Normally the NFL practice squad life is a bit like football purgatory, with a lot of grinding behind the scenes for what amounts to a small chance to play on Sundays.
But that’s changed in a COVID-impacted season with the league’s new rule on practice squad promotions. Under that rule, teams can elevate two players from their practice squad to the active roster for game day, and then put those players back on the practice squad without having them clear waivers.
Hence, the new rule — combined with a swell of injuries and COVID-related disruptions to the Broncos’ roster — has made the practice squad a critical pipeline this season. It’s a fact that players such as inside linebacker Josh Watson were well aware of even before the team had to promote wideout Kendall Hinton from the unit to play quarterback against New Orleans this past Sunday.
“This year, it’s hard to know when you’re going to get called up, because it could happen any Sunday for a lot of the guys, and I’m thankful for my opportunity anytime it presents itself,” said Watson, who also spent half of the 2019 season on the practice squad. “You have to be game-ready every week. Every single guy (on the practice squad), they have to take practice serious and go hard in practice like it’s a game. That’s how I’ve stayed ready and how I stayed ready as a rookie last season.”
The practice squad was expanded from 10 to 16 players this year, and the unit can now feature up to six players with more than four seasons of accrued experience each. An expanded practice squad, and more veterans on it, means it has been more of a resource than normal for the Broncos and other teams during an abnormal year.
Denver has signed seven players to the active roster from the practice squad this season (quarterback Brett Rypien, running back LeVante Bellamy, defensive lineman DeShawn Williams, running back Jeremy Cox, safety P.J. Locke, tackle Jake Rodgers and linebacker Derrek Tuszka), although Tuszka and Bellamy were put on injured reserve and Rodgers was eventually waived.
Beyond that, the Broncos took advantage of the rules to bring players up for added depth on game day, and then send them back to the practice squad the following day. That was the case with Hinton after his last-second emergency start. Watson, meanwhile, has played five games this year as a practice squad call-up only to be demoted back to the unit after the game.
Watson said he and others accept the pin-balling as part of the process.
“I’m working on stacking my chips, staying focused, controlling what I can control, and I’m going to let all the chips fall into place when they may,” Watson said. “I feel like every game has been good for me this season in the sense that when I look back, I knew I gave it everything I got and there was nothing I regret. That’s how I live every day in this league. And I go into every practice with no regrets, because you never know when your last day is, or if things are going to shut down due to COVID.”
Watson, tight end Troy Fumagalli and safety Alijah Holder were the Broncos’ most recent practice squad call-ups in the 31-3 loss to the Saints on Sunday. As has been the case with call-ups all season, the three were relied upon heavily in special teams against New Orleans, each playing 83 percent of the unit’s snaps.
Watson said there’s still a sense of pride among the Broncos practice squad players, even as the team is 4-7 and out of the AFC playoff picture.
“The one thing about our scout team, we go hard,” Watson said. “We take any special teams opportunities very seriously, and we know throughout the week that scout team reps are really important. I take that very serious.”