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.
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Mike Garafolo recently reported that the NFL is considering a temporary expansion to the Practice Squad in response to potential roster challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
NFL practice squads were to expand from 10 to 12 players in 2020. Now, there’s internal talk about expanding to as many as 16 for greater roster flexibility for positive Covid tests, sources tell me and @judybattista. NFLPA would have to co-sign but that’s more jobs for players.— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) June 18, 2020
The Practice Squad size and rules that govern eligibility have been subjected to frequent change in recent years, with the Squad size increasing regularly and the eligibility rules becoming increasingly liberal. That pattern has continued under the 2020CBA.
I don’t propose to give an entire history of Practice Squads here; rather, I just want to clarify the current rules as outlined in the 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Article 33 deals with Practice Squads and comprises 7 1⁄2 pages of densely worded details.
Practice Squad size
Section 1(a) sets the size of the Practice Squad.
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, the CBA calls for an immediate expansion of the squad from the 10 player limit of 2019 to 12 players this season and next, with a further expansion to 14 players per club in 2022. As we saw from the Garafolo tweet above, the league seems to be actively contemplating a move to a 16-man Practice Squad for this season, which would mean employment for another 128 players — a move the NFLPA should be fully in favor of.
Section 1(b) allows for an additional player for selected clubs under the International Pathway Program, which I discussed in detail in an article published in May.
If you aren’t familiar with the International Pathway Program, the NFL brings in athletes from foreign countries every year, giving them a shot at making an NFL team. In 2020, there will be eight players from the program and one of them, David Bada, will play with the Redskins.
There are special rules under the Pathway program that make it appealing for the team.
- First of all, a player signed under the Pathway program doesn’t count toward the 90-man roster in the off-season. He is, in effect, the 91st guy.
- Plus, no matter what, the team is able to carry the player for the full season; even If he doesn’t make the 53-man roster or practice squad, the league has created what is, in effect, a special 13th practice squad spot for the Pathway Program players.
- The catch for an IPP player taking up that extra practice squad slot — and it’s a small one — is that, if the team elects to utilize an extra Practice Squad spot for the player, he has to remain in that slot until the end of the season, and he can’t be added to the active roster at any point during the season.
- On the other hand, if the Practice Squad remains at its normal size (12 players in 2020) or if the Pathway player is on the 53-man roster, then he is treated like any other player.
Ability to sign with another team
Section 2 sets the rules that govern a Practice Squad player being signed by another team.
2(a) says that a player is free to sign with any other team, but is not free to leave one Practice Squad for the purpose of signing with another club’s Practice Squad.
2(b) prohibits a team from signing a player from the Practice Squad of its next scheduled opponent.
Practice Squad eligibility
Section 4 identifies which players are eligible for the Practice Squad. Under the 2020 CBA, Players who can be on practice squads now fall into four groups:
- Players with less than one accrued NFL season (six games on an active roster)
- Players who have been on an active roster for fewer than nine regular-season games during their only accrued season(s)
- Players who have earned no more than two accrued seasons with any number of games
- Players with any number of accrued seasons
A team may only have four practice-squad players whose eligibility is based on Group 3 — and only two based on Group 4.
Practice Squad Salaries
Section 3 deals with salaries.
3(a) says that most Practice Squad Players (those eligible under rules 1, 2, or 3 above) will receive $8,400 per week in 2020.
3(b) says that any Practice Squad player that does not fall into one of the three categories listed above will receive $12,000 per week in 2020.
Articles 3(a) and 3(b) also detail the salaries for Practice Squad Players until 2030.
Elevation to regular roster (temporary and permanent)
Section 5 provides rules that govern elevation of a player from the practice squad to the regular roster. There are a number of new rules under the 2020 CBA, and the CBA spends 2 1⁄2 pages detailing them. 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.