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2021 NFL roster cuts: How does the practice squad work and what does it mean for the Patriots?

Related: Patriots roster cuts tracker: Recap, instant analysis, and more

NFL: AUG 25 New England Patriots New York Giants Joint Training Camp Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New England Patriots are in the process of setting their first 53-man roster and they will soon also be able to establish their practice squad. Beginning at 1 p.m. ET Wednesday, they will add up to 16 players who will serve both as a scout team for the regular season and as depth in case of injury. All of the players released on Monday and Tuesday are potential candidates to get added to the group, so don’t be surprised if most of it eventually will be familiar names.

But what exactly does all this mean? Let’s find out.

What is the practice squad?

Prior to the 2020 season, teams were able to keep 10 players on their practice squad. While they could not play in any games unless promoted to the 53-man team, the practice squad does serve a purpose: It is essentially a second roster to develop younger guys and also gives teams an additional group of players to help prepare for an upcoming opponent in practice during the regular season.

The new NFL-NFLPA collective bargaining agreement, however, initially increased the practice squad size to 12 — not the only change the CBA brought in relation to the practice squad and the overall roster construction process — before the league’s Covid-19 protocols added four more spots. Teams are therefore now able to carry 16 players in addition to the 53 on their active roster.

Who is eligible to join the practice squad?

While New England and the league’s other clubs can add 16 players to their practice squad this year, there are still some rules in place that limit who can be added. 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 (six) free agent players per Club with no limitations as to their number of earned Accrued Seasons [...]

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 16 this year — 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 six players with more accrued seasons than two.

This latest stipulation is a change compared to years past, and could have a big impact on how teams view their different layers of depth. Let’s use recently released Patriots quarterback Brian Hoyer 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 in four of his years in the NFL. Under the new rules, however, he could return to fill one of the six veteran spots on New England’s 16-player squad.

How much does a practice squad player get paid?

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. The new labor deal, 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 (Groups I-III) will earn $8,400 per week this year, a total of $142,800 over the course of the regular season. Group IV players, meanwhile, will get a bit more than that: $12,000 per week, or $204,000 for the entire season. Practice squad salaries, by the way, do count against a team’s overall salary cap.

What is poaching?

The NFL allows practice squad players to be signed by other teams, but there are some rules governing the process:

  • Players cannot be signed directly from one practice squad to another. They either have to be released first or added to the active 53-man team.
  • Practice squad players are not allowed to sign with upcoming opponents, unless done so a minimum of six days before the two teams’ game (10 if the team is on a bye).
  • If a practice squad player is signed by another team, he receives a guaranteed three-week salary and will count against the 53-man roster for at least three weeks — even if released before those three weeks are over.

What if a team promotes its own practice squad player?

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.

Essentially, teams are now 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 increase from the standard 53 to 55 players while gameday active squads expand from a previous 46 to 47 players (or 48 if a team carries eight offensive linemen). Any practice squad player can be elevated and automatically reverts back to the developmental roster after a game.

There are some catches, though: Teams cannot use this method of promotion on the same more than twice a year. If the Patriots, for example, want to have one of their practice squad players on their active game day roster for more than two games, they will have to go the standard route of promotion, moving him to replace another player on the 53-man roster and, if necessary, exposing him to waivers if the plan is to revert him back to the practice squad.

When can teams start signing practice squad players?

Typically, any player who has cleared waivers and fits the eligibility criteria can sign with a practice squad. A player who is released from a practice squad is also free to sign with another practice squad. When it comes to the final round of roster cuts — which happened yesterday — the league starts the practice squad signing an hour after the waiver period ends. That means that the Patriots and other clubs can start building their initial practice squad as of 1 p.m. ET today.

Which Patriots are eligible?

As noted above, every player is theoretically eligible for the practice squad if the circumstances allow him to be added. This means that the following 21 players let go by the team on Monday and Tuesday can be added beginning Wednesday:

DL Tashawn Bower

DB Myles Bryant

OL Korey Cunningham

CB Michael Jackson Sr.

DT Bill Murray

WR Tre Nixon

CB D’Angelo Ross

OL William Sherman

DL Nick Thurman (injured)

WR Kristian Wilkerson

WR Isaiah Zuber