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Squad About More Than Practice

Players hope to use practice squad as foot in door to NFL career


Cardinals cornerback Michael Adams parlayed his time on the practice squad in 2007 and 2008 to a thus-far five-year NFL career with the team.

D.J. Young is now a household name.

The first-year tackle saw his name in the headlines after coach Ken Whisenhunt gave him a live audition this preseason for the left tackle position, vacant after Levi Brown went down with a triceps injury.

A year ago, however, Young wasn't well known outside the Cardinals locker room. In fact, he nearly wasn't a Cardinal when the calendar turned to 2012.

He spent 16 of the 2011 season's 17 weeks on the team's practice squad after being signed as an undrafted free agent the previous summer. But after Week 16, the Philadelphia Eagles tried to sign Young. The Cardinals countered the offer, which the lineman accepted.

"It was heartwarming," Young said. "You think you're kind of lost on the practice squad. You don't think teams out there are looking for you. It felt kind of good that a team is still looking at you at that time."

Young is the prime example of how a player can benefit from the practice squad -- work hard and you'll be rewarded with a promotion to the 53-man roster.

Dreams will be dashed by dinner time Friday, when teams have to cut from 75 to 53. But for eight players, the hope of playing in the NFL will be revived by noon Saturday, when teams can start signing their practice squad. They may toil in anonymity and they certainly don't lead the most glamorous life, but practice squad players are an injury or a trade away from an NFL roster.

Yet, misnomers and myths about the practice squad abound. Two of the most popular:

  • They are not part of the regular team: The practice squad players do everything the 53-man roster does, except play on Sundays. Their lockers are in the regular locker room and, yes, they know Larry Fitzgerald and Patrick Peterson.
  • They make a lot of money: Think of an NFL salary and then erase a zero or two at the end. According to the NFL's collective bargaining agreement signed last August, the minimum weekly salary for a practice squad player in 2012 is $5,700 but that will increase to $8,400 by 2020. While it's nowhere close minimum salary of $390,000 in 2012, there's still the potential to make $96,900 if a player is on the practice squad for all 17 weeks.

However, the practice squad is full of nuanced rules as set forth in the CBA:

-- Players are only allowed to be on the practice squad for three seasons – but a third season is only allowed if his team carries 53 players on the active roster during the player's tenure with that team.

-- If a player is promoted to the active roster for nine games or more in a season, they are not allowed to be demoted to the practice squad again.

-- If a player is signed off one team's practice squad by another team, it has to be to the active roster.

-- A practice squad player may not sign with their team's next opponent less than six days before that game.

-- An international player may be added to the practice squad as a ninth player but for only one season and can still retain his three years of practice squad eligibility.

As of Tuesday, the Cardinals had 18 players on their roster who spent time on a practice squad, including cornerback Michael Adams.

"It was a way to keep your foot in the door," he said. "Some guys, they get released and they wished they had that practice squad spot."

Last season 14 players came and went off the practice squad.

Quentin Harris, the Cardinals assistant pro personnel director, spent five years in the NFL and started his career on the Cardinals' practice squad. Ten years after being drafted, Harris has seen the practice squad be used for three primary reasons: develop young talent, help keep the starters' rested and keep players around who coaches like but can't find a place on the roster for.

The practice squad, Harris said, allows the eight players to show coaches their practice habits on a daily basis without the pressure of playing on Sundays. When the practice squad isn't filling in on drills, it's helping run the opponents' offense, defense or special teams. Tight end Steve Skelton spends about two hours a day reviewing the opponents' film. When the Cardinals played the San Francisco 49ers last season, Skelton was charged with imitating Vernon Davis, so he focused on Davis' tendencies and route running.

The hardest part of being on a practice squad, Harris said, is not playing on Sundays. Just ask Adams.

"I can't say there wasn't a bit of bitterness about it but at the end of the day I was still happy because I was blessed," he said. "I just couldn't stand to watch it."

The practice squad is given tickets to watch the game from the stands, but Adams chose not to. For others, their first game in the stands was the first time they were at a football game and not playing in it.

On any given week, the practice squad is a rite of passage for 256 players. They're one step closer to making an NFL roster, one injury away from a paycheck, one trade away from stardom. But that doesn't make it any easier being part of a team and not playing on Sundays.

"You can lose your pride easily," Young said. "For 16, 17 weeks you're on it and it's easy to get side tracked and forget while you're there. But you got to study Ps and Qs.

"It gets you going and it motivates you to actually make the roster."

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