Practice-squad expansion offers opportunity
The news hadn't reached Chris Banjo's locker Wednesday afternoon, but the Green Bay Packers' second-year safety wasn't alone.
Many inside the locker room were unaware of the NFL's changes to practice-squad requirements, which were announced by the league Tuesday.
Unlike some league declarations, however, the decision to increase the practice squad from eight to 10 players has been met with unanimous praise.
Clubs can use the two extra spots to sign veterans who have earned no more than two accrued seasons of free agency credit. In the past, a player who had spent more than eight games in a single season on a team's game-day roster lost his eligibility.
Furthermore, players must spend six weeks on the practice squad for it to count as one of his three permissible seasons. The previous requirement was three weeks.
The new rules, agreed upon through the 2015 season, provide a safety net for second-year players like Banjo, who otherwise wouldn't have been eligible for the practice squad after playing in all 16 regular-season games as an undrafted rookie last season.
"That's crazy," Banjo said. "It's definitely an opportunity for the younger guys. Now that it's gone to 10, you have 64 new jobs available (around the NFL), and I think that's a good thing that the league is doing, and it's given more guys that opportunity. Also, it's creating more competition. I think it's good. Me, personally, I'm trying not to look at that because I obviously want to be on that 46-man active roster."
The Packers have signed 141 players to their practice squad since Ted Thompson was hired as general manager in 2005. Forty-three have gone on to play in a combined 541 regular-season games for the team with 171 starts.
Cornerback Tramon Williams has been the prized pupil of the group. He's responsible for nearly half of those starts (83) and is the only Pro Bowler of the bunch.
However, the process has cultivated a number of role players. The Packers relied on more than 10 former practice-squad players on their active roster last season, including tight end Brandon Bostick and quarterback Scott Tolzien.
Tolzien no longer is eligible for the scout team because he's a fourth-year veteran, but outside linebacker Andy Mulumba, offensive lineman Lane Taylor, tight end Jake Stoneburner and defensive lineman Josh Boyd have fallback options that wouldn't have been afforded to them otherwise.
"It's giving more people more opportunities," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
"The younger player takes a little longer. You look at that player that may get an opportunity maybe even before he might have personally been ready, so he gets out there and plays for six, seven, eight, nine games and now he's not eligible and then he gets caught in kind of a loophole situation and he's out of the league."
The Packers' first developmental squad in September 1989 consisted of only four players and it took time for the program to catch on. As recently as 10 years ago, teams still were prone to signing a street free agent rather than elevating someone from their scout team.
The utilization of practice-squad players has become more prevalent in recent years, especially in Green Bay where it's been rare for Thompson to sign an unattached veteran instead of calling a youngster up to the active roster.
For starters, the approach can be used as a bargaining chip for players who don't make the 53-man roster to stick around. Stoneburner and receiver Myles White played a combined 16 games last season despite not making the initial cut.
The players also tend to be cheaper and the familiarity of practice provides them with a good grasp of what the scheme requires.
Bostick, who was in contention for the starting tight end job before suffering a lower-leg injury against St. Louis on Saturday, used his full season on the practice squad in 2012 to complete his conversion from a NCAA Division II receiver.
"You can really focus on your body, just trying to get stronger mentally," Bostick said. "You can focus on the playbook, but you don't have to be required to do it. It definitely helps out a lot. When you get out there for the scout team or show team, you just need to show them what you can do and just work on your game every time you're out there."
There used to be a preconception that NFL teams could hide players on the practice squad, but Thompson said Tuesday there's too many resources around the league for teams to do that anymore.
Still, some value the process more than others. In Green Bay, the Packers have used the practice squad to develop discarded players like Atari Bigby, Robert Francois and Tom Crabtree into contributors, especially on special teams.
Thompson adheres to former Packers general manager Ron Wolf's theory of getting as many swings at the plate as possible when it comes to acquiring draft picks and players, so he should enjoy the premise of keeping two additional players around to evaluate.
Practice-squad players make $6,300 per week or $107,100 should they remain on the scout team all season. Offensive lineman Aaron Adams was the only player to start and finish last year in that capacity.
"It's good that they made a rule change," said Taylor, who played in 10 games last season. "There's always a fallback, I guess, but obviously the goal is the 53-man roster. But I think it's great they expanded it to 10 players. That's 60-plus more jobs they're providing, and I thought they needed to do it. It was crazy that it was only eight before."
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Tuesday that the ability to have a couple extra practice players should help the team avoid situations like last year when an injury-riddled roster occasionally had to tone down practice because of a lack of healthy bodies.
As for the players in the locker room who aren't locks to make the roster, the new regulations should allow them to breathe a bit easier entering the final week of camp.
"It's not the ultimate goal, but they treat the practice squad like they're part of the team anyway — because essentially, they are part of the team," outside linebacker Nate Palmer said. "I feel pretty confident in my ability. At the end of the day, it is what it is. If they feel I should start my year there and work my way back up, then that's just what I have to do."
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Noteworthy players who are now eligible
S Chris Banjo (16 games)
DL Josh Boyd (9 games)
OLB Andy Mulumba (14 games)
TE Jake Stoneburner (9 games)
OL Lane Taylor (10 games)