GREEN BAY – For years, the practice squad has been an essential feeder system for the Packers in developing future talent for the main roster.
Tramon Williams, Cullen Jenkins and Scott Wells all enjoyed lengthy NFL careers after starting out on Green Bay's practice squad. Eight current active players, including receiver Allen Lazard and tight end Robert Tonyan, also spent time there before receiving promotions to the Packers' 53-man roster.
As vital as the practice squad always has been, it will take on even greater importance moving forward. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NFL and NFLPA already agreed to expand the practice squad from 10 players to 14 over the next three seasons.
Due to the turbulent offseason structure and the looming threat of the virus, however, the league and players' union agreed to expand the practice squad to a maximum of 16 players for this upcoming season, resulting in a total of 69 practice participants.
"I think it actually is a great benefit," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "Many times throughout the course of a week, especially when you're coming off a game … you've got a lot of guys doing double duty. That takes its toll on the players, on their bodies.
"So, I think it's outstanding that we have such a big practice squad because, you're really mindful of the reps, and I think you can have great quality practices."
In addition to teams having the option to protect four members of their practice squad each week (preventing other teams from signing them), the rules on player eligibility also have been relaxed in the wake of COVID-19.
At least 10 of the 16 players must fall under previous, standard eligibility guidelines – they must not have an accrued season or were on the active roster for fewer than nine regular-season games during their only accrued season.
But for this upcoming year, the league will allow up to six players as "veteran exemptions" with no limit on NFL experience. For example, the Philadelphia Eagles used the provision to sign 18-year veteran quarterback Josh McCown to their practice squad Sunday.
Of the 14 players the Packers signed to their practice squad Sunday, only one (third-year offensive lineman Alex Light) requires a veteran exemption.
Within the last month, the NFL began allowing teams to bring in players for workouts and visits at their facilities. As teams collect more data on free agents and potential practice-squad players, General Manager Brian Gutekunst expects there to be more roster movement league-wide.
"Having the 16-man practice squad, there's just going to be a lot more opportunity," Gutekunst said. "So those (in-season) workouts will probably lead to practice-squad spots and such. Again, it's going to take some time to get guys in and work them out. So I think you're going to see a lot of it."
Teams can dress as many as 48 players on game day as long as eight are offensive linemen. Teams also have the option of elevating two practice-squad players each week to the game-day roster without requiring a corresponding roster move to be made on the 53-man roster.
If a practice-squad player is elevated to the active roster for a game, his increased compensation for that game would count against the team's salary cap.
One other change the league implemented is allowing teams to bring back as many players as they want from injured reserve, as long as those players were either carried on the team's initial 53-man roster or signed after the start of the regular season. They also aren't required to spend as much time on IR before returning as in previous years.
The Packers placed two players – rookie linebacker Kamal Martin and cornerback Kabion Ento – on IR Monday. Both are eligible to practice again after Week 3. Once they return to practice, that opens a 21-day window for them to be added back to the 53-man roster.
The NFL and NFLPA began allowing a player to be designated to return from IR in 2012. Since then, it's evolved from having to designate one player to return the moment he is placed on IR to having greater flexibility and options today.
"I think it's better for us. It's better for the players," Gutekunst said. "It's better for the quality of football that's being played when you can get good players back. I think it certainly frees you up to create opportunities for other players, as well. The more players we have access to, the better."