GREEN BAY – Lane Taylor, Nate Palmer and Chris Banjo don’t want to go backward. They want their NFL careers to continue to ascend.
But if things don’t break their way at the end of training camp – and in some cases, there’s a good chance of that – they do have a safety net that could catch them and keep them with the Green Bay Packers.
On Tuesday, the NFL expanded its practice squads from eight to 10 players, but the league also added another significant wrinkle: Teams can use the two extra spots to sign veteran players who have earned no more than two accrued seasons of free agency credit. Previously, a player who spent more than eight games in a single season on his team’s game-day active roster lost his practice-squad eligibility.
In addition, players must spend six weeks on the practice squad for it to count against the three three seasons they’re allowed to spend there. The previous requirement was just three weeks.
That means Banjo, who finds himself in a logjam at safety this summer, is still eligible for the practice squad despite playing in all 16 games last season, his first with the Packers after signing as an undrafted free agent.
“That's crazy,” Banjo said after being informed of the rule change. “It's definitely an opportunity for the younger guys. Now that it's gone to 10, you have 64 new jobs available [around the NFL], and I think that's a good thing that the league is doing, and it's given more guys that opportunity. Also, it's creating more competition. I think it's good.”
But, Banjo said, he hopes he’s not going to need it.
“Me, personally, I'm trying not to look at that because I obviously want to be on that 46-man active roster [on game days],” he said.
Banjo is currently running fifth at the safety position behind starters Morgan Burnett and Micah Hyde, first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Sean Richardson, who has had one of the strongest camps of anyone on the roster. The team normally keeps only four safeties, meaning he could be left out.
Meanwhile, other young players like Taylor, who played in 10 games last season, outside linebacker Andy Mulumba (14 games) and tight end Jake Stoneburner (nine games) are now eligible again.
"It's good that they made a rule change," Taylor said. "There's always a fallback, I guess, but obviously the goal is the 53-man roster. But I think it's great they expanded it to 10 players. … It was crazy that it was only eight before.”
Although Taylor appears in good shape to be one of the top backups on the offensive line, the outside linebacker position is murkier. Star veterans Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews are locks, as is Mike Neal. Nick Perry, the team’s 2012 first-round pick, is likely to get a third season to prove himself after injuries derailed his first two seasons. While Mulumba and Palmer have been next on the depth chart, the team did add fourth-round pick Carl Bradford, who’s had a very quiet camp, in the draft and have seen intriguing flashes from undrafted rookie free agents Jayrone Elliott and Adrian Hubbard that will merit them more playing time in the final two preseason games.
Palmer, who played in eight games last year as a rookie sixth-round pick and thereby would have been practice-squad eligible under the previous rules anyway, sees the benefit of the practice squad, even if he’d rather avoid it.
“It's not the ultimate goal, but they treat the practice squad like they're part of the team anyway — because essentially, they are part of the team," Palmer said. "I feel pretty confident in my ability. At the end of the day, it is what it is. If they feel I should start my year there and work my way back up, then that's just what I have to do."
Certainly the Packers’ track record with the practice squad would indicate that players who spend time there have a good chance of one day being on the roster. Although neither the NFL nor NFL Players Association had any league-wide data available about how many practice-squadders make it to the active roster, the Packers have signed 141 players to their practice squads since general manager Ted Thompson took over in 2005. Of those, 43 have been active (30.5 percent) for at least one game with the team.
Those 43 players have gone on to play key roles, too: They’ve seen action in a combined 541 regular-season games and started 171. Cornerback Tramon Williams is the highest-profile practice-squad alum, with 83 career starts, and last season, 10 former practice-squad players saw action.
“Just getting that redshirt year, [as] I call it, it was definitely a good opportunity,” said tight end Brandon Bostick, who spent the entire 2012 season on the practice squad. “You get to work on your game, work on your body and just focus on the playbook so at the same time you’re not required to run plays in the game or in practice where you can really focus on learning the ins and outs of the playbook.”
Given the Packers’ draft-and-develop philosophy, the expanded practice squad was met with happiness by coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson. McCarthy, though, believes the players who’ll benefit most are the ones who’ve been on the 53-man roster and wouldn’t have been eligible before the expansion and rule change.
How many times have the Packers, because of injuries, had to play a young player before they wanted to? Now, that player could go back to get some extra seasoning before making another run at a roster spot.
“It's giving more people more opportunities," said McCarthy, who does not differentiate between practice-squad and regular roster players, referring to the 61 (now 63) players who are on the “team” each year.
"The younger player takes a little longer. You look at that player that may get an opportunity maybe even before he might have personally been ready, so he gets out there and plays for six, seven, eight, nine games and now he's not eligible and then he gets caught in kind of a loophole situation and he's out of the league."
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.