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Practice Squad New Rules Have Changed the Complexity Of Roster-Building

Take a look at the Dallas Cowboys official active 53-man roster. There is only one quarterback, Dak Prescott, and no kicker at all. An unsuspecting fan might think owner/general manager Jerry Jones and vice-president Will McClay are out of their minds, but they are actually being extremely smart with their personnel management. Practice squad rules temporarily created because of the covid-19 pandemic were established permanently earlier this year, and that drastically changed how rosters are built.

An NFL team can build its practice squad now with 16 players, including up to six veterans without experience limitations — that's why quarterback Josh Johnson, who's been in the league since 2008 and has gone through 14 different franchises, is now part of the Denver Broncos' practice squad. Teams can also have up to 10 players with two or less accrued seasons to incentivize development.

Additionally, practice squad players may be elevated for game day a maximum of three times during the regular season — and an unlimited number of times for playoff games. It's up from two during the last two covid-affected seasons.

In 2019, the last season played under the old rules, teams could have up to 10 players total on their practice squads, all of them of limited experience, and there were no gameday elevations.

So now, in fact, teams operate with a true 69-man roster.

And the Dallas Cowboys are the most extreme example of how teams can maneuver it to gain flexibility: they have just Prescott on the active roster, and backup quarterbacks Cooper Rush and Will Grier are members of the practice squad. The 53-man roster also doesn't have a kicker, because veteran Brett Maher is on the PS too. It allowed, for example, the team to keep 12 defensive backs and six linebackers. It's obvious that one quarterback and the kicker will be elevated for gameday, and they gain two extra roster spots while they figure the rest of the depth out.

The method was also used by the Cincinnati Bengals, who released both backup quarterbacks Brandon Allen and Jake Browning. Allen is still a free agent (who might come back at some point), and Browning is on the PS. The Green Bay Packers have kept only two running backs, Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon, while backups Tyler Goodson and Patrick Taylor are pratice-squaders — if they elevate one of them for each game, the Packers get an extra roster spot for six weeks.

Collateral effect

The problem with this kind of roster management is that practice squad players are de facto free agents — any team can sign a player off another team's practice squad without compensation or permission. Generally, players and their agents give the original team the chance to match an offer, but it's not an obligation.

Therefore, teams must be smart in how they use the tool. First, to not waive good players with less than four accrued seasons — because they can be claimed to other teams active rosters — and also not to lose an important piece if they play well and generate interest around the league.

The NFL is constantly changing, and teams have to explore every possible avenue to be the best possible version of themselves. Practice squad rule changes impacted the complexity of roster-building, and it's going to be fascinating to watch how each franchise will operate to take advantage of that moving forward.

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