Duke Johnson came out of nowhere to produce a big day for the Dolphins in Week 15 (Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)
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NFL Practice Squad Players: Football’s Next Men Up

They’re the backups to the backups. Their salaries are modest. But in an NFL season turned upside down by COVID-19, practice squad players are as valuable as ever.

Prior to taking on the New York Jets in Week 15, running back Duke Johnson was but a cog in the Miami Dolphins’ practice squad.

A seven-year veteran with a handful of standout games to speak of, Johnson’s career has been that of your average NFL journeyman; fringe success, here and there, but nothing truly worthy of anything other than a desperation waiver wire pickup in your fantasy football leagues.

But on Sunday, after getting the starting nod due to a Dolphin’s roster complicated by COVID and injuries, Johnson got another shot β€” carrying the rock 22 times for 107 yards and two hard-earned touchdowns.

It was a brilliant outing that helped his team to a 31-24 victory over a division rival.

A day after his standout performance, Miami signed Johnson to the active rosterβ€” giving the 28-year old not just a pay raise, but another glimmer of hope for sustained stardom.

Such is the life of an NFL practice squad player.

NFL Practice Squad Salary Numbers

So, how much do NFL practice squad players make?

At a glance:

  • League minimum salary: $9,200 per week or $165,600 for 18 weeks
  • Practice squad salary for veterans with 2+ years of experience: Approximately $14,000 per week or $252,000 for 18 weeks

The Ultimate Opportunity

A former third-round pick by the Cleveland Browns back in 2015, Johnson has quietly earned roughly $15 million in his career.

But 2021 has been an uphill battle for the former Miami Hurricane, to say the least.

After the Houston Texans cut him in February 2021 β€” the final year of his contract in which he was to be owed $4.6 million β€” Johnson got no love from other NFL teams, going unsigned straight on through the summer.

Not long after resurfacing with the Jacksonville Jaguars practice squad in September 2021, where he earned a reported $28,000 salary, Johnson was cut again. A month later, the Dolphins signed Johnson to their own practice squad to a contract worth $125,000 in base pay.

And there he’s been. Waiting for another shot.

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Following his career day, the Dolphins signed Johnson to the active roster on a new contract worth a reported $220,000 in base salary. But as it turns out, the Fins didn’t have much of a choice.

Sending Johnson back to the practice squad would’ve given other teams around the league the chance to sign him right up until new practice squad protections for this week were filed with the league.

So, after two months as a practice player, Johnson finally got back to the game. Now, he gets to make a case for a better (and bigger) contract in the remaining games as Miami’s surprise RB1.

But that’s the life of a practice squad player. Grinding. Week in and week out. For a shot to dress for the game.

And while Johnson may arguably be too high-profile a player to fit the typical practice squad mold, his story is a shining example of the potential reward a player can realize upon joining a team’s taxi squad.

It’s all about practice, surely plenty of punishment — often by their own teammates — and, of course, a modest but all-important payday.

But as we learned last week in Miami, it just takes one twist of fate for all this to grow into so much more.

Getting Paid to Practice

The NFL allows a team a maximum of 16 players to be signed to the practice squad, meaning at any given time there are potentially up to 512 people in this world who can claim they get paid to practice against professional football players.

The league increased the size of a team’s taxi squad ahead of the 2020 season.

The size of the squads was originally set to increase from 10 to 12 in 2020 and then up to 14 in 2022, but the league increased the number to 16 to help prepare for the impact that COVID-19 would have on personnel.

While not eligible to play in an actual NFL game unless first promoted by their team, practice squad players are essentially weekly free agents. Not only can they be released at any point, but they are also free to sign with any NFL team (should the opportunity arise) and are not deemed protected or otherwise off-limits by the league.

The Washington Football Team demonstrated this in Week 15, signing backup quarterback Garrett Gilbert off the New England Patriots practice squad due to a locker room ravaged by COVID.

Compensation for such competitive uncertainty can range depending upon experience. As noted above, practice squad players make a minimum of $9,200 per week or $165,600 for 18 weeks of work. If you’re a veteran with over two years of experience, you make roughly $14,000 per week or just over $250,000 for 18 weeks.

But under the league’s new CBA, this minimum salary for practice squad players is notably set to rise in the years to come. In fact, the salary for each tier of practice squad player rises each year until 2030, where the minimum weekly salary range increases to a range of $16,750 to $21,750 depending upon your classification.

As you can see, the future looks brighter for NFL practice squad players. More money. More opportunity.

And with COVID continuing to have an impact all around the NFL (and the broader sports world at large), practice squad players β€” grinders like Duke Johnson in particular β€” are proving to be uniquely valuable.

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