The generally accepted response to “How many players are on an NFL roster?” is 53. Since 1993 that has been the undebatable correct response, but in the past few seasons an alternative answer has emerged. That answer, 69, made possible by the oft ignored yet incredibly crucial…Practice Squad.
What is the Practice Squad?
At a high-level the Practice Squad is a stable of players available to an NFL team with two key caveats. First, unlike players on the 53-man roster, Practice Squad players are under contract but able to sign with another team at any point in time. Second, for Practice Squad players to play in an NFL game they must either be signed to the 53-man roster OR go through an elevation process. Introduced in the 2020 CBA, the elevation process effectively provides NFL teams with a group of 69 players to choose from when selecting their 48-man gameday active roster.
Those additional 16 players are subject to some unique rules though. Specific to construction of the NFL practice squad, teams must abide by the following:
- 16 player maximum size
- Unlimited players that haven’t played 9+ games in a season
- 4 or fewer players with 2 accrued* seasons
- 6 or fewer players with no limits on accrued seasons
* An accrued season is counted when a player is on the active/inactive list, injured reserve, or reserve PUP list for at least 6 games
This group of 16 players can practice with their NFL roster on a daily basis but must be elevated to the active roster to participate in games. Just like Practice Squad construction, the elevation process consists of a unique set of rules:
- 2 or fewer players can be elevated per game
- Players must be elevated the day prior to their game
- Elevated players pass through waivers and are reverted to the Practice Squad the following day
- Players can be elevated up to 3 times per season*
- For a player to be elevated a 4th time, they must be signed to the 53-man roster
* Per season player elevation limits do not apply during the postseason
The reduction in experience restrictions coupled with the addition of the elevation process has turned what was once only a developmental component of NFL teams into a key asset during any given season. Over the past few seasons, teams have had to experiment with these changes with no better encapsulation of that than the Buffalo Bills.
Bills Practice Squad Through the Years
Each of the past three seasons has presented the Bills with a unique opportunity to evaluate their Practice Squad strategy. Health, injuries, availability, and global events have forced the Bills to be flexible in this regard. 2020, 2021, and 2022 all presented unique challenges and, in the process, has furthered the Bills quest to perfect their usage of the modern-day Practice Squad.
2020 Bills Practice Squad
The most chaotic year in NFL history just so happened to be the first year the new rules applied to the Practice Squad. Most teams spent this season perfecting these rule changes while using the Practice Squad almost exclusively as a backup plan for COVID related issues. The league also saw a significant reduction in poaching as any claims required mandatory quarantines prior to that player being able to join the team. The 2020 Buffalo Bills were far from immune to similar challenges.
Much like the rest of the NFL in 2020, a handful of Bills players missed time due to COVID. Dawson Knox, Josh Norman, Levi Wallace, and John Brown, among others, would miss time. The NFL provided further flexibility to teams during this season, ignoring elevation limits when the elevations were related to COVID issues. Still, the Bills issues would force them to scramble as they quickly moved players in and out of active roles throughout the season.
These new Practice Squad rules allowed Buffalo to leverage their Practice Squad to quickly enhance their roster. Players like Dane Jackson (CB), Cam Lewis (DB), and Jake Kumerow (WR) would be elevated at times during the season and play critical minutes for the Bills. Almost as important, these elevations provided valuable experience for players that would see significant snaps over the subsequent seasons.
2021 Bills Practice Squad
The 2021 season saw a step towards normalcy that resulted in a major shift in Practice Squad usage league wide. The ability to stash veterans saw teams identify high-quality talent and store them on the squad as break-glass players. This trend began towards the end of the 2020 season for the Bills who added veterans like Kenny Stills (WR) and Devonta Freeman (RB) for their 2020 postseason run. 2021 saw that continue as teams kept unexperienced players in developmental roles with more experienced players being elevated on a consistent basis.
The Bills took the ability to store veterans on the Practice Squad seriously as early as Week 1. Veteran Jamil Douglas (OL) would be on the initial Practice Squad with others including Bobby Hart (OL), Eli Ankou (DT), and Jamie Gillan (P) joining the squad at points throughout the season. Douglas, Hart, and Ankou would all see the field for the Bills in 2021 despite the team being relatively healthy throughout.
Along with the veterans on the squad, the Bills also identified multiple prospects they could roster and develop. 2021’s Week 1 Practice Squad included Jack Anderson (OL), Jake Fromm (QB), Isaiah Hodgins (WR), Kahale Warring (TE), and Rachad Wildgoose (CB). Each of those 5 players would sign with another team off the Bills Practice Squad by the end of 2022. Signifying a trend that isn’t expected to change anytime soon, the Bills 53-man roster makes it difficult for the Buffalo Bills to retain high-level developmental NFL talent.
2022 Bills Practice Squad
In 2022 teams league wide finally began to utilize every aspect of the new Practice Squad. This meant stashing key veterans in case of injury as well as developmental prospects teams could work with throughout the season. For the Bills 2022 presented a unique challenge as the injury bug that had evaded them for years finally set in and forced them to use their Practice Squad amongst the most in the league.
Throughout the 2022 season the Bills would see an untenable level of injuries specifically on the defensive side of the ball. Among starters only Taron Johnson (SCB) and DaQuan Jones (1TDT) played in every regular season game with the other 9 starters combining to miss 44 games. This coupled with injuries to some key reserves including Kaiir Elam (CB), Christian Benford (CB), and Jordan Phillips (DT) forced the Bills to use their Practice Squad early and often.
As early as Week #3 Practice Squad players would see significant snap share due to injuries, with UDFA Ja’Marcus Ingram (CB) appearing in more than 50% of defensive snaps against the Dolphins. That trend would continue throughout the season with players like Brandin Bryant (DT) and Xavier Rhodes (CB) being elevated multiple times. Towards the end of the season the Bills would even bring back ex-Bills John Brown (WR) and Cole Beasley (WR) and stash them on the Practice Squad as assets for the playoff push. 2022 was a difficult year due to injuries and one where the Bills needed to rely heavily on the flexibility offered to them by the Practice Squad.
Upcoming Practice Squad
With most fans, rightfully, focused on who cracks the 53-man roster for their respective team the Practice Squad often goes ignored. The Buffalo Bills can ill afford to ignore their practice squad though, as a team that is incredibly deep with talent and set to cut players that are more than capable of competing in the NFL.
With that in mind, keep a look out for Part 2 of this series by Hans Hansen and Chris Jahnke which drop on August 28. That article will detail expectations for the Bills Practice Squad in 2023, including a comprehensive projection of what to expect the Bills Practice Squad to look like with cut down day looming on August 29.