The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will need to reduce their roster from 80 players down to the regular-season limit of 53 by next Tuesday, but that doesn't mean 27 former Buccaneers will be rolling out of town on Wednesday.
Thanks to practice squads that have grown to a robust 16 spots the Buccaneers and the NFL's other 31 teams are able to retain more of the talent they have developed than ever before. And thanks to new rules that allow for more experienced players to be retained and add flexibility to how those players can be involved in regular-season action, those bigger practice squads have also grown in importance to a team's week-to-week operation.
The Buccaneers will get a chance to form their first practice squad immediately after the league-wide round of cuts next week, and it will likely be a mix of their own recently-waived players and some others from around th league. It will also surely include both rookies and established veterans, thanks to the new rules.
Not surprisingly, the people who are involved in shaping teams' rosters, such as Buccaneers Vice President of Player Personnel John Spytek, are quite fond of the way practice squads have evolved.
"I think it's one of the great rules they've done," said Spytek. "Not only can you have the vets there but you can elevate them on a week-to-week basis without having to actually sign them and cut someone. We're just going to try to get the best 53 that we can and then the best 16 that we can after that, all with the understanding that injuries happen. We want any of those guys on the 16 to be ready to go in a game and be prepared and be able to uphold the standards that we have around here."
NFL practice squads have officially existed since 1965, though they briefly were eliminated in the 1970s in favor of active roster expansion. The first Collective Bargaining Agreement in 1993 set practice squad limits at five players, where they stayed until 2004, when it was increased to eight spots. It wasn't until 2014 that practice squads expanded again to 10 players, and then the most recent big leap in the limit came with the latest CBA enacted in 2020. That was supposed to be a gradual increase but with the league looking to give teams more flexibility to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic it went directly to 16 players.
And perhaps even more significantly, that 16-man unit is closer to being an extension of the active roster than it ever was before. That's due to the 'practice squad elevation' option that the new CBA introduced. Since 2020, teams have been allowed to elevate up to two players from the practice squad for each game, and they also can keep up to 49 total players active for the game. Those players then revert to the practice squad after the game without having to pass through waivers. In 2020 and 2021, any specific practice squad player could be elevated twice during the regular season and an unlimited number of times in the postseason; the NFL increased that regular-season number to three for each player in 2022. Teams can also elevate players from the practice squad in addition to replace other players who are placed on the COVID reserve list; those are in addition to the standard elevations.
Though the dual purpose of an NFL practice squad – player development and added depth for practices – remain the same as they were in the '90s, they certainly don't operate in the same way in the 2020s. When the limit was five or even eight players, there was constant turnover on a practice squad as teams adjusted to different depth chart needs throughout the season. Shorter stints for many players also made it less likely they could use that practice squad as a springboard to actually playing in the regular season.
Now, with 16 spots, there is far more continuity throughout the season as that is enough players to provide depth at nearly every position. The Buccaneers have even carried extra punters and kickers throughout most of the last two seasons in order to be ready if COVID knocked out their kickers near the end of a game week. In 2021, 10 of the 16 players who were on the first iteration of the Bucs' practice squad were still with the team at the end.
Also, those players who stuck around for all or most of the season didn't have to wait for a spot to open up on the 53-man roster to contribute on game days. For instance, while he did eventually get promoted to the active roster, wide receiver Cyril Grayson was on the practice squad immediately before and after he caught a 50-yard go-ahead touchdown at New Orleans (in an eventual loss) and the 33-yard game-winner in Week 17 against the New York Jets.
Finally, practice squad eligibility in the '90s was limited to players who had no more than two seasons of accrued free agency credit, so they were made up exclusively of young prospects who had little experience. Through the years, the eligibility rules have morphed and now teams can use six of their 16 spots for veterans with any amount of experience. That makes it easier for teams to keep trusted depth around at certain positions. For instance, the Buccaneers responded to injury issues at tight end last season almost exclusively by carrying veteran backups who could be elevated on game days. They did the same with the offensive line in 2020.
"I love it," said Spytek. "There's more guys that, if you get injuries at positions or you have needs, you know they can go play. They've done it, they've shown it to you in the past. It was eight, I think, when we started [using practice squads] and it was guys that had two years of experience and you were kind of holding your breath if they had to go into a game. There's a lot of young guys that can help us – we may rely on rookies again this year, so just because they're young doesn't mean they can't help us – but I think it's great to keep some of those players around, to keep them in the league and have a chance to play. Certainly those six spots we can use and we'll figure out the best 16 on the practice squad."
Next Tuesday, Spytek and company will have to tell 27 players that there is not currently a place for them on the Buccaneers' 53-man roster. But many of them will also hear that their time in Tampa is not necessarily done, provided they clear waivers. The practice squad has always been a great launching pad for young players with potential who might not have arrived in the NFL quite ready to play at that level yet, or for players who are squeezed out by numbers at their positions. Now it is that but also a lot more, as significant increases to both its size and flexibility have made it a more integral part of how a team shapes its game day roster during the season.