Why are NFL practice squads loaded with big-name players? What to know, how the rules work, more

NFL practice squads used to be an afterthought, a place for late-round picks and undrafted rookies to develop behind the scenes. Now, those squads are well-stocked with veterans who once racked up millions -- good players taking jobs they never thought they'd need for less than 30 cents on the league-minimum dollar.

Recently expanded practice squads and rule changes are allowing teams to stash well-known talent, essentially owning their rights without placing them on active rosters. The latest example is wide receiver Kenny Stills, who once played on a $32 million deal. Now, he's a Saints practice-squader. Running back Le'Veon Bell, who has 48 career touchdowns and three seasons with more than 1,200 rushing yards, is currently sitting on the Ravens' practice squad. It's not such a bad gig: Players are paid to practice and stay in shape with the loose promise of getting activated on game days.

Because this is low-key changing the way NFL teams are doing business this year, we figured we'd bring you up to speed on how it all works in 2021. Here's everything you need to know about how these squads work and who is currently filling them out.

How do the practice squad rosters work?

Before this season, the NFL and NFL Players Association made 16-man practice squads permanent after experimenting with the format in 2020. From 2014 to '19, practice squads were 10 players deep, so the changes have created 192 more jobs across the league.

And here's the kicker: Up to six of those 16 players can have unlimited NFL experience, a stark departure from the limitations of previous years, when players could have no more than two accrued NFL seasons for eligibility. And each Tuesday, teams can designate four players as protected, so they can't be placed on another team's active roster from that day until kickoff. Teams can still poach on Mondays, though.

Two players can be promoted to the active roster on game days. They then return to the practice squad unless the team offers a one-year deal. But teams can't activate a player more than twice; after the second time, they must decide whether to promote him to the active roster.

Why did it change last year, and why did it stay the same this year?

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted the changes. The NFL and NFLPA had originally agreed on 12-man squads for 2020, but once it became clear that the impact of COVID-19 could disrupt rosters across the league, both sides settled on 16 -- then made that number permanent this year.

Do teams like the change?

They love it! Ravens coach John Harbaugh could barely hide his excitement when I recently asked about the setup, calling it a "plus for everybody." Baltimore has been among the most aggressive to acquire veteran talent.

"Hopefully they will consider these rules long-term, because it gives you more roster flexibility," Harbaugh said. "When you do sustain an injury, it allows players to be prepared when they go out there and play as opposed to guys who haven't practiced."

How do they take advantage of it?

Teams are more reluctant to add good free agents to the active roster because they have these extra practice squad spots to dangle. They know some players will take those offers because they might get activated on game days, which means one week's pay at an NFL salary.

The veterans minimum is $990,000 for players with 4-5 years of experience, with a sliding scale to $1.075 million for seven years or more. Those amounts are prorated based on number of weeks on the active roster. An 8% decrease in the salary cap due to COVID-19 already diluted the free-agency market, and this has made it more difficult to get true one-year deals.

What about the players' perspective?

Several veteran NFL agents whose clients just dealt with this call it a humbling experience for the player. These cases are all over: Player X waits out free agency for a prominent role somewhere, counting on injuries leaguewide to open that door, only for teams to offer the practice squad instead.

For some, that's a risk worth taking for a chance to start. After two years with the Chiefs, center Austin Reiter turned down a multimillion offer to re-sign. He wanted to continue to start. But that chance never came in free agency. After center Erik McCoy's injury in New Orleans, the Saints offered Reiter a practice squad job and elevated him in Week 2.

Baltimore offered veteran cornerback Buster Skrine the chance to join the practice squad, but he has yet to take it. Running back Devonta Freeman turned down Baltimore in Week 1, then took the practice squad job later in the week after Gus Edwards' injury, figuring he would play a role on Sundays. He was called up Week 2.

"Some players are used to a certain standard and have a hard time adjusting to going down to a practice squad," a veteran agent said. "Even though it's sort of a bridge from unemployment to the active roster and they'll probably get called up and get activated full time, they don't always see it that way."

Who are some of the big names on practice squads right now?

Just start with the Ravens, who carry running back Le'Veon Bell (two-time All Pro, $45 million in career earnings), linebacker Josh Bynes (10-year NFLer), safety Anthony Levine Sr. (131 games with Baltimore since 2012) and offensive tackle Andre Smith (former first-round pick).

Other big names include wide receivers Travis Benjamin (49ers), Phillip Dorsett II (Jaguars) and David Moore (Raiders), quarterback Nick Mullens (Browns), kicker Nick Folk (Patriots), safeties Karl Joseph (Steelers) and Sean Davis (Bengals), corner Nickell Robey-Coleman (Lions), running back Jordan Howard (Eagles), defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo (Browns) and offensive tackle Bobby Hart (Bills).

In Hart's case, the Bills added the same player who received a $137,500 signing bonus from Buffalo in April as part of a one-year deal. Buffalo cut him in August, then picked him up on its practice squad this week.

By unofficial count, at least nine NFL veterans on practice squads to start Week 1 earned at least $15 million over their careers -- and that's not counting Dorsett, who has made $11.6 million. You could field an NFL team comprised solely of practice squad players, and that team would compete on Sundays.

Additionally, nine quarterbacks were protected this week: Steven Montez (Lions), Kurt Benkert (Packers), Brett Rypien (Broncos), Matt Barkley (Titans), Trace McSorley (Ravens), Brett Hundley (Colts), Nick Mullens (Browns), Reid Sinnett (Dolphins) and Josh Johnson (Jets).

OK, but why are there suddenly big names there?

Because these are the only jobs available. The NFL squeeze-out is on. Unless you're a top free agent still available -- defensive tackle Geno Atkins isn't about to take a practice squad job -- players go where the work is.

Can Le'Veon Bell really not land on a real roster somewhere?

It's uncertain whether Bell received offers elsewhere, but fit was a key criterion for him. He targeted teams that prioritize the run game. Baltimore is certainly that.

Still, a player is only as good as his options, and teams had concerns about Bell's waning explosion. In 26 games with two teams, he averaged just 3.4 yards per carry over the past two seasons. So this might be the best he can do for now.

Why wouldn't every team take this approach with big-name free agents who can't find NFL deals?

Most are. Nearly every NFL team has at least one practice squad player who has logged meaningful NFL snaps over multiple years. It's just that some are more aggressive than others.

What can teams do to entice players to take these jobs?

Teams say players can use the practice squad to learn the system and improve conditioning before getting a potential call-up.

"For players who have been in free agency all offseason, it's good for them to come in and get ready to play so that when they do get called upon, they are ready and can prevent injury," a high-ranking NFC exec said.

More available jobs allow players to be selective. Safety Sean Davis, Pittsburgh's second-round pick in 2016, had been released by Washington and Indianapolis in recent years. He wanted to make an impact somewhere. Cincinnati needed a fourth safety after Ricardo Allen went to the injured reserve, so Davis signed there in Week 2. He got activated, and the Bengals protected his rights this week.

"It's a new normal as far as the business is concerned," said Davis about the new influence of practice squads. "My head is held high, and I just wanted to go somewhere where I believed I could make plays and contribute."

For Davis, Austin Reiter and others, the hope is to get called up twice, then get activated for the rest of the year and make close to $1 million, feeling like they were never on the practice squad at all.

New England recently worked this angle with quarterback Brian Hoyer, who was cut and signed to the practice squad for Week 1, leaving Mac Jones as the only quarterback on the game-day roster. The Patriots activated Hoyer for Week 1, then signed him outright before Week 2. They made that decision a week before the deadline, but the transaction took the guesswork out of the backup QB spot. And on Saturday, Hoyer ended up signing a similar deal to the one he agreed to in the offseason: one year, $1.075 million with $100,000 guaranteed.

How much does the average practice squad player make?

Players with tenure earn $14,000 per week, or $252,000 per season, a nice spike from the $8,400 practice squad players used to make. And players with two or fewer accrued NFL seasons make $9,200. Those numbers will increase exponentially over the life of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, up to $20,050 in 2028.

There's no room for players and teams to negotiate the money. The rates are the rates.

How does it work with the salary cap?

Practice squad players do not count against the salary cap. If someone gets promoted to the active roster, he'd be at a minimum salary that wouldn't negatively affect the cap anyway. So this is almost like a tax-free benefit, like airline points and hotel rewards programs.

What does an average practice-squader's week look like?

He does everything a player would during the week. He practices, does film work and eats meals at the team facility. He travels with the team for road games. But on game day, he's in street clothes unless called up.

Can they be traded? Signed for one week and released?

Only players on the active roster can be traded. But teams can definitely sign a practice squad player for one week, only to release him the next. It's after Week 1, which means the salaries of vested veterans are no longer guaranteed. So players are truly week-to-week anyway.

What would make established veterans feel better about the practice squad setup?

Better payouts. If the league minimum is around $58,000 per game, then practice squad money for the well-known practice squad players should probably be closer to $35,000 per week.