In the span of a few hours—from the conclusion of preseason games Thursday night to 3 p.m. Saturday—nearly 700 football players will be told in one way or another that they are out of a job.
The final cutdown day in the NFL is the single most dreaded time on the calendar for players and coaches, as all 32 clubs have to trim their active rosters from 75 players down to 53 in preparation for the regular season. Guys who have shed blood, sweat and tears to make a team are let go, not always because of their talent or age or salary, but many times simply because of a number crunch on a roster.
However, final cuts are not always what they appear. Players let go by one team are often picked up by another club and given a new chance to play. Some can sign with any team they'd like right away, while others go through waivers before being picked up. Meanwhile, several younger players will be signed to a practice squad, meaning they are on a team's roster but ineligible to play in regular season games. All in all, there can be new life after cuts, but certain league rules apply to specific types of players.
Many well-known former Bears players, including Tom Waddle, Israel Idonije and Hunter Hillenmeyer, began their careers on practice squads. Today, the eligibility of who can be on a practice squad and how long they can be there is tricky, especially because the rules are always changing. To simplify some things, here's a quick Q&A on what really transpires during and after those important hours for players and teams.
Q: What is the practice squad? Which players are eligible for it?
Starting Sunday, every NFL team can sign up to 10 players to contracts that do not count against the 53-man roster limit. These players practice throughout the week, work out with coaches and train with teammates, but unlike the guys on the active roster, the practice squad does not suit up on gameday.
The practice squad is designed to help give younger players some experience with teammates and coaches without throwing them into game situations. League rules regulate which players are eligible for the squad. Players are always given the chance to make a 53-man roster before being put on a practice squad. That means after cutdown day, any of the 32 teams can sign players to their active teams before practice squads are set. Therefore, for example, the Raiders cannot sign a player they want on their practice squad if the Bears want to sign the same player to their gameday roster.
Q: Can a player be on the practice squad their entire career?
To put it simply – no. The league's Collective Bargaining Agreement outlines which players are eligible for practice squads, and it is entirely dependent on how much time they have accrued in the NFL. In article 33, section 4 of the CBA, the CBA explains who is practice squad eligible:
"(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."
A player earns an accrued season if they were on the 53-man roster for at least six weeks within a single league year. Being on the practice squad does not count for those weeks, meaning a rookie linebacker who spends 13 weeks on the practice squad and four on the active roster still has zero accrued seasons, per the league.
However, as section 4(a) explains, a team cannot load up its practice squad with veteran players year after year. There are exceptions to the provision that players must have two or fewer previous seasons on the practice squad (more on that below), but generally the squad is for players lacking professional experience. In layman's terms, a player can certainly be on the practice squad if they have no accrued seasons and have either never been on the squad before or only been on it for one previous seasons. If they have been on it for two years, but the team has the maximum 53-man roster the entire time (very rare in today's NFL) they are also eligible.
Q: What is new to the practice squad rules in 2016-17?
The league and players' association are always tinkering with the practice squad rules, and this past offseason was no different. The biggest change was giving teams more openings for players with accrued seasons under their belt. Last year the league allowed for two of the 10 practice squad spots to be filled by players with two or more accrued years; now every team can have up to four of those players. The same rules still apply in terms of previous seasons on a practice squad, however.
Most spots on practice squads across the league are going to be occupied by younger players. Maybe coaches see a dash of potential in a wide receiver that they want to develop, but feel that the player isn't ready for game action yet. Or there's a defensive lineman that has the physical tools, but must get stronger. At any time, another team can come along and sign a practice squad player from any club to their own 53-man roster.
So while cutdown day may be difficult time for everyone across the league, the chance to make a team and the dream of being on an NFL roster won't quite be done for around 300 players. Fans won't see them in games, but for many, the practice squad is a stepping stone to the big-time of the league.