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2021 practice squad primer: Everything to know from the rules to the eligibility

A quick primer to give you an idea about how the practice squad rules work this season

Kansas City Chiefs v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The NFL was forced to alter their practice squad rules in 2020 as COVID-19 affected teams around the league. Here’s a rundown of everything you need to know about how the practice squad rules will work for 2021.

16-man practice squads

The NFL is carrying over the 16-man practice squad from last year to allow teams more flexibility as they continue to deal with the pandemic. A 16-man squad allows teams to maintain more depth, but it will also impact roster strategies around the league.

Up to two “promotable” players

The NFL allows teams to promote two players from the practice squad to the 53-man roster (effectively creating a 55-man roster), but these players revert to the practice squad after the game.

This rule should allow the 49ers to keep two quarterbacks on the active roster. However, it also allows for flexibility week to week. For example, with Maurice Hurst technically on the active roster early in the season, but he’ll be sidelined with a high-ankle sprain, the Niners could call up an additional defensive lineman or two.

One COVID-related promotion.

In addition to the two promoted players, teams can promote one additional practice squad player within 90 minutes before kickoff in the event of a late COVID-19 positive test result. Teams may think about keeping a QB around on the PS specifically for the scenario where the entire regular QB room falls under COVID protocols, as happened last year with the Broncos, who suddenly found themselves without a QB on gameday.

Up to six “veterans” per practice squad

The league now allows six players per practice squad with unlimited accrued seasons, making it easier for teams to have experienced players on their practice squad.

Additionally, the league allows up to four players per team who have earned no more than two accrued seasons. An accrued season means a player was on full pay status on a club’s active/inactive, reserved/injured, or reserve/physically unable to perform lists. This covers basically the entire rookie classes of 2019 and 2020, both drafted and undrafted players, regardless of how many NFL games they played.

Finally, all rookies are practice squad eligible, along with all players on the active list for fewer than nine regular-season games during their one accrued season.

San Francisco could use this for fringe players such as Zach Kerr, Richie James, or even Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, which brings us to our next point.

Up to four “protected” players

In principle, practice squad players can be signed to another team’s 53-man roster at any time. However, each team can protect up to four of their practice squad players per week, meaning they cannot be signed by another team.

The reason for all these new rules and expanded rosters is the refusal by the NFL to postpone games when COVID-19 protocols put teams at a competitive disadvantage; the expanded practice squad roster is designed to alleviate that.

If Kyle Shanahan can’t fit a guy like Wayne Gallman or Elijah Mitchell on the roster but wants to ensure he stays around, this rule is in place to protect the team from losing players like that.

General practice squad basics

  • Practice squad players practice with the team. They do not play in games unless they are promoted (see above)
  • Not all players are eligible to be signed to NFL practice squads (see eligibility rules above).
  • Practice squad players are paid per week and can be released at any point during the season.
  • Practice squad players are free to sign with other NFL teams (except for the four protected players described above), but they have to be signed to the 53-man active roster of the acquiring team. A practice squad player cannot be signed to another practice squad unless he is first released.
  • A practice squad player can not sign with his team’s upcoming opponent unless he does so six days before the upcoming game or 10 days if his team is currently on a bye week.
  • If a practice squad player is signed to the active roster, he will receive a minimum of three weekly paychecks, even if he is released before spending three weeks with the new team.
  • After being released, a player must first clear waivers and is subject to waiver claims by other teams to be signed to a practice squad.

Salary

Practice squad players earn significantly less than players on the active roster, but they still get a solid weekly paycheck. In 2021, all players with two or fewer accrued seasons make a minimum of $9,200 per week on the practice squad. Veterans with more than two accrued seasons get a minimum of $14,000 per week.

To protect their players from other teams, or because they really like the potential of a given player, some teams pay their roster squad players significantly more. There is no limit to how much a team can pay a player on the practice squad, although the practice squad contracts do count against the salary cap.

The upside of being on the practice squad is that if a player is called up to the 53-man regular roster, either by his own team or another team, he automatically signs a contract with the $660,000 minimum NFL salary. And because three weeks of that contract are guaranteed, even if that player is released, waived, or traded before the three weeks are up, being called up comes with a $101,000 guarantee (3/18th of $660,000).

Teams reduced their rosters to 80 players today, and the final roster cuts to 53 players have to be done by Tuesday, Aug. 31, 1:00 pm PT.

The claiming period for players placed on waivers during the final cut to the 53-man rosters across the league will expire at 1:00 PM PT on September 1st.

Starting at 1:00 pm PT on September 1st, teams can begin signing players to their practice squads.