Sponsorship deals with Nike, Papa John’s Pizza commercials, comedy movie cameos and big-money contracts aren’t guaranteed just because you play in the National Football League.
Sure, some players like Peyton Manning, J.J. Watt and Tom Brady have those added ‘perks’ of being stars, but the majority of the league’s players don’t. They aren’t on your TV screens for three hours on Sunday afternoons then for 30-second snippets throughout the week trying to persuade you to change car insurance. These players are more anonymous. Some, though, are truly unknown.
The life of an NFL practice squad player is far from glamorous, but for many it’s a necessary step in order to make it to an active roster and get those shoe deals and commercials. It’s a lot of work for less pay with no TV time while constantly playing with fear. Fear of having to being perfect. Fear of being cut and out of a job.
‘When you think of the NFL you think of the 46 guys in uniform playing Sundays, but there are 10 guys below the radar who get forgotten about,’ said wide receiver Ryan Spadola, a member of the Detroit Lions practice squad. ‘What a practice squad player goes through and what an active roster player goes through are immensely different. I personally think what a practice squad player is put through is a lot more mentally and physically during a week. You’re taking way more reps and you’re getting beat up a heck of a lot more; the only difference is you don’t play for those three hours Sunday.’
Each NFL team is allowed up to 10 players on its practice squad. These players practice with the players from the 53-man active roster (you know, the guys you see on Sundays), but practice squad players are not eligible to play on active game days — unless promoted to the active roster, of course.
Practice squad players earn a minimum of $6,900 per week during the NFL season — players are only paid during the 17-week regular season — but can be paid as much as a team wants to pay them. Keep in mind that their salaries count toward the cap. Unfortunately, that money is not guaranteed, so if a practice squad player is cut after three weeks, they earned $20,700. And that can be all they made that season unless they are signed by another team.
What does a practice squad player do? A lot! A practice squad player’s main responsibility is to prepare the active roster players for an opponent on any given week.
Pretend the Lions are playing the Oakland Raiders on Sunday afternoon. Spadola has to learn the Raiders’ playbook and do his best imitation of their top receiver, Amari Cooper, during scout reps. Why? Well, so when the Lions try to defend Cooper during the game Sunday, they know how he plays, they know his tendencies, his strengths and his weaknesses.
‘If we lose that weekend, I would take that on me,’ Spadola said. ‘If the receiver puts up 100 yards on one of our corners, I didn’t work that guy hard enough in practice.’
Not only do practice squad players have to prepare their teammates for game day, they also have to fill in for them as well. During practice, an active roster player won’t be on the field for every play and rep. He obviously has to fine-tune his playing, but doesn’t want to get overworked or burned out for the actual game. That’s where players like Spadola come in — they fill in for the active players when they are taking a play or series off during practice.
Then there is special teams — a place where a lot of the lesser-known players can make a name for themselves. A big punt return or tenacity to get downfield and make tackles can earn a practice squad player a spot on an active roster on special teams and, hopefully, whatever position he plays.
‘You’re doing a lot more on practice squad than an active guy while getting paid a lot less,’ Spadola said. ‘The title definitely diminishes the overall name-value you have to a team, but I think those guys are almost more important than a lot of active guys on the team.’
Simply put, practice squad players are more expendable than those on the active roster. Practice squad players are typically free agents or undrafted players, so the guaranteed money and investment a team makes in a practice squad player is significantly less than one they selected in the NFL Draft or traded for.
That means there is a higher turnover rate among practice squad players. These players can be cut for an endless list of reasons including: poor performance, corresponding roster moves, injuries or a change in coaching staff.
‘People think you’re on an NFL team and it’s only what they see on a Sunday,’ Spadola said. ‘They don’t see behind the scenes guys getting cut and losing jobs every day or the injuries you have to deal with and not tell anyone about for the fear of being cut. The NFL, like everything else, is a money game.’
Being cut is no glamorous process either. A player is simply told to report to a coach’s office with his playbook. Coaches try to sugarcoat the bad news or justify it — ‘It’s not because of your performance. We needed to add depth on defense because of injuries and needed a roster spot, so you’re being released. Thanks for your hard work.’
Once a player is cut, there is a 24-hour dead period when he can be claimed by another NFL team’s active roster. If that period passes, he can be reclaimed by the team that cut him or any other team in the league. If he doesn’t receive a phone call, especially from the team that just released him, he packs up his apartment and goes home.
Teams don’t owe that player anything. They don’t help pay the remaining three months of his lease. They don’t help with relocation fees. Nothing. If a player is fortunate enough to sign with another team, he moves to that city, finds an apartment and is now paying two rents. Not an ideal situation for someone who could make less than $30k a year.
Regardless of the pressures, responsibilities and uncertainties of being a practice squad player, for many, it is the only way they can fulfill their dream of being an NFL player.
‘I take the approach that I’m going to have fun and enjoy the whole process and let everything else fall into place,’ Spadola said. ‘The important thing is controlling what you can control — going out and going play by play.’