Three more slots open on practice squad

As the coaching sessions for the Pittsburgh Steelers come to a close, begins to turn our attention to the upcoming camp and the roster cut-downs. At the NFL's 2004 spring meeting, a few important changes were implemented. The NFL decided to expand the number of players allowed on a team's practice squad from five to eight. This new rule will play a big role in how summer camp shakes out.

During last season, safety Russell Stuvaints was signed to and cut from the Pittsburgh Steelers practice squad more than once. As injuries plagued the Steelers, particularly on the offensive line, the team tried to keep certain positions stocked. OT Morgan Pears' gain was Stuvaints' loss.

The Steelers thought enough of Stuvaints to place him on the practice squad after cutting him right before the final 53-man roster was set. Those five spots are valuable to any team, but injuries take precedent over developmental prospects such as Stuvaints. The NFL decided to change this.

Below are the rules pertaining to practice squads, as stipulated by the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA):

Section 1. Practice Squads: For each regular season commencing with the 1993 League Year, the League may elect in accordance with this Article to establish practice squads not to exceed five (5) players per Club.

Section 2. Signing With Other Clubs: Any player under contract to a Club as a practice squad player shall be completely free to negotiate and sign a Player Contract with any Club at any time during the League Year, to serve as a player on any Club's Active or Inactive List, and any Club is completely free to negotiate and sign such a Player Contract with such player, without penalty or restriction, including, but not limited to, Draft Choice Compensation between Clubs or First Refusal Rights of any kind, or any signing period, except that such player shall not be permitted to sign a Player Contract with another Club to serve as a practice squad player while under contract as a practice squad player.

Section 3. Salary: Minimum salary for a practice squad player shall be $4,000 per week for the 2002 League Year, $4,350 for the 2003-04 League Years, and $4,700 for the 2005-07 League Years including postseason weeks in which his Club is in the playoffs.

Section 4. Eligibility:

(a) The practice squad shall consist of the following players, provided that they have not served more than one previous season on a Practice Squad: (i) players who do not have an Accrued Season of NFL experience; and (ii) free agent players who were on the Active List for fewer than nine regular season games during their only Accrued Season(s). No player may be a practice squad player for more than two seasons.

(b) A player shall be deemed to have served on a Practice Squad in a season if he has passed the club's physical and has been a member of a club's Practice Squad for at least three regular season or post-season games (a bye week counts as a game provided that the player is not terminated until after the regular season or post-season weekend in question).

The only change to the CBA concerning practice squads is in Section 1: the number growing from 5 players to 8.

This gain was not lost on general managers across the league.

"The need to fill positions to keep practice moving was much more important in some instances than it was to pick and choose developmental prospects. Now, this gives you room to bring a quarterback on. Really, you might not need a fourth quarterback to practice, but now you can bring him on just for developmental concerns," said Denver Broncos GM Ted Sundquist.

5 positions will likely still be used "to keep practice moving." Typically, teams have filled out practice squads with one running back, one wide receiver, one offensive lineman, one defensive lineman, and a defensive back. Teams can continue this policy, but use the extra three spots for "development prospects" such as quarterback, or, as might the case for the Steelers, outside linebacker.

How might this affect camp competition?

As long as a player is eligible for the practice squad (see Section 4(a)), a team might choose to carry a veteran on the 53-man roster over him.

Stuvaints is eligible for the practice squad for the coming season and that fact may be the reason the Steelers brought in Ainsley Battles. Battles is not eligible for the practice squad and the Steelers will likely carry only 4 safeties on their active roster.

Mike Logan, Troy Polamalu, and Chris Hope are assured a spot on the final 53. Battles and Stuvaints will fight for the last position. The Steelers can now hedge their bets given that Stuvaints can spend another year developing on the practice squad while keeping the more experienced Battles on the roster.

However, the Steelers will need to keep in mind that any player on the practice squad can be signed by another team as a free agent. Last season, the New Orleans Saints were eyeing CB B.J. Tucker, a player on the Steelers practice squad. The Steelers moved Tucker up to the 53-man roster in order to protect him.

Developmental prospects will become more valuable targets for NFL teams, likely forcing much more roster activity than in the past. Teams will have much more invested in a project such as Stuvaints and may have to make room on the bench at some point during the season.

At that point, someone such as Battles may get cut.

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