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Practice squad eligibility rules for 2016

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A brief review of CBA rules governing which players may be signed to the practice squad.

NFL: Detroit Lions-Training Camp Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Previously, Pride Of Detroit’s Kent Lee Platte wrote a detailed article evaluating the chances that certain practice squad-eligible players would clear waivers if cut. For many of the POD staff (including myself), it is a constant struggle to remember which players are eligible and why. We present a series of articles to help everyone navigate the convoluted practice squad rules and their application to the Detroit Lions’ roster.

This article will review the NFL’s current practice squad rules as they are laid out in the current NFL-NFLPA collective bargaining agreement (CBA). In future articles, we will examine specific examples of past moves by Detroit in the context of how the team might be using the practice squad. This will include a check on how the eligibility rules apply to the players on the current Lions roster to determine who is eligible to go on the practice squad

Recommended reading:

What is the practice squad?

The practice squad is a list of players signed to contracts by an NFL team who do not count against the 53-man roster limit but cannot be used for active gameday rosters. They are limited to practicing with the team, hence the term “practice squad.” The main advantage to having a player on the practice squad is that the team can continue to train and develop the player even if they do not intend to use him in a gameday roster. They may use the team’s facilities and staff, attend meetings, and of course participate in all practices and other non-game team activities.

Per agreement between the NFL and NFL Players’ Association (see the PFT and Mile High Report articles above), the practice squad has had a maximum size of ten players since 2014 and will remain that way through the 2017 season.

Interlude: Accrued seasons and practice squad seasons

The NFL evaluates how “experienced” a player is using two measures in its eligibility and contract rules: credited seasons (CS) and accrued seasons (AS). For the purposes of discussing the practice squad rules, we need to be clear about the definition of accrued seasons but do not need to worry about credited seasons. Accrued seasons are primarily used to determine the free agency status of a player.

According to article 8, section 1(a) of the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA):

Accrued Seasons Calculation:

(a) For the purposes of calculating Accrued Seasons under this Agreement, a player shall receive one Accrued Season for each season during which he was on, or should have been on, full pay status for a total of six or more regular season games, but which, irrespective of the player’s pay status, shall not include games for which the player was on: (i) the Exempt Commissioner Permission List, (ii) the Reserve PUP List as a result of a nonfootball injury, or (iii) a Club’s Practice Squad.

Notice that the language is very specific and requires all of the regular season games to be within the same league year. Thus, a player who was on a 53-man roster (or other eligible list like injured reserve) for only four games in one season and only two games in the next season would not be credited with an accrued season; the league year is what gets flagged as being AS or non-AS for that player. Also notice provision (iii), which explicitly names practice squad duty as not qualifying for AS calculations.

The main part of the CBA that deals with practice squad rules is article 33. Part of the eligibility rules in article 33, section 4(b) defines the term practice squad season (PS):

(b) A player shall be deemed to have served on a Practice Squad in a season if he has passed the club’s physical and been a member of the club’s Practice Squad for at least three six (see below in the “weird exception” part of this article) regular season or postseason games during his first two Practice Squad seasons, and for at least one regular season or postseason game during his third Practice Squad season. (For purposes of this Section, a bye week counts as a game provided that the player is not terminated until after the regular season or postseason weekend in question).

Therefore, it may be interpreted as saying “a PS is credited if a player was on the practice squad for at least six weeks in which there was a bye or a game scheduled for the team (whether regular season or postseason).” Normally, players can only be on a practice squad for two years (see the next part of this article below); if a player gets a third year on a practice squad, he only needs to be on it for one game or bye week to get another PS credited.

Now that we know how accrued seasons (AS) and practice squad seasons (PS) are credited, let’s return to figuring out who qualifies for practice squad contracts.

Eligibility: who can be on a practice squad?

The other part of the eligibility rules in article 33, section 4(a) tell us why we need to care about how many AS and PS a player has already been credited with:

Section 4. Eligibility:

(a) The Practice Squad shall consist of the following players, provided that they have not served more than two previous seasons on a Practice Squad: (i) players who do not have an Accrued Season of NFL experience; and (ii) free agent players who were on the Active List for fewer than nine regular season games during their only Accrued Season(s). An otherwise eligible player may be a Practice Squad player for a third season only if the Club by which he is employed that season has at least 53 players on its Active/Inactive List during the entire period of his employment.

The following conditions qualify a player to be signed to a practice squad:

1. Zero AS AND:

  • Zero or one PS
  • Two PS if the team always has a full 53-man active/inactive roster

2. Any number of AS as long as none of the AS had nine or more regular season games where the player was on the gameday actives list AND

  • Zero or one PS
  • Two PS if the team always has a full 53-man active/inactive roster

That full 53-man active/inactive roster requirement to make it possible to stash a player for a third practice squad season seems odd, but it’s probably just included as an incentive negotiated by the union for teams to pay as many players (i.e. as many union members) as possible. Teams are technically permitted to have as few as 43 active players under article 25, section 1, but of course no team would want to have fewer than the maximum 46 active list players for competitive reasons. In that sense, the “Two PS” extra requirement is a moot one.

What about that weird new negotiated exception?

That’s right! There’s a third category of player that can be signed to the practice squad thanks to the post-CBA negotiations from 2014 and 2015. Although we do not have exact language since the NFLPA only has the 2011 document posted, here is a news report from a Fox Sports affiliate:

First, a player must have a minimum of six games – up from the current three games – on a Practice Squad in order for that season to count as one of the player’s three permissible seasons of Practice Squad service.

Second, each club will be permitted to sign a maximum of two Practice Squad players who have earned no more than two accrued seasons of free agency credit. Absent this exception, a player who has earned one or more accrued seasons would not be eligible for a Practice Squad unless the player spent fewer than nine games on a club’s 46-player active list in each of his accrued seasons.

That exception was subsequently expanded by the NFL and NFLPA this year:

Therefore, the current exception works like this:

3. Exactly one or two AS with any number of weeks spent on the gameday actives list AND:

  • Zero or one PS
  • Two PS if the team always has a full 53-man active/inactive roster
  • No more than one three other players on the practice squad utilizing this exception

As an interesting aside, there used to be a fourth way a player could serve on the practice squad. Building on the old international practice squad program from before the 2011 CBA, there used to be an exception that allowed any team to keep an extra practice squad player who did not count against the normal practice squad limit if their primary place of residence was outside the United States. In 2015, Vikings fans speculated as to whether a monstrous Polish offensive tackle named Babatunde Aiyegbusi could make their practice squad under the exception, but it was discovered the exception had already been discontinued.

There has got to be a simpler way to talk about this, right?

Almost any article out there talking about practice squad eligibility rules will be shorter and less confusing that what we’ve presented here. The trade-off is that some of the nuance and exceptions are lost when inherently complex material is simplified to be compact and to the point. If we want some rules of thumb, though, the following is a decent starting point:

Anyone who was in a draft class four or more years ago is very unlikely to be practice squad eligible regardless of the details. The reason is even a marginal player spending two years on a practice squad with two years of accrued service (injury or otherwise) would have four years of time in the league.

More than two years of accrued service of any time would put severe restrictions on what kinds of accrued seasons they could be, and it seems odd for a player to be kept around that long if no team felt they were worth having on their 53-man roster for more than half the season (i.e. the 9+ weeks thing in Method 2).

The rule limiting the number of practice squad years a player has already been credited with can be safely ignored. Since every team always operates with the maximum 53-man in-season roster, eligible players can effectively have up to three practice squad years in every situation. If a particular player has not already developed into a useful player worth having on the 53-man roster by the start of their fourth year, it’s unlikely anyone will want to keep that player around for further development. There are enough new rookies entering the league each year for teams to try out instead of clinging to guys who consume 3+ years of resources and show nothing.

Anyone known to have “started” for any team, otherwise played in “a lot” of games, or went on IR with a catastrophic injury is probably only going to be eligible if they are “very young.” Any of those situations would mean the player obviously has a 9+ week accrued season on their record, and can therefore only ever be eligible under the Method 3 exception. Remember: weeks spent on Injured Reserve count toward accrued season crediting. In any of these cases, the player may only have two accrued seasons at most, and therefore must either be a second-year or third-year player career-wise.

None of this is very exact, but that is the unfortunate consequence of all the different types of credited seasons and thresholds used all over the place in the practice squad rules. There really is not a good way to be comprehensive and simple at the same time with how everything is codified in the CBA.