This offseason, the NFL and NFL Players Association agreed to a brand-new Collective Bargaining Agreement that made several changes to the way teams may construct their roster. Then when the pandemic hit, the two sides agreed on a couple more changes to protect teams and their rosters from every getting too overwhelmed or undermanned.
These rule changes could have a huge impact on how general managers construct their 53-man rosters this week. With the expansion of practice squads, increase in game-day rosters, and other important tweaks to roster rules, we could see a very different strategy from each team as they reduce their roster size over the next three days.
That is certainly true of the Detroit Lions, as well. So I wanted to look at a handful of new NFL rules and how they may impact what Lions general manager Bob Quinn may do as he trims the roster.
Rule #1 - Practice squad expands to 16 players
Initially, the practice squad was only supposed to expand from 10 to 12 players this year, but the pandemic caused the NFL to temporarily jump that to 16. How will that impact the Lions this year? It likely means the undrafted rookie who didn’t get much of a chance during training camp could be afforded the ability to learn under the system for a year on the practice squad.
With the shortened offseason, teams may be more inclined to keep their own players rather than scouring the waiver wire. And with more spots to fill on their practice squad, it seems likely teams will keep more of “their own” around than in a normal offseason.
Rule #2 - Practice squad eligibility expansion
Prior to 2020, only players with two or fewer accrued seasons in the NFL were allowed to be placed on the practice squad. Now, teams can place up to six players with unlimited numbers of accrued seasons on the practice squad. Essentially, teams can now put six veterans of any age onto their practice squad... assuming the player wants to go.
This will have a drastic impact on how teams build their roster. Let’s use Darryl Roberts as an example. Let’s say Roberts is on the roster bubble. In a normal season, he would not be practice squad eligible, so the Lions may decide to keep him on the 53-man roster, while cutting a younger player to stash on the practice squad.
However, this year, the Lions could cut him, and because he’s a vested veteran with four years in the NFL, he wouldn’t even have to clear waivers. The Lions could simply tell him, “We’re cutting you, but we’d love to keep you around on the practice squad,” then re-sign him to the practice squad the next day. There’s always the risk that Roberts would prefer to land on someone else’s 53-man roster—with a better paycheck, to boot—but there’s an additional reason he may want to stay in Detroit...
Rule #3 - 2 free practice squad elevation spots per week
New CBA rules allow teams to promote two practice squad players to the 53-man roster without having to clear room for them—essentially creating a temporary 55-man roster during game week. Those players are eligible to play that week, although they must revert back to the practice squad after the game (and they will not be subject to waivers).
The practice squad will likely be viewed as a downgrade by veteran players, but they will still have a very real chance of playing on game day given this new rule. However, it’s worth noting that a team can use these free elevation spots on a single player twice in a year. They could elevate the player a third or fourth or 17th time, but it would cost the team a roster spot.
Rule #4 - Gameday rosters increased from 46 to 48
Previously, teams had to keep seven players of their 53-man roster inactive for their games. Now, teams are allowed to have two extra players active for games, as long as eight offensive linemen are included on their active gameday roster.
That last point is important, because it allows teams to have extra reserve offensive linemen available without costing an active roster spot. In theory, then, a team may decide to keep an extra offensive linemen, knowing they’ve got an extra spot. The Lions, for example, typically scratched two offensive linemen every game. With one additional lineman now capable of entering the lineup, the Lions may decide to keep an extra one around on the 53-man roster for depth and injury-replacement purposes.
For the Lions, Taylor Decker, Joe Dahl, Frank Ragnow, Jonah Jackson, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Logan Stenberg and Tyrell Crosby are safe. Throw in either Kenny Wiggins or Oday Aboushi, and you’re up to eight already. But with this additional gameday roster spot, could someone like Beau Benzschawel sneak in so that the Lions have an active backup center on game days?
Without this new rule, Benzschawel would likely be inactive on Sundays, meaning if an injury at center happened, the Lions would likely slide Joe Dahl over—causing the team to disrupt two positions. But if Benzschawel was active, he could simply slide in for Ragnow without disrupting any other part of the line.