After all player cuts are made from 90 players down to 53 and the frenzy of signing players who were released from other clubs has ceased, NFL teams will get down to the business of forming their practice squads (PS), formerly known as the “taxi squad.” This year, teams can begin signing players to their practice squad at 1:00 PM ET on Sunday. But what exactly is the PS and who is eligible to be signed to it?
Every NFL team has a practice squad, which can be a maximum of 10 players. Before 2014, this unit was eight players. This is like an another entire unit for every club. These players are signed by teams and can practice, but are not part of the 53-man roster. This means they cannot play in actual games.
The reason for the PS is strictly for development of the player and his talents. Because these players have no more college eligibility and the NFL is devoid of an actual minor league system, the PS is a perfect staging area for improvement and growth. Usually, these players are utilized as the scout team posing as members of the upcoming opponent during practices.
Players who are eligible to be signed to the PS are first- and second-year players, usually rookies and undrafted free-agents. Each PS can have up to four veterans who have played on an NFL roster for two or fewer seasons. This rule was changed last year and issued as a modification of the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the player’s union. The four designated players with exceptions to the usual practice squad eligibility requirements have no limitation on the number of games they were active for during the regular season during either of those two seasons.
This year, NFL teams in the NFC South can add an international player and designate him to the practice squad as a 11th member as part of the new “International Player Pathway Program.” These players cannot be activated during the season.
All PS players in 2017 will be paid $7,200 per week, up from $5,700 several years ago. Every player on the PS is a free-agent and has already cleared waivers. The Canadian Football League also has a PS program in which their players make $600 a week.
Every player on every PS is available to every other NFL club at any time. However, when claimed, that NFL team must add the PS player to their 53-man roster. So, just because a player is sitting on the Browns PS does not mean Cleveland has exclusive rights to him as with the active roster. Any team can claim and sign any player off of any PS roster. Basically, every club has available 320 athletes at their disposal every day at every position. The only exception is that a franchise cannot claim a PS player just prior to playing that opponent. This eliminates stealing upcoming game plans.
The NFL did not officially start using the PS process until 1950 (called the taxi squad) when the AAFC and the NFL merged. In 1989 they labeled it the “Developmental Squad.” and allowed six players. This was shortened to five athletes the following season and renamed the “Practice Squad.” This format continued until 2005 when it was increased to eight players and then to the current 10 participants in 2014.
The practice squad was invented by Browns’ head coach Paul Brown in 1946. When the upstart All-America Football Conference (AAFC) began for the 1946 season, it was the responsibility of each club to form their own rosters with any means possible. Most clubs were comprised of former NFL players and free-agents. The AAFC had roster limits set at 33 players. The problem for Coach Brown, however, was that his club was overrun with exceptional talent. The last thing he wanted to do was cut good players who would eventually be on the roster of an opposing club or be lost to the NFL.
Coach Brown devised a secret plan with Browns’ owner Mickey McBride, who owned the Zone-Yellow Cab Company. After Brown arrived at his 33-man roster, the good players that he cut were employed by the McBride’s cab company and had schedules that would allow them to show up at League Park where the Browns practiced. These players would then practice with Cleveland and when an active player would become hurt or cut, Coach Brown had a reliable player who already knew his system readily available to take his place instantly.
And thus one more innovation that Coach Paul Brown brought to professional football was born.
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association