A year on the Bucs' practice squad in 2000 allowed DT Chartric Darby to prove that he belonged on the active roster
Over the last two months of the 2003 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made 14 roster moves involving their practice squad. Such men as Justin Smith, Earnest Graham and Ben Claxton routinely traded spots on that five-man unit as the Buccaneers addressed one need or another.
Thanks to a recent rule change by the National Football League, that sort of shuffling may not happen in 2004.
The NFL held its annual meetings last week in Palm Beach, Florida. Led by the Competition Committee, the league approved a handful of rule changes, some drawing more publicity than others. Receiving the most attention was the issue of instant replay, which was retained but tweaked; now, a team that employs its first two challenges successfully will be awarded a third. The decision to slap 15-yard penalties on excessive celebrations also piqued national interest.
A lesser-publicized rule change involves the traditional five-man practice squad. In 2004, that unit will expand to eight players. Big deal? Maybe.
Though the practice squad expansion is not necessarily permanent – consider 2004 a test year – it will certainly have a significant effect on the upcoming season. Nearly doubling the so-called 'taxi squad' could mean more permanent addresses for many young, unproven players.
"I think this change came about because coaches felt injuries put teams at a disadvantage," said Mark Dominik, the Bucs' director of pro personnel. "Injuries make it difficult to continue your practice habits. This will help teams get through rough weeks during the season, and also allow them to develop some of their own players that they think deserve a shot."
It's telling that this group of players officially goes by the term 'practice squad,' and not by the occasionally-substituted term 'developmental squad.' Players on this adjunct unit can practice with the rest of the players on the 53-man roster during the week but are not eligible to play in games. While getting a longer look at a raw talent is an important function of the practice squad, the main reason for its existence is to give teams enough bodies to conduct a productive practice. The existence of this unit is a compromise that sprung from the NFL's last roster reduction.
Therefore, having eight players to flesh out the roster at practice is obviously more beneficial than having five. That change should also cut down on the practice squad roster turnover so common in Tampa and other NFL cities. In the past, an injury to, say, a linebacker on the active roster would force a team to drop a practice squad player at another position in order to bolster the depth at linebacker. Smith, for instance, was signed to the Bucs' practice squad on three different occasions in 2003.
"Your roster is so tied to injuries during the season," said Dominik, who also would like to see the NFL allow 49 active men on game days, rather than 45. "Sometimes you have to let go of guys you'd like to keep around, because your hand is forced by injuries. This new ruling will allow you to protect a couple more players who you want to see and work with further."
Of course, practice squad players will remain somewhat vulnerable to theft from other teams. A practice squad player can be signed at any time by another team if that team intends to put him on their active, 53-man roster. Still, since that type of maneuver is relatively uncommon, expansion of the practice squad will mean additional opportunities to keep young talent around.
"I think this will allow some guys to stay with the organization that brought them into the league in the first place," said Dominik. "Players will have a better chance of spending their entire first season with the team, then maybe make the active roster the following year."
That is more than just a pipe dream. The practice squad has definitely doubled as a developmental unit for the Buccaneers in recent years. Players who started their Tampa Bay careers on the practice squad and eventually made an impact on the 53-man roster include CB Corey Ivy, RB Aaron Stecker, DT Chartric Darby, WR Edell Shepherd, WR Frank Murphy and CB Ronyell Whitaker.
The Buccaneers have spent the last month bolstering their roster with veteran players. Soon, there will be an infusion of young talent through the draft and the post-draft rookie signing period. Having three extra spots on the practice squad in 2004 may help the Bucs keep more of that talent in Tampa this fall.