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Training camp rosters set to shrink, but there’s a way to save UDFAs: Proposing the NFL minor league

© Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports


Whatever your expectations were, or maybe still are, about the 2020 NFL season, ditch them. Constantly emerging peculiarities, and hopefully an abundance of caution (and few positive coronavirus test results) should define this year, and depending on the speed of vaccine development, possibly next year, too.

In the immediate term, preseason games will be shelved and daily testing will be instituted as part of the league’s rather quick capitulation to player demands (which, per usual, tend to benefit the league as a whole, not just the players, though the inverse can rarely be said on the part of the owners). That may well be part of a larger scheme by the NFL to broach the topic of impending, massive financial losses via the lens of “well, we gave you what you wanted, now return the favor,” but for now, the players get some of their initial demands.

Below are some of those soon-to-be agreed upon stipulations, via the NFL Players Association:

That third bulletpoint stands out: 80 players on each team’s training camp roster. Currently, the number is 90. That means, if agreed to, 10 players get cut immediately. For most teams, that’s going to mean cutting the entirety, or a substantial portion of their undrafted free agent class.

Per my count, the 49ers have exactly the maximum of 90 players on their roster and signed 10 undrafted free agents this offseason.

Far be it for me to place optimism in the NFL to make a decision which benefits players without strings attached. But this may be an opportunity to do so at a reasonable cost, and in a way which might prove both necessary and standard-changing in the long term. It could also — get this — provide an alternative source of revenue.

How?

1. Create the NFL minor league and hold a seven-game tournament for players who get cut due to new roster limitations.

2. Increase the size of practice squads and pay for players on the practice squad.

The practice squad increase

On that second point, the new collective bargaining agreement has already increased the size of the practice squad and pay for players on it. Gameday rosters now include 48 and not 46 players, with one of the two new spots taken by an extra offensive linemen.

The practice squad has increased from 10 to 12 players and will increase to 14 in 2022. Minimum practice squad salaries are now $8,000 per week, and will increase to $11,500 in 2022, with 401(k) and tuition assistance benefits also available. And for the first time, those players can be promoted to the active roster without waiver moves, which might simultaneously benefit those players and the teams they play for. These are all promising moves, which should be expanded.

Teams can place two practice squad players on their active roster each week (so the 53-man becomes, in theory, 55), and players from the practice squad can be elevated and sent back to the practice squad twice without going through the waiver process.

This should make teams exponentially more likely to elevate practice squad players, but it also means that because those players don’t go through the waiver process each time the system can be abused.

Players may have one or two outstanding games, and get stuck back on the practice squad without any recourse, unless other teams are interested. In theory, those games should be enough to earn a roster spot elsewhere, but this is new territory.

Teams are welcome to offer other practice squad players a full contract, but there’s a world where a player gets promoted three times, then waived, and signed to another practice squad. At that point, another team gets the same privilege of promoting them and sending them back twice without having to waive them.

This might seem an unlikely series of events, but, especially if salaries get slashed in 2021 and the revenue drop doesn’t get spread out over a substantial period of time, penny-pinching will be very much in style.

Practice squad players make $8,000 a week, while players on the 53-man (55-man) roster make a minimum of $35,882 a week. Teams might have guys they feel are deserving of roster spots, but stick them on their practice squad and rotate so they can use minimum-salaried players.

Even if this cycle doesn’t take place, this is a chance for the league to immediately expand the practice squad to 15 and increase salaries to $10,000 per week. With the amount of players who will find themselves cut due to limited training camps and the possibility of players testing positive throughout the year, an expanded practice squad is an obvious move to provide added security for teams, and the increased salary represents the added risk and value they have.

The main concern is that more players means increased potential coronavirus risk, but you’re only increasing the size of the practice squad by three players. If teams don’t trust that they can handle that, they shouldn’t have a season.

The minor leagues

Now, onto the fun part: the minor leagues. Some of this might sound outlandish, but so are the times we’re living in. What I’m proposing is a 12-team tournament/round robin which creates an alternate league mainly for young players: those who are undrafted, those who were cut due to limitations, and a few semi-veterans who can’t find work on a practice squad or a roster.

Many of these players would be looking to the now-defunct AAF or XFL for work. My proposal is to create the NFL’s version of the minor leagues, hosted at a central location within a so-called bubble, preferably at a non hot spot with two football stadiums (the surrounding facilities being more important than the venues themselves). Here are the parameters:

  • Invite the 10 players who would be cut by NFL teams as their rosters drop from 90 to 80 players for a starting number of 320 players.
  • Rather than teams relinquishing all their undrafted free agents, or players with zero games of service time, each team gets to send 10 players to this mini-league/minicamp
  • Like with MLB teams, NFL teams get to retain the rights to these players, and pay their salaries for the duration of the seven-game season, which takes place roughly during the first half of the NFL season. They may also offer contracts to any of these free agents on these teams
  • An additional 120 spots will be reserved for veterans who have logged at least one game in the NFL and who have not been offered practice squad jobs or NFL contracts. This limit is to encourage young players to get a chance, but this provides some potentially overlooked veterans (who are probably also young) with opportunities
  • The remaining 150-250 spots will be reserved for other UDFAs who were not initially signed by teams
  • Each team will be composed of roughly 50 players, teams will be assigned through a random drawing
  • Each team plays each other’s conference team once, then gets seeded based on record and point differential
  • Each team will play seven games regardless of their performance in the tournament due to its format (group stage, then knockout, but “knocked out” teams get placed into loser’s bracket and/or play consolation games as explained below)
  • All players will receive a base salary of $60,000 (practice squad over 16 weeks would be $128,000). Players who were cut by teams on the initial list of 10 would be paid an additional $20,000, and all players can negotiate incentives.
  • Teams would be financed and jointly owned by the NFL with revenue and costs split evenly between all 32 NFL franchises.
  • Outside ownership opportunities could be opened up in future seasons, but for the sack of expediency, it would start under the NFL.
  • Players could opt to decline practice squad offers and other NFL offers.
  • Games would be hosted on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays (depending on college football). Revenue would come from TV sales, with additional advertising sold on jerseys and in-stadium billboards.
  • Testing would follow the same NFL protocols, with a training camp and ramp up. Costs would be limited by the lack of travel, with all games held at the same location or locations in the bubble.
  • Would have the three divisions in one mini-bubble (i.e. teams within that group stay at same lodging) to increase likelihood of negative tests at early stages
  • Coaches would be composed of former NFL coaches, college coaches, AAF/XFL coaches who are interested.
  • Potential financial losses would be limited by low player salaries and revenue/loss sharing. The downside would be balanced by the long-term interest of teams to have, effectively, a youth system.
  • In future seasons, you would include different locations, and potentially form permanent teams and eventually, if successful, expand minor league franchises to untapped markets, ideally reasonably close to NFL franchises

Here’s an example (brace yourself) of how that would work with 12 teams. You break them into groups, a la the World Cup, where each team plays one another once. Here’s an example of what that would look like.

Here’s what it would look like after that initial round of three games, with division winners in bold. At this point, it breaks into a quasi-single-elimination tournament.

Running through an example, teams would start out with a traditional bracket set up.

The first round would split the groups in two, with the winners from the first round going into a winner’s bracket and the losers going into a loser’s bracket. From the perspective of the winner’s bracket, it looks fairly straightforward. With the lack of a bye, the strongest knocked out team (the Chicken-less Nuggets) gets a second chance, effectively as a wild card team.

The Final Four:

While that winner’s bracket plays out, there are a host of other games being played so that each team plays exactly seven games. There’s a losers bracket that plays out exactly the same way with the other six teams who lost in the first round, and third place (or ninth place) games in each bracket. The four outliers play consolation games.

Again, the point is to get reps, with the bracket a way to add some level of urgency and fan excitement for the games, but with each team getting the same amount of playing time. It’s not the most straightforward scenario, but it provides experience and some level of heightened competition. Here’s how those seventh games would theoretically look:

These decisions might seem outlandish, but the player numbers could be limited for the sake of efficiency and holding it in a central location would assist with dealing with the coronavirus aspect and contact tracing.

Establishing a minor league for the NFL wouldn’t be a gimmick. It would create a long-term pipeline for potentially overlooked young talent. 30 percent of the NFL is composed of undrafted free agents. Emmanuel Moseley and Kendrick Bourne don’t have their NFL careers and play in the Super Bowl without the chance to impress in training camp. It’s a crucial part of the league’s fabric, and denying those players an opportunity to make their way is rejecting the very best parts of the NFL.

 

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