Despite cutdown day being in the rear-view mirror and initial 53-man teams established all across the NFL, the roster building process is far from over: on Sunday, clubs can not just begin adding players claimed on waivers but also to build their first practice squads. Up to 16 players can be added per team according to the NFL’s new-look rules in light of the Coronavirus pandemic, with six of those spots allowed to go to players regardless of experience.
Needless to say that the practice squad will play quite an important role this year, something that was also pointed out by New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick during a media conference call on Friday. The unusually talkative Belichick spoke almost six minutes about the ins and outs of establishing a practice squad, stressing that every player moved there by his team serves a specific purpose relative to the entire roster.
“A lot of the practice squad depends on what you have on your 53-man roster. You can’t really carry the depth that you want on your 53-man roster at all positions, but you will probably be fairly satisfied with it at some positions,” said Belichick. “If you are satisfied with your depth at a certain position and your numbers are good and you feel like the quality is good there, then I don’t know how much you really need a practice squad player there at that spot because you will want to give those reps in practice and those opportunities to the depth that you have on your roster.
“Whereas, there could be another position on your roster where you don’t have a lot of depth and if you have a developmental player at that position and a player with some experience that maybe for whatever reason you don’t feel is a roster player at this moment. But if something were to happen because of your lack of depth, he could quickly become a roster player. Then you might carry two or three players at that position and none at another.”
Looking specifically at the Patriots’ current 53-man squad, a few positions stand out. The wide receiver and tight end positions, for example, are relatively unproven. The same can be said for a young linebacker corps. It would therefore not be a surprise to see New England address both when its practice squad is established later on Sunday.
The Patriots, of course, do have options at all three positions: wide receivers Jeff Thomas, Isaiah Zuber and Andre Baccellia are realistic practice squad candidates in case they clear waivers, as is tight end Jake Burt. Linebackers Cassh Maluia, Terez Hall and De’Jon Harris, meanwhile, could also be added to provide developmental depth on the 16-player team.
As Belichick pointed out, however, depth alone is not the only reason why players will be signed to the practice squad.
“I think when you put a player on the practice squad, first of all there’s reason why he’s on there,” the future Hall of Famer said. “That could be a number of different things. He could be a developmental player, he could be a player that knows your system and maybe is more game ready that someone else. It could be a player that because of the depth on your 53-man roster, that you really need that player to practice.
“You need that practice squad player to participate in practice so that you can maintain the quality of practice that you want the best you can so that you can prepare your team for all the things you need to prepare them for. Some of those positions can fluctuate during the course of the year depending on how the team needs, how those change and possibly how the players change.”
Belichick pointed to developmental players as a concrete example: he noted that if a player starts to improve, his situation might change compared to a player who is maybe not progressing as you had hoped. In this case, moves would be necessary regardless of the depth higher up on the 53-man roster.
Another factor that has to be considered, according to the veteran coach, is the overall roster building process in light of the Coronavirus pandemic. Teams, after all, are not just able to sign an increased number of players to their practice squad — the NFL and NFLPA originally agreed on 12 spots for this season in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that was later moved to 16 — but also to have unlimited return spots off injured reserve.
According to Belichick, this also could have an impact on the practice squad.
“I think this year is a little bit different because we will have to take into consideration the shorter injured reserve rules and also the unlimited DFRs. That changes things a bit too and that can kind of be combined with the practice squad to help the team’s depth. It’s really a combination of all those and because it’s so fluid, I’m sure that will change over the course of the year,” he pointed out. “As your needs change on the team, that will probably affect your practice squad decisions as well.”