Practice squad, poaching, and protection rules explained
The rules for the practice squad are laid out in Article 33 of the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement, which is available from the NFLPA website. There is also a letter amendment that expanded the rules in 2020 because of the impact of Covid-19.
As it now exists, the practice squad allows 16 players at a time to practice the game of football and wear the uniform of the Cleveland Browns. Up to six can be veterans with no limits on prior service.
The key thing you need to know is that all of them can be signed by other teams. Just remember that on Tuesday morning everybody on the practice squad can be “poached,” but after 4:00 PM Tuesday afternoon, the teams get to protect some of the practice squad players through game day. The League may also elect to allow some or all clubs to add an “international player” to their practice squad, over and above the nominal limit.
Any player under contract to a club as a practice squad player is completely free to negotiate and sign a player contract with any club at any time during the season.
The team cannot sign a player from another team and then assign him to their own practice team. He has to be kept on their 53-player roster for three consecutive games.
The practice squad can keep up to six veterans who have been in the NFL for any length of time.
The practice squad can contain four players with more than one but fewer than two accrued seasons.
There are no limits on players with no accrued seasons in the NFL (fewer than six games on an active roster).
There is a special rule by which the team can add up to two practice squad players to the active roster for one or two games, and then have the player or players revert to the practice squad without being subjected to waivers. They can do this for two practice squad players per week, and the team can wait until 90 minutes before game time before deciding. The same player can be temporarily elevated twice per season.
After that, the third time the player is elevated, he would have to go through waivers before being re-signed to the practice squad.
We can debate whether this is a big deal or not. Almost every other article you read on the subject (except this one) will say this is an important feature because the team doesn’t have to subject the player to waivers when the player is sent back to the practice squad. Okay, fine. But one week later, the 31 other teams are free to sign him away from your team even if you “protect” him.
So avoiding waivers only allows the team to keep the player for an extra week. What is so great about that? If the team wants to keep the player they better add him to the 53 player roster.
For example, let’s suppose that the Browns’ quarterbacks, Baker Mayfield and Case Keenum are eliminated from the Kansas City game due to Covid-19 contact tracing or some such temporary issue. No problem, the Browns temporarily elevate Nick Mullens to the active roster for September 12, and he goes out and wins the game for him.
Then he’s returned to the practice squad without going through waivers, and the Browns add him to the protected list. Wonderful! But after the Browns beat the Texans on September 20, the Baltimore Ravens sign Mullens to be their backup quarterback later that evening. So what was so wonderful about avoiding the waiver wire?
Folks, the players on the practice squad don’t belong to your team. They are just practicing with them. No doubt, it gives them an advantage to know the playbook and the terminology. However, if another team sees the talent, they will grab it from your team.
Practice squad players get paid $11,500 up to $19,900 per week depending on seniority, sometimes higher if the team is hoping to inspire loyalty. It all counts against the salary cap.
That distills the essentials of Article 33 and associated documents. If you would like a simplified version, just remember that practice squad players do not really belong to the team that signs them until they are promoted to the 53-player roster, and that there are limits to how many veterans can be kept, since the system is designed for first-year players.
If you have really nitty-gritty, hair-splitting questions, please ask them below and I’ll try to answer the best that I can.