In a little more than a month, on July 28, the New England Patriots are scheduled to reconvene at Gillette Stadium and later that same week kick off their training camp. Given that the offseason so far had to take place in a virtual setting due to the Coronavirus pandemic — one that also is expected to have at least some impact on camp procedures — the practice sessions and subsequent preseason contests (whether they be four or two) will carry additional meaning when it comes to constructing the 2020 Patriots.
Not only are 53 spots on the active roster up for grabs, but also 12 on the practice squad. Being able to carry a dozen players on the practice squad this year is a first that was introduced as part of the new NFL-NFLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement: whereas teams were able to keep 10 players on the developmental roster, they now can carry two more. And that was not the only change the CBA brought in relation to the practice squad and the overall roster construction process.
Let’s therefore take a closer look the changes implemented and what they mean for the Patriots.
Practice squad eligibility
As noted above, teams are now able to carry up to 12 players on their practice squad — a number that is set to increase to 14 by the 2022 season. While this means that New England and the other clubs in the league can keep more players in the fold beginning this year, there are still some rules in place that limit who can make a practice squad.
Article 33, Section 4 of the CBA explains who is eligible to join the practice squad:
Beginning in the 2020 League Year, the Practice Squad shall consist of the following players: (i) players who do not have an Accrued Season of NFL experience; (ii) free agent players who were on the Active List for fewer than nine regular season games during their only Accrued Season(s); (iii) a maximum of four free agent players per Club who have earned no more than two Accrued Seasons, with those four players to have no limitation as to the number of games on the game day Active List in either of those seasons; and (iv) a maximum of two free agent players per Club with no limitations as to their number of earned Accrued Seasons; provided, however, that the NFL shall increase the maximum number of players in category (iv) above from two players to four players for the 2022-30 League Years.
This is a lot of information to dissect, but let’s start with the basics: accrued seasons. Per the CBA itself, a player gets awarded an accrued season for each one during which “he was on, or should have been on, full pay status for a total of six or more regular season games.” This does include games spent on a team’s 53-man roster or its injured reserve and PUP lists but neither covers the non-football injury list (NFI) nor the practice squad itself. Basically speaking, only lower-level players are not certain to collect accrued seasons each year.
From the practice squad perspective, there are different levels of eligibility based on how many accrued seasons a player has.
As noted in the excerpt above, a team can carry as many players as it wants — up to 12 that is, of course — that have fewer than two such seasons on their respective résumés regardless of how many games they have been on a game day roster in case they have so far registered an accrued season. Furthermore, a maximum of four players with up to two accrued seasons can be carried as well. Finally, teams can carry two players with more accrued seasons than two, a number that will increase to four in 2022 (Group IV).
This latest stipulation is a change compared to the old CBA, and could have a big impact on how teams view their different layers of depth. Let’s use Patriots edge linebacker Shilique Calhoun as an example. Under the old set of rules, he would not have been eligible for the practice squad considering that he has appeared in six-plus regular season games during each of his four years in the NFL. However, in case he gets released during this year’s roster cutdowns and fails to find a new team, he could sign with New England’s 12-player squad.
This means that the shelf life of fringe roster players could be increased from now on — they still have the practice squad as an option even with more than two accrued seasons.
Practice squad compensation
The previous CBA, which was ratified in 2011, did not specify how much practice squad players would get paid; it only stated a minimum weekly salary. Other than that, teams were free to pay them as much as they wanted if they were able to fit that amount under their salary caps. The Patriots, for example, compensated safety Obi Melifonwu with a base salary of $645,000 last year — essentially what he would have received on New England’s 53-man squad — in order to keep other clubs from signing him to their own active rosters.
The new CBA, meanwhile, has a more structured approach to practice squad pay. With the exception of the Group IV players and their two-plus accrued seasons, every player who is on the squad will be compensated under the following payout scheme:
As can be seen, practice squad players falling in Groups I-III will get paid $8,400 per week in 2020 and see an increase each subsequent season until the current CBA ends after the 2030 season. The Group IV players, meanwhile, will get a bit more than that and also include minimum and maximum salaries beginning in 2022:
All in all, the new CBA makes practice squad compensation a lot more uniform across the league. This also means that teams such as the Patriots will no longer be able to hand out hefty sums in order to prevent poaching.
Practice squad promotion
One of the biggest changes in the new CBA as it relates to the practice squad is the promotion from to the active roster. While the standard rules also remain in place — practice squad members can be promoted by replacing other players on the 53-man squad; they can only return after being waived and clearing waivers; they must be paid a weekly salary based on their NFL minimum for at least three weeks — the new bargaining agreement added another stipulation.
Let’s meet the Standard Elevation Addendum. Article 33, Section 5, Paragraphs (b), (d) and (e) of the CBA define the SEA as follows:
(b) In each game of the regular and postseason, a Club may choose to elevate a maximum of 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.
(d) Any elevation of a player from a Club’s Practice Squad to its Active/Inactive List must occur no earlier in the week than the final day for such player personnel transactions prior to the game for which the player is being elevated, but not later than the applicable player personnel transaction deadline for that day. Any player who is elevated to a Club’s Active/Inactive List must be listed on the Club’s game-day Active List or Inactive List, as applicable.
(e) Any player who is elevated to a Club’s Active/Inactive List for a regular season or postseason game pursuant to this Section 5 shall automatically revert to the Club’s Practice Squad at 4:00 p.m., New York time, on the first business day following such game without being subject to waivers.
What does this all mean? Essentially, teams are allowed to elevate up to two players per week from their practice squad to the game day roster without having to cut a member of the 53-man team. Accordingly, teams can therefore increase from the standard 53 to 55 players while game day active rosters expand from a previous 46 to 47 players (or 48 if a team carries eight offensive linemen).
The SEA therefore works similar to the Standard Contagious Disease Addendum that already was in place in the old CBA and is still part of the new one. The only real difference between the two is the reason of elevation: under the SCDA, a practice squad player is elevated to replace another player on the 53-man squad in case said player is believed to have contracted a contagious disease — something that could become very much relevant this season due to the Coronavirus. The SEA, meanwhile, can be used regardless of players’ health statuses.
As can be seen in the excerpt above, any practice squad player can be elevated and automatically reverts back to the developmental roster after a game.
There are some catches in the SEA, though. First — as is the case with the SCDA — teams cannot use this method of promotion on the same player in back-to-back weeks. If the Patriots, for example, want to have one of their practice squad players on their active game day roster, they will have to go the standard route of promotion outlined above: promote him to replace another player on the 53-man squad and if necessary expose him to waivers if the plan is to revert him back to the practice squad.
Furthermore, the SEA — unlike the SCDA — puts a limit on how often a player can be promoted to the game day roster that way as Article 33, Section 5, Paragraph (f) shows:
(f) A Practice Squad player may be elevated to a Club’s Active/Inactive List for a maximum combination of two regular season or postseason games in the same League Year. After a Club has elevated a player to its Active/Inactive List for a maximum combination of two games during the regular season or postseason, any subsequent elevation of the player must be an activation to the Club’s 53-player Active/Inactive List. [...]
Let’s look at an example. Say the aforementioned Shilique Calhoun spends the 2020 season on the Patriots’ practice squad. Under the SEA, the team would be allowed to promote him to the active game day roster in case another member of New England’s front seven is questionable to be ready. If the Patriots want to play it safe and keep all options on the table, they could opt to apply the SEA on Calhoun and promote him for that game day only — replacing the 53-man roster to 54 or 55 if another practice squad player gets promoted as well.
If they want Calhoun to be on the game day roster the following week as well, however, they will have to go the old-fashioned route and have him sign a deal and take the spot of another player on the 53-man team. Otherwise, he would revert back to the practice squad automatically the day after New England’s game. This procedure, as noted above, can only take place twice — Calhoun would be ineligible if the Patriots already used it in Weeks 6 and 8, for example.
How New England and other clubs will use the SEA remains to be seen, but it adds an intriguing layer to the overall roster construction — as do other changes to the practice rules implemented in the new CBA.