The life of an NFL practice squad player
Published: Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Updated: Friday, June 15, 2012 22:06
They take punishing hits in practice, bury their heads in playbooks and spend hours watching game film. But they don't play in games.
So goes a season or more for NFL players designated to their team's practice squad.
The practice squad, a small, separate unit from a team's active 53-man roster, is composed of players living in NFL purgatory. Although they're essentially too good to be released from the organization, they aren't quite good enough or ready to fill a spot on the team's official roster.
With only eight available spots, the practice squad is usually filled by rookies and other younger players to help them adjust to the NFL.
Being relegated to the practice squad is often a sobering experience for players who have grown accustomed to playing key roles for their high school and college teams.
"It is a little different," said Jake Ballard, former Ohio State tight end who is now a rookie on the New York Giants practice squad. "I've been playing for eight years and started as a freshman in high school, too. Now that I'm not in the mix, it just fuels the fire."
Although their role on the team is reduced, their workload is just as demanding as their active-roster teammates.
Aside from playing in games and traveling with the team, practice squad players attend all meetings, practices and workout sessions. And although these players are still seen as an investment to the team's future, their primary job is to prepare the starters by mimicking their opponents during practice.
Although they don't play in the games each week, Ballard believes that he and the other practice squad members don't feel detached from the other players, and that the veterans, some of whom were once on the practice squad, try to help them as much as they can.
"We have players on this team that are used to winning and know what it takes to win," Ballard said. "They know there has to be that camaraderie and that players can't come into hostile environments because then they won't get anything accomplished."
But one area where there is separation from the rest of the team is in their bank accounts.
A practice squad player makes $5,200 per week. Although plentiful, it's still only a fraction of the $325,000 minimum contract per season in the NFL.
Nonetheless, practice squad players don't think their paychecks are anything to complain about.
"$5,200 a week is a lot of money," said Jim Cordle, another rookie from OSU on the New York Giants practice squad. "I'm definitely used to living off not much money, and it's more than enough to keep me going."
Something they can complain about is the grueling pace of their practices. Practice squad players often play on both offense and defense in addition to special teams. And because their NFL careers are already in limbo, they can ill afford to submit to exhaustion or injury.
"You never get a break," Cordle said. "You better yourself everyday, but the non-stop practice and extra conditioning is probably the hardest thing about it."
However, this monotonous grind doesn't last an entire season for everybody. Practice squad players are frequently added to the active roster as injuries deplete a team's lineup during the season. In addition, practice squad players are also free to be signed to the active roster of another NFL team.
Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers is an example of how effective the practice squad can be, having toiled in it for much of his early career before reaching stardom. Current practice squad players all hope to emulate his success.
But their time to do so is limited. Players lose their practice squad eligibility after three years on the unit, or if they have been active in at least nine NFL games during a season.
But only two games into the season, Ballard and others like him are still getting adjusted to the league, hoping their hard work eventually brings them to the active roster.
"When you're a practice squad guy and you go against the No. 1 defense every day it makes yourself better," Ballard said. "I've got a good shot. I just have to keep working hard and get better every day."