative roster stability takes hold

Stability came to NFL rosters (for the most part) in 1964, as the NFL’s competition with the AFL (which had formed in 1960) took root.

Except for one season (‘65), from 1964 to 1973, roster sizes were 40 players — the longest stretch without a change up to this point in the league’s history.

This period also saw the introduction of the “Taxi Squad”, which might be very loosely described as a cross between a practice squad and inactive list. It had its own rules that varied, sometimes from season to season, but aren’t really relevant here.

From ‘65-’67, the Taxi Squad was unlimited in size. In ‘68 it was limited to 13 players, and then 7 players all the way to 1973.

Mid-70s experimentation and change in roster size

In 1974, the NFL followed up this decade of roster size stability with another period of experimentation and change.

In ‘74, the 40 active + 7-man taxi squad of 1973 was replaced by a simple 47-man roster.

In ‘75 the roster was dropped to 43, with no taxi squad.

1976 - the first post-merger expansion

Through the 20s, 30s and 40s, it wasn’t just roster sizes that had expanded and contracted, but the league itself. Franchises were unstable in the early years, and the shortage of players saw teams like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh play with combined rosters which separated back into distinct entities following the war.

The 60s were turbulent due to the establishment of the AFL, and as a kid, the competition and eventual merger of the two leagues into one made for weekly headlines and captivating story lines. The resulting AFL-NFL World Championship Game — later retroactively renamed the Super Bowl — made for a great season-ending climax in those years. I remember helping my dad paint our kitchen a bright yellow during the first inter-league championship game, which we watched on a portable black & white TV set on a stool in the middle of the room as we worked.

In my mind, 1976 is the year that the NFL really started to take the shape that we know today, as two expansion teams were added — Seattle and Tampa Bay. The way those teams were stocked with talent was almost shameful, so while the rest of the league had the same 43-man roster limit as they’d had in ‘75, the expansion teams were allowed 6 extra players for the first two weeks of the season, and then a 45-man roster through the end of the 14-game seaon.

The first CBA

1977 marked another huge step towards today’s NFL, with the adoption of the first colective bargaining agreement. It wasn’t anywhere near the document it is today, and didn’t have much impact on roster size initially.

In ‘77, the roster was 43 active players, with a 2-man inactive list.

1978-2010: the period of the basic 45-man roster

With one blip in ‘82 and another in ‘84 as exceptions, the NFL went through a 32-year period — the longest in its history — with the number of players in its base roster unchanged at 45. 1982 had three different sets of roster rules in a single season, and in ‘84 the league adopted a 49-man roster.

But, while the base 45-man roster went unchanged for three decades, the auxiliary roster rules continued to change and develop.

  • From ‘79-’92 (with one exception in ‘89) a trip to Injured Reserve was for a minimum of 4 games.
  • From ‘79-’83 (‘82 excepted) each team was allowed 3 reactivations.
  • From ‘84-’86, each team was allowed 5 reactivations.
  • ‘87 & ‘88 saw a lot of experimentation with IR and inactive rules in an effort to stop teams from “stashing” players on IR.

1989 - The first “Development Squad”

1989 marks the start of the roster structure we are most familiar with today. It had a game-day roster, inactives, and a “Development Squad”, plus an IR with limited number of activations.

In 1990 a few changes were implemented. An 80-man limit was imposed on training camp, and the Developmental Squad was re-named the Practice Squad.

1991 - The “Emergency Quarterback”

While the basic roster size of 45 was fixed, rules surrounding that basic roster size were in great flux as the league struggled to walk the line between competitive balance (limited roster size), player development (The Development Squad), injuries (IR), and player safety.

In 1990 the game-day roster had been set at 45 active players and 2 inactive players. Concerns, though, were raised because teams usually had their 3rd quarterback inactive, so, in the case of two QBs on the same team being injured in the same game, you had the unpalatable situation of a tight end or DB who had played QB in high school going under center late in the game while a healthy NFL quarterback stood on the sidelines unable to play.

In 1991, the rules were changed to allow a 3rd QB to dress for the game, but he would only be allowed on the field if both active QBs were knocked out with injury. Once that third QB entered the game, neither of the other two was allowed to return.

That rule stayed in place for 20 years.

1993 - a season of change for NFL rosters followed by stability

There were a few significant changes in 1993 as the league prepared for the introduction of true free agency.

  1. For the first time since 1978, putting a player on IR was a season-ending move.
  2. The game-day inactive list was increased to 8 players (it had been set at 2 for the previous four seasons). This addition of 6 players marked the the most significant long-term roster expansion in league history.
  3. The Practice Squad (the new name had been adopted in 1990) size was set at 5 players after varying between 3 and 6 in the preceding 4 seasons.

The resulting roster rules (45-man game-day active roster + emergency QB, 8 inactives, Practice Squad, 80-man off-season limit, and season-ending IR list) would remain unchanged until the adoption of the 2011 CBA, with only two notable exeptions:

  • In 1995, there were some minor accommodations in roster limits for expansion teams in Carolina and Jacksonville.
  • In 2006, the practice squad size was increased from 5 to 8 players.

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2011 CBA

While the 2011 CBA brought sweeping changes to the salary cap, its effect on rosters was more muted:

  • The “emergency quarterback” rule that had been in place for two decades was scrapped and the active roster changed from 45 to 46 players, while the inactive list was reduced from 8 to 7.
  • The off-season roster limit was raised from 80 to 90 players.

In 2012, the league allowed one player to return from season-ending IR, changing a rule that had been in place since 1993.

In 2014, the practice squad size increased from 8 to 10 players.

In 2017, the league changed the rules governing IR to allow each team to reactivate two players per season instead of one.

The 2020 CBA

The league’s new CBA has instituted a lot of change for the league, with roster size being an area that is heavily affected as the NFLPA seeks to create more jobs for players and the NFL owners work towards the ability to eventually expand the NFL into a global game. The new CBA rules on roster size are fairly intricate, and will not be easily put into a spreadsheet for handy reference for bloggers in 2057 researching the old roster rules.

For a fairly clear explanation of these new rules, feel free to read my recently published article:

CBA nuggets: Changes in the new agreement and what they mean - Roster Size


My primary reference for this article was this spreadsheet:

https://www.profootballarchives.com/nflrosterlimits.html