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Feature: The Invisible Players

They materialize and vanish with the predictability of ghosts.

In some cases, they're here but a day or two, or as long as several years, though few of us ever notice when they got here or when they left. Fanfare does not accompany their arrivals or departures.

Yet, they have their own real estate in the locker room, just like every other player, although the media rarely pay a visit. They suit up every day for practice, tangling with Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Malcolm Butler, and other star players, but have names and faces you'd be hard-pressed to recognize if you heard or saw them.

They're part of the team, yet they're not... Do they even exist?

In fact, they do. They inhabit the National Football League version of purgatory. Occasionally, some are rewarded for their patience and hard work with a promotion – a glimpse of heaven on the active roster. Even then, the out-of-body experience can be ephemeral, almost dreamlike, and they're either sent back down from whence they came or asked to leave entirely.

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They are almost anonymous, virtually invisible members of the practice squad – real people, with feelings and emotions as vulnerable to life's caprice as any of us.

While their active roster brethren are glorified in headlines, the practice squad is all but ignored in the margins. As ever-knowledgeable fans focus on high-profile players known simply by nicknames – TB12, Gronk, etc. – to fill out their fantasy football lineups, the practice squad barely gets noticed out there on the periphery.

But does that outcast status classify them second-class citizens in the eyes of their peers?

"It's different everywhere you go," says Trevor Reilly, a recent Patriots practice squad linebacker. "When I was [with the New York Jets], for example, I wasn't on the practice squad, but I had a feeling that those guys really felt a little different.

"Some places, you're just a practice dummy. Here [in New England], they prepare you to pull you up [to the active roster]. It's competitive out there. There aren't a lot of places like this."

Offensive lineman Chris Barker agrees.

"You're just looked at as another player. You can get moved up just as quickly as anybody else. It's just a label, the practice squad. You're expected to know everything. You're expected to be ready to go if they put you in there.

"We're treated equally…. We're not in the back of the bus."

Perhaps not. But decades ago, their predecessors paved the way by pretending to occupy the front seat of a cab.

HAILING A TAXI

In the late 1940s, the Cleveland Browns began life as members of the All-American Football Conference, an upstart league trying to compete with the already well-established NFL. Their head coach, Paul Brown, would later become a byword for innovation in the sport. Along the way, as Cleveland migrated to the NFL, Brown garnered many adoring fans and devotees, including the impressionable young son of a college football coach from Annapolis, Maryland – Bill Belichick.

Among numerous modern traditions of professional football attributed to Brown is the practice squad.

In those early days with Cleveland, Brown was limited by AAFC rules to 33 players on his roster. However, he often found that he had more individually talented players than spots on the roster to accommodate them all. So, Brown got creative.

He approached Cleveland's then-owner, Arthur McBride, who also owned a taxi cab company in the city, and the two worked out an arrangement whereby McBride would employ the would-be castoffs. Those players would never drive taxis, but remained at Brown's disposal for practices and whenever he needed them in games. As a result, Brown's collection of marginal talent became known as his "taxi squad."

It wasn't long before other clubs learned of and copied the practice. It became so commonplace that the NFL was forced to capitulate and, in 1989, incorporate so-called taxi squads into officially sanctioned off-shoots of the active roster. They were now called practice squads, and began with a maximum of just five extra players. That number increased to eight in 2004. Most practice squad players were rookies or players with fewer than two accrued seasons* in the league.

In 2014, the NFL and its players' union agreed to expand that limit to 10 players, while also modifying the rules of eligibility to allow for more experienced players to occupy those spots. Patriots practice squad running back Tyler Gaffney, for instance, is in his third year in the NFL, all of them accrued seasons.

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As a rookie in the summer of 2014, Gaffney was claimed by the Patriots off waivers from Carolina after suffering a left knee injury with the Panthers. He spent that entire first year on New England's injured reserve list. In 2015, Gaffney sustained a severe concussion in Patriots training camp and again was placed on season-ending IR. After a promising 2016 training camp, Gaffney injured a foot in the preseason finale at the New York Giants and was later released, but re-signed to New England's practice squad in October.

Two weeks later, Gaffney earned a promotion to the active roster and accompanied the Patriots to Buffalo, but was among the seven players declared inactive for that Bills game, thus far Gaffney's one and only NFL game on an active roster. Before New England's next contest, in Week 10, Gaffney was released again, but re-signed to the practice squad that same week.

He's been there ever since, and when the Patriots have had games on the road, Gaffney – along with the other nine practice squad players – stayed behind. The only time they'll all travel with the club is if the Patriots make it to the Super Bowl.

( To earn an accrued NFL season, a player must be on full-pay status on any club's active roster, inactive list, injured reserve list, or physically unable to perform (PUP) list for six or more regular season games in any given season.)*

ON THE JOB, BUT OFF-DUTY

Most autumn Sundays, if their team has a home game, practice squad players have a choice, and Barker has made both of them at different times.

"It depends. We don't have to come [to the stadium]," he explains. "If we do, they put us up in the booth. Usually I watch it from home. If I'm not playing, I'd rather watch it from the TV to have a better angle. Me and my wife watch the game together."

"When they're here, I come to the games and watch them," counters running back Bishop Sankey, who was with the Patriots earlier this season. He began his NFL career with the Tennessee Titans in 2014.

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"When they're on the road, I just watch from home. It's fun getting a chance to watch the guys you work with every day and see how they actually do on game day."

Like Sankey, Reilly prefers to sit in the press box for home games.

"You stay home during away games," the linebacker adds, "and watch on TV."

How exactly they watch the games depends on the person. None of the practice squad players has any team-mandated responsibilities, like charting plays or keeping statistics. So, they're free to watch like any other fan. Sankey, for instance, enjoys casually viewing alone in his apartment. Barker, conversely, uses the opportunity to continue learning his trade by studying the games with a critical eye. Naturally, he focuses his attention on the five offensive linemen.

"I try and hear – usually one of the inside guys is mic-ed up – you can kind of hear the calls they're making," Barker continues. "I just try and see what I would do if I was in that situation on that play. The television angle's a little difficult to watch offensive line play, but sometimes you can see what they're doing – who they're sliding to, who they're run-blocking to, which play it is.

"Other than that, I watch technique; see how I would set on a certain defender. I watch it as if it was game film. I usually don't just watch it to watch a whole bunch of other players. I see what the defense is doing, what moves the d-line is doing, whether they gave a different look than we practiced against."

GAME DAY, EVERY DAY

Sundays are sacred.

No longer exclusive to the devout churchgoer, Sunday is shared with those who worship football.

It is what motivates most NFL players to grind through any given week, particularly late in the year, when everyone is tired, sore, and desperate for a day off. Sunday is the tonic that cures all ills. It is what makes the other six days worth living.

But if you're on the practice squad, Sunday is secondary. Every other day of the week is the most important; every practice, like game day. That's how Reilly sees it.

"I do. Some guys don't, but I do," he emphasizes. "That's all I've got to compete in during the week, is practice. I'm going to go out and try to give 100 percent. I don't want to get anybody hurt – it's not about me, it's about the team, about winning the game on Sunday – but within the rules of engagement, I'm going to give great effort."

"Yeah, I try to be mentally prepared, not make mistakes," Barker acknowledges. "Whether it's on the show team or with the ones, I try to give the best look I can give. The better look we give our defense, the better they're going to play. When I'm in there, I don't want to mess up."

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In at least one respect, it seems like the practice squad has more responsibilities than their teammates on the active roster. The scout team (a.k.a. show team) is the collection of players who mimic the opposing team's offense, defense, and special teams units when the coaches want to simulate game conditions at practice.

They are, in effect, scouting the opposing team by showing their teammates how the opponents line up and execute their plays. Here, the practice squad gets an opportunity to showcase what it can do versus the starters, or first-team players – the "ones."

"When I go against our defense, I have to give the look the other team gives. And I have to go hard so these guys get the work in."

Yet, as Barker also indicates, not only does a practice squad player have to learn the opponent's plays, he must also stay abreast of his own team's game plan. Practice squad players occasionally get repetitions with the first-team unit in practice, not only as a token reward for hard work, but as an insurance policy in case a starter is unavailable for whatever reason. The coaching staff needs to know what a player is capable or incapable of in the event of an emergency.

"We all get a chance to run plays. We're running the actual plays that the offense runs," Sankey confirms. "The only difference is, obviously, not really getting a chance to play in the game. That being said, you still get a chance to work with the offense in the regular scheme and everything.

"It's definitely different, but you've just got to keep a positive mindset with each day and give it the best you can. You still have a part on the team, it's just that your role is a little different. How you can help the team get better is by practicing hard and giving good [scout team] looks for the defense or for the offense. You have to look at it in a positive light. At Tennessee, it was the same way."

"I still have to focus in the meetings," adds Barker. "I still have to know what's going on for this week, what our game plan is."

Because when you're on the Patriots' practice squad, you truly never know when you might receive that long-awaited call.

A SHADOWY EXISTENCE

While Brady, Gronkowski, and other stars live in the limelight, the practice squad dwells – quite literally – in relative darkness. By coincidence or design, the neighborhood of stalls that most Patriots practice squad players inhabit is the most dimly lit corner of New England's locker room. It's an area where few reporters, cameras, and microphones ever venture, and that's exactly how some on the practice squad prefer it.

"I'm okay with it," Barker insists, "because I'm a low-key guy anyway. I don't like answering a whole bunch of [media] questions. It doesn't hurt my feelings that I don't get asked questions."

"I like not having any [media] attention," echoes Reilly, who came to Foxborough earlier this season. He places a gentle hand on your shoulder to reassure you he means no offense.

"You seem like a nice guy, but I'd much rather not talk to anybody and just come here, do my job, and go home. Listen, man, when you're a bottom-of-the-roster guy… there's not a big difference between you and the practice squad. So, I've become accustomed to that. I enjoy that. I see the hell some of these guys go through every day [with the media]. You can't mess up and say the wrong thing. It makes a difference. Not having that pressure is nice."

Although they may enjoy flying under most observers' radar, practice squad players are by no means irrelevant to the Patriots' coaching staff.

"I prepare like I'm going to play that week, because you never know," Barker maintains. "People get injured and they can move you up [to the 53-man active roster]. If they want me to do something else, I'll do it for them."

"There's always that opportunity to get called up," Sankey notes. "You've got to keep that in your mind and stay ready because you never know when your name will be called."

Or when you'll be shown the door.

PATIENCE CAN PAY OFF

Toiling in practice squad obscurity comes with a price.

Six thousand, nine hundred dollars, to be precise.

That is the weekly minimum wage a 2016 NFL practice squad player earned. It will increase moderately in 2017.

Unlike many organizations that pay their employees biweekly throughout the calendar year, NFL payroll distributions occur weekly, but only during the regular season (with the exception of certain offseason, preseason, and postseason bonuses and stipends).

For some players, $6,900 is the biggest paycheck they'll ever see, and they're lucky to collect more than a handful of them. Multiply that $6,900 figure over a 17-week season, however, and you arrive at a handsome annual salary of $117,300 – if, of course, a player is able to remain on a team or teams for that long.

In most cases, that's extremely difficult, given the dizzying number of player transactions, many involving the practice squad, that NFL teams make each week. The instability can be nerve-wracking.

"You just have to control what you can control, take it day by day and week by week. Do the best you can," Sankey advises. "At the end of the day, if you know you're giving it your all on the practice field, making plays at practice, you can't ask any more of yourself. Just try to remain positive about it, even though the reality is you don't know when you're going to be here and when you're not.

"Just show up each day," he smiles, "and be a professional."

It can be difficult to grin and bear it, though, when most of your active roster teammates are making considerably more than you. While $117,300 is an exorbitant minimum wage to most observers, contrast that with the $450,000 minimum annual salary owed to all NFL rookies in 2016. The NFL's minimum wage pay scale then increases proportionately with the number of years of service a player has accrued. Veterans of 10 or more NFL seasons must be paid at least a million dollars each year, approximately.  

If a practice squad player is promoted to the active roster, he gets a significant bump in pay. When he is released and re-signed to a practice squad (a player can't simply be sent directly back down), his payroll number plummets, in most cases. Seeing your paycheck fluctuate so much must be aggravating; some players keep it in perspective.

"For me, it's a little different," Reilly explains, "because I save my money. What they pay me here, I can easily live off of. Yeah, it sucks not making the active money, but it's better than not making anything. It's still a six-figure salary. If you can't live off that, that's your problem."

Reilly turns 29 this month. The Utah native is older than most practice squad players because he took a few years off from football, from 2007-09, to travel overseas on a Mormon mission. He's married, with three children, and his practice squad eligibility is diminishing.

"I'll find a job if no one wants me in the NFL," he declares. "I don't have a choice. I'll find something else."

For now, he needn't worry. On Dec. 19, Reilly was plucked off New England's practice squad by the Miami Dolphins. He appeared in the regular season finale against the Patriots, even making a tackle on a kickoff. With his new job, he earns a weekly pay raise and will receive a sizeable bonus check for having been on the Dolphins' active roster during this year's playoffs.

But not every practice squad player is as philosophical or as fortunate as Reilly or tight end Matt Lengel, whom New England signed off Cincinnati's practice squad earlier this season. Lengel had never appeared in an NFL game before arriving in Foxborough, but now finds himself with a modicum of job security for the time being as the only tight end on the Patriots active roster besides Martellus Bennett. His role in the offense has increased with each passing week.

Yet, for every Reilly or Lengel, there's a  Shaquelle Evans, Da'Ron Brown, Ian Silberman, Quentin Gause – guys you've probably never heard of before and might never again. These are all players who, at various times during the 2016 season, donned Patriots uniforms as members of the practice squad. They were barely here long enough for the ink on their $6,900 paychecks to dry.

For others, $6,900 is just a starting point.

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Take Trevor Bates.

A native of Westbrook, Maine, who starred at the state's university, the 23-year-old rookie linebacker was drafted in the seventh round by Indianapolis in 2016. He began the year on the Colts' practice squad, but was called up to their 53 in early October. Bates saw action in one game before being released.

He was out of work for one month, until the Patriots signed him to their practice squad. By mid-December, he'd impressed his new employers enough for them to give him a considerable raise. Bates now earns $18,000 per week, according to ESPN.

He's not the only practice squad player ever to be generously compensated by New England. In fact, the Patriots have a history under Belichick of paying their prized practice squad players significantly more than the required minimum. Currently, per that same ESPN report, half of the 10-man roster is paid far above $6,900 per week.

Defensive tackle Darius Kilgo earns a base salary of $525,000, as if he were still on the 53-man roster (Kilgo was briefly on New England's 53 earlier this season). Barker, in the NFL since 2013, but with only two accrued seasons, is another well-paid practice squad member. The aforementioned Gaffney and wide receiver DeAndrew White are the other two.

WHAT COMES NEXT

Practice squad contracts can be lucrative, but relatively short.

Of the 10 available spots on any team's practice squad roster, only four can be filled by players with two accrued seasons in the league. The rest must be players with one or no accrued seasons. And players who've been on a single team's practice squad for six weeks or more can only remain there for a maximum of three such years.

So, once you accrue three seasons in the NFL, you automatically lose your practice squad eligibility. If you hope to keep a job thereafter as an NFL player, it must be on an active roster.

Barker's window, therefore, is rapidly closing.

"When it's my time to go, I'll be ready," he insists. "I don't think about all the bad things that could happen. I'm just happy to have a job. I'm confident in my abilities. My goal is to be better and more versatile. When I first came in, I could only play guard.

"I feel I've gotten better every year. That should be good for my future."

Sankey left New England on Nov. 1, when Kansas City signed him to its active roster. In such cases, the player is guaranteed at least three weeks' worth of active roster paychecks, even if he's released sooner than that. Sankey lasted exactly three weeks with K.C., but was never active in a Chiefs game. He ended the 2016 season on Minnesota's practice squad.

Such instability comes with the territory.

"Early on, I thought about it," Barker admits. "Like, 'Dang, guys are getting cut [frequently],' but that's just the nature of the beast. A guy may not necessarily be doing bad on the practice squad, but if the team needs more depth at a certain position, they'll bring a guy in [and release another].

"But if you dwell on that, you'll play bad. So, I don't even think about that. I just play. I think about getting moved up. I don't think about possibly getting cut. That'll never help me play. You just have to take your mind off that. Give the best look you can, learn what you can, and that's really all you can do. Control what you can control. I can't control if they want to release me.

"It's always better than sitting at home," Barker concludes. "I don't have a bad mindset about the practice squad because, it's a job."

A pretty good one, all things considered. PFW

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