We are just about one week away from the Cleveland Browns making their first mandatory roster cuts of the year, reducing their rosters from 90 men to 75 on September 1. They then reduce it further, to the standard 53 players on September 5. The next day, the Browns can assemble their practice squad, which typically consists of eight to 10 players.
Cleveland’s practice squad won’t stay the same all year long, with players coming and going for various reasons including injures on the main roster, being drawn away by other needy clubs or simply being swapped out for other practice-squad eligible players. Some players could spend all of the 2015 season on the practice squad, but that’s typically an exception and not a rule.
Still, it’s worth looking at what practice squad players could cost the Browns this year, as their salaries, much like their 53-man roster counterparts, count against the team’s salary cap. Though their paydays don’t count against the Top 51 contracts, which is the official league determination of a team’s cap space, cash still moves out the Browns’ door to pay these players.
In 2015, a player of Cleveland’s practice squad must make a minimum of $6,600 per week, which means the minimum a player can make if they stay on the practice squad for the whole season is $112,000 and that a 10-man squad that sticks on the roster all 17 weeks will cost the Browns $1.12 million. But teams can determine how much they want to pay each practice squad player—they can easily make more than the minimum. Also, for the first time, practice squad players can have non-salary items as part of their contracts. This means Cleveland’s practice squad players are now eligible to receive signing and roster bonuses and other guarantees, which could make things more competitive during the one-day negotiation period that precedes the forming of the squad next month. Because the Browns are flush with cash—nearly $22 million in Top 51 cap space as of today—Cleveland could wheel and deal in order to not only keep their own promising young players but poach others away from teams that don’t have as much financial leverage.
The gamble with the practice squad, of course, is two fold. First, there is the fact that the Browns will have to waive the players who they want on the squad and hope they aren’t stolen out from underneath them before they can be given the practice squad designation the following day. And second, other teams can take players off of Cleveland’s practice squad in order to put them on their active rosters. Though players can decline the call-up from another team, that rarely happens—becoming a vested NFL veteran requires being on an active roster in order to be eligible for free agency and pensions down the line. Few players would pass up that opportunity. It should also be noted, though, that practice squad players can only be claimed by other teams to put them on the 53-man roster; they cannot go from one practice squad to another unless they are waived. Another thing to keep in mind is that because practice squads are so fluid, the Browns could miss out on keeping some of their own younger talent in early September but see those players waived from other teams as the season wears on. They could manage to get some of these players back.
What will be most interesting to watch once the Browns can assemble their practice squad next month is how they choose to pay them. Will the Browns be aggressive in their pursuit of developmental talent by giving out bonuses and guarantees, or will they act as most other teams are likely to, by keeping things simple and signing their practice squad players to the league minimum salary? This latest twist in practice squad compensation may prove to be highly relevant to the Browns or a non-factor. It will also serve as the first test of these new rules and whether or not they needed to be in place to begin with. At the very least, it could help the Browns retain some of the younger players other teams may also be keeping an eye on, because they simply have more financial resources to assemble a practice squad that most closely adheres to their best-case scenario. Poaching players the Browns waive may become more difficult for other teams next month.