Colts figure to make full use of NFL’s new practice-squad rules

Indianapolis Colts

JACKSONVILLE, FL – SEPTEMBER 29: An Indianapolis Colts helmet sits on the sidelines during a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on September 29, 2013 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

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INDIANAPOLIS – An abnormal offseason has led to an adjustment in one of the NFL’s roster supplements: the practice squad.

It’s always been primarily used as a developmental arm of the roster for young talent, and occasionally offered a short-term fix when injuries hit a certain position.

Chris Ballard and Frank Reich haven’t shied away from dipping into their practice-squad pool.

Last year, at least five players who spent time on the practice squad eventually contributed.

That included rookie wideout Ashton Duhlin, who spent the first three weeks of the season on the practice squad but was elevated to the active roster, became a core special teams player and led that group with seven solo tackles.

Marcus Johnson’s roller-coaster ’19 included a stint on the injured reserve list and four weeks on the practice squad before appearing in eight games, starting six and finishing seventh on the team with 17 receptions.

Safety Rolan Milligan was on the practice squad for opening day, then appeared in 11 games with one start. He, too, was a major special teams influence.

Practice squad players who worked their way onto the active roster in 2018 included tight ends Mo Alie-Cox and Erik Swoope, cornerback Lenzy Pipkins, linebacker Ahmad Thomas, wideout Reece Fountain and defensive linemen Carroll Phillips and Jihad Ward. Pipkins started at New England and Thomas was in the starting lineup against the New York Giants. Swoope and Alie-Cox combined for 15 catches and five touchdowns.

By 4 p.m. Saturday, a roster that sits at 78 players must be pared to 53.

Tough decisions remain – A sixth wideout? A ninth offensive lineman? How many defensive linemen? Five or six linebackers? – but an expanded practice squad represents a return opportunity for many.

One of the byproducts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the possible havoc positive tests during the season could have on rosters was the NFL and players’ union agreeing to a 16-player practice squad.

“This is a great roster with a lot of really good football players,’’ Reich said. “More interesting roster dynamics this year than most given the pandemic, given the practice squad rule changes to 16 players.

“It’s going to be hard to let guys go, but . . . we will be able to get a lot of guys back on the practice squad and that’s good for us because we think we have a lot of winning football players here.’’

Practice squads can be formed Sunday, and while other teams’ discarded players might catch Ballard’s eye, he’s more apt to fill the majority of his 16 slots with his own.

“Where in good hands there,’’ Reich said. “Chris and his staff do a phenomenal job.’’

Some of the more pertinent practice squad rules as a result of the amended Collective Bargaining Agreement:

  • 16 players, up from 10 a year ago.
  • Allowing a maximum of six veterans with unlimited experience.
  • Weekly salaries of $12,000 for players with at least three accrued seasons ($204,000 annual salary) and $8,400 for players with fewer than three ($142,000). For perspective, the minimum salary for a rookie on the active roster is $610,000.
  • Each Tuesday at 4 p.m. during the season, a team may designate four players as “protected.’’ Those four cannot be signed by another team that week. The protected players return to practice-squad status the day after the game.
  • The above tidbit in mind, all 16 practice squad players will be vulnerable to another team’s “poach’’ attempt for less than two days.
  • A team may elevate two players to the active roster 90 minutes before kickoff. Each player can be elevated a maximum of two times during the season, but not on consecutive weeks. That essentially means a team’s game-day active roster could be either 54 or 55.
  • A team can elevate a practice squad player to the active roster to replace a player placed on the Covid-19/reserve list because of a positive test.

This is not a rule issue, but one of practicality. It might be more difficult to sign a player off of another team’s practice squad since that player must go through the COVID-19 protocol before being added to the active roster.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

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