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The NFL’s COVID-19 practice squad rules explained

Few NFL institutions can match the 10-man practice squad. A group of players used to being described as “hard workers” or “gritty” or “company men.” There are those who linger on the fringe of 53-man rosters for depth, experience, and developmental talent. Their jobs are, for the most part, safe. Then there are those on the practice squad, on the outside looking in. Nothing comes easy for them. Everything is earned day to day, week to week, month to month.

Thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, anyone finding themselves on an NFL practice squad during the 2020 season is about to see their career path become even more difficult.

Most meaningful alterations for practice squad players center around effective COVID-19 testing. (That shouldn’t be a surprise, considering how teams like the Bears are implementing cautious training camps.) Since it takes time for accurate COVID-19 tests to process, any newly-signed player now has to wait longer to enter any one team’s facility. To prepare for any pitfalls arising out of this scenario in advance, practice squad rosters have been expanded. Certain players can also be protected from being poached away by competitors. In the event that there is a team outbreak, this is implemented to ensure a full roster is available by game-days.

If only it stayed this clear cut and dry throughout each of the new mandates. But nothing can be simple or black and white in a public health crisis.

The four players a team protects on its practice squad are not static. A coaching staff and general manager have until Tuesday afternoons to decide where their roster might be thin for the time being and act accordingly. While it hasn’t been stated outright, NFL teams are essentially getting the green light for 57-man rosters, with the last four players remaining more fluid. (Perhaps whenever the pandemic ceases, this may become a permanent change; especially if the NFL follows through on earnest plans for a 17-game season. More games equals more injuries equals more players needed around the fire.)

Sometimes new rules are about seeing the forest for the trees. Ultimately the NFL realized the reality of constant testing means that effective intra-squad player movement will almost be impossible this fall. Any player signed to a practice squad mid-week does not get to enter the facility until they’ve undergone a series of negative tests. This applies even if said player passed COVID-19 tests with their previous team but a day before joining their new squad. A new contract means a fresh health gauntlet to run through. No exceptions.

And with a fresh health gauntlet to run through on short notice, a new player does not get the benefit of on-field instruction. They instead see most of their introduction and ingratiation over virtual meeting means. For guys fighting for fickle contracts on a weekly basis, limited exposure could not make their goal of making a mark and sticking around long-term any harder. Players with a semblance of continuity and knowledge get the predictable upper hand.

Sacrifices must be made for the greater good. The push through to upcoming NFL season still feels desperate and unrealistic on health terms. Any more plans, like those concerning the nuances of the Mythical Practice Squad, have to be ironed out extensively before mid-September.

Editor’s note: The COVID-19 pandemic is a subject that requires sensitivity and care. Many families and people have already been impacted by this crisis as it unfolds. This is a reminder to please express yourself respectfully while also exercising common courtesy in interactions with one another in the comments. All WCG commentary guidelines remain in effect and apply especially. Stay safe and healthy, everyone.

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