Changes are coming with regards to how teams will set their rosters for the upcoming season, thanks to concerns about the spread of COVID-19, but some changes were going to happen regardless of that.
Because COVID-19 has been the main issue on everyone's mind regarding the NFL, a lot of people may have forgotten that the NFL and NFLPA agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement back in February, just before free agency got underway. And with that new CBA came, among other things, changes to the main roster and practice squad.
Some of that has been modified again, thanks to COVID-19, but one thing to keep in mind is you shouldn't be thinking about the final roster like it was in 2019, with a 53-man main roster and a 10-man practice squad.
Let's first go over changes that took effect with the new CBA, then what's changed in recent weeks as it applies to 2020.
Roster, Practice Squad Changes in New CBA
First of all, effective with 2020, the number of game-day actives was increased to a maximum of 48 players, but if you have the maximum active, there must be eight active offensive linemen. The primary reason for that condition is to ensure teams utilize more O-linemen for depth or situations in which they might play a sixth offensive lineman.
Teams don't have to have 48 game-day actives — they may have as few as 44 players active on game day. If they have less than 48 active, they don't have to keep eight offensive linemen active.
Another change is regarding the main roster. Though it's still set at 53 players, teams have the option of elevating one or two players from the practice squad to the game-day roster without his contract status changing.
In other words, a player on the practice squad utilized this way doesn't have to be switched to a regular NFL contract (which pays him more money per week than a practice squad contract). He also doesn't have to go back through waivers to be returned to the practice squad.
However, that does come with conditions. First, any practice squad player may not be active for two consecutive weeks or he goes through the regular process (sign to a regular contract or go back through waivers). Second, a practice squad player may be utilized in this way for a maximum of two games, without going through the regular process.
It can get confusing, but the best way to think about how to utilize the rule is this: If there's a given week in which a player is expected to miss a game because of a minor injury, the team may call up a player from the practice squad to the game-day roster, who can then be activated in case that injured player is inactive.
So the way things worked with the practice squad in the past won't be quite the same this year, thanks to the new CBA. This means the Broncos may be able to get some players on the practice squad involved in a game or two in some capacity, without having to sign them to the active roster, then try to slip them through waivers again.
Finally, there's a set salary for practice squad players now. For 2020, all players get $8,400 per week, or $134,400 for a 16-game season. The exception is players who have at least three accrued seasons, who get $12,000 per week, or $192,000 per season.
Practice Squad Adjustments Because Of COVID-19
For 2020, the original intent was for the practice squad to expand to 12 players. That's right -- more players can be on a practice squad and the Broncos knew this all the way back in March.
Furthermore, teams were going to be allowed to keep two players on the practice squad with no limit to how many seasons they had accrued. It used to be a player could have no more than two accrued seasons.
But that change — again, one the Broncos knew about since March — meant players with lots of accrued seasons could go to the practice squad. That may explain why they have retained certain players throughout the offseason.
However, with COVID-19 a major concern, the practice squad was adjusted again. Now, the practice squad is up to 16 players, and up to six players may be included with no maximum of accrued seasons.
More importantly, a team may protect four players each week from being signed by another team. This makes a practice squad a more desirable spot for the Broncos to place, say, an undrafted rookie they like, but would worry about another team signing him away.
These changes to the practice squad allow the Broncos (and other teams, of course) more flexibility should they lose a player because he tests positive for COVID-19. It makes it easier to keep somebody around who can replace such a player or be moved to the active roster.
How it Could Work in Practice
Let's consider how the Broncos could utilize the practice squad. Say they want to keep one player at each of these positions: Quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive tackle, interior offensive lineman, defensive lineman, outside linebacker, off-ball linebacker, cornerback and safety.
You'll notice that makes 11 different positions, but the Broncos would still have five spots available. The Broncos thus get far more opportunities to keep players at certain positions and don't have to worry about excluding one because spots are limited.
Now let's consider some examples specific to certain players.
Say the Broncos decide to put cornerback Essang Bassey on the practice squad. During the season, a Broncos cornerback has his status in doubt for a game, so Bassey gets called up to the active roster. He impresses in that game, thus giving the Broncos reason to consider making him a permanent addition to the active roster.
In another example, say the Broncos want to keep Jake Butt but think he needs more time to get up to speed. With no limit on accrued seasons for up to six practice squad players, Butt can be added there and has a chance to make the active roster later in the season.
The Broncos could also add Brett Rypien to the practice squad, freeing up a 53-man roster spot for another position, but still have him available to call up for a game or two if necessary.
If the Broncos really wanted to, they could keep a veteran like Jeff Heuerman around on the practice squad and pay him much less than the $3M base salary he's due. If he was added to the practice squad and never made the active roster, he would get $192,000 — much less than the veteran minimum for a player of his experience.
On one hand, you could argue it's better to keep a tight end younger than Heuerman on the practice squad. On the other hand, you could argue that sticking Heuerman on the practice squad is being cheap with him and, if the Broncos don't want him on the 53-man roster, they're better off letting him look elsewhere for an opportunity.
Still, teams getting to pay less than the veteran minimum for a player makes it tempting for the Broncos to keep at least one such player on the practice squad. And, in a few cases, it's arguably a good idea to have that veteran available if a player on the 53-man roster isn't available in a given week
Regardless of how you believe the practice squad should take shape, you no longer will base it on what happened in 2019. And while some changes are only in place for 2020 because of COVID-19, other changes will remain in effect for 2021.
More changes will come in 2022 when the practice squad expands to 14 players, thus giving teams even more flexibility when it comes to determining their rosters. Salaries will increase, though, with most players getting $11,500 per week, but those with three or more accrued seasons getting as much as $19,900 per week.
The changes to the practice squad are making it more similar to a minor league team, in which the Broncos can keep certain players around for "seasoning," before calling them up to the main roster, and perhaps finding somebody who deserves to stay on that roster.
So Broncos fans should start thinking in terms of how the practice squad works differently and what it could mean for developing players. And while losing out on the preseason hurts younger players, the new practice squad rules might make up for those lost opportunities.