Lions practice squad players wait and hope

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Rookie receiver Andrew Peacock has waited his turn on the sideline for every Lions home game, much like starters Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate.

He has a spot on the same side of the locker room as Ryan Broyles and the other receivers. Peacock does the same drills as Johnson and Tate every day in practice and goes through the same film sessions throughout each week of preparation.

The only difference between Peacock and the others is he's on the Lions practice squad — not the 53-man roster — meaning he doesn't travel for road games or dress in uniform for home games; he watches in warmup gear from the sideline.

"You never know when your opportunity is going to come. Just being up here and going through that grind day by day is part of the job mentally and physically. We all have to get used to that," said Peacock, a rookie from Appalachian State.

"There's no time when you can say that you don't feel like learning the (plays) this week because I know I'm not playing. You never know; if one of these guys goes down, you could be filling that spot."

It was certainly true for running back George Winn, who was promoted from the practice squad to the active roster after Joique Bell and Theo Riddick were injured two weeks ago and played in his first professional game.

In addition to the 53-man active roster, each NFL team is allowed to keep 10 players on the practice squad, which mainly includes undrafted rookies and skilled players who haven't played in many games. When injuries arise, teams can pull from the practice squad for depth instead of scrambling for players unfamiliar with their system.

For many players, the practice squad is a chance to keep their football dream alive, even if it means doing some of the grunt work on the scout team. But for a minimum weekly salary of $6,300 — a total of $107,100 over the 17-week season — it's well worth it.

The NFL expanded the practice squad this year, allowing 10 players instead of eight, and loosened the rules about who was eligible.

"One big bonus is the fact that the league gave us a couple more guys to work with; I think that's invaluable. Really, the purpose of the practice squad is that it's developmental. It's to give a guy a chance to still be around the system, get a sense of it and a sense of how you're doing things," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said.

"We get a chance to evaluate them daily. Every single guy on our practice field gets evaluated every single day, even if he's providing a (scout) look for the team."

Winn joined a growing group of Lions who were on the practice squad to start the season and now are filling roles in games, mainly because of injuries.

Rookie cornerback Mohammed Seisay was called into action after Bill Bentley and Nevin Lawson suffered season-ending injuries in the first two games.

At least so far, there isn't a huge difference between the skill level of the Lions' practice-squad players and those who played regular contributing roles.

Winn found a prototype in his own position group, watching Bell, who played at Wayne State and toiled on practice squads for two seasons before getting his shot. Bell has become a starter for the Lions, showing Winn he could make it if he was persistent.

"I actually looked into (Bell) before I got here and saw what he was about. I looked to him for inspiration because I saw he took the same route," Winn said. 'It hasn't been a verbal thing, but knowing he's done that helps me out."

Not big spenders

When asked about the difference between being on the 53-man roster and the practice squad, almost any player will tell you it's the paycheck.

And it's more than a little difference.

Instead of the minimum $6,300 per week on the practice squad, players make a minimum of $24,705 weekly ($420,000 total) on the regular roster. Even if they're released after a week or returned to the practice squad, they'll get a minimum of three weeks' pay at the higher rate.

Despite what may seem like a financial windfall, Winn said he's cautious about his finances, knowing his status on the roster can change from week to week. Winn said he splurged on a celebratory dinner with his family at Eddie Merlot's in Birmingham, but otherwise has been frugal in his spending.

However, Winn, who played football at U-D Jesuit, had to dip into his savings to get extra tickets for his first game, with a host of family and friends attending for his debut.

After bouncing around several teams' practice squads last season, Winn decided to cut expenses by not getting an apartment and moving back with his parents and two younger brothers in West Bloomfield.

"I knew how last season went as far as bouncing around and everything so I didn't want to get caught up in a lease or worry about what I'm going to do about my furniture," he said. "So I thought I'd stay home the first six or seven weeks.

"Now I can consider moving out."

Winn said he'll continue to live off the practice-squad salary and save the rest, in case he doesn't stay on the roster. But after the team put Montell Owens on the season-ending injured reserve, Winn has a chance to stick around for the rest of the season.

For second-year guard Rodney Austin, seeing Winn get his shot is a tribute to the hard work practice-squad players put in.

"I was that guy last year toward the end of the year, where they bumped me up to the active roster," Austin said. "It's always good to see guys who didn't get the 53-man nod (to start the season) to come up."

Austin is well aware of the short-term uncertainty of the practice squad, which has kept him living in an extended stay hotel instead of an apartment this year.

"I'd prefer to have an apartment to go back to and turn my key instead of swipe it, but I don't really have any complaints," Austin joked. "At least right now, this is the best place for me. Barring something just completely freaky happening in the NFL, I'd like to stay here and I plan on being here."

Filling a need

Tight end Jordan Thompson said he and the other practice-squad players are treated the same as the rest of the roster. They do the same work in practice and have lockers next to the regular players.

"I can't talk for other organizations, but in our organization, we're treated no differently," Thompson said. "Guys on the practice squad are part of the team and partake in everything that goes on. Ultimately, they're preparing us to play and there's no separation."

With a rash of injuries, other Lions such as Josh Bynes, who was signed from the Ravens practice squad, and Nate Ness have been pushed into action. That creates a constant state of readiness among practice-squad players to ensure they're making the most of their reps in practice, because their spot on the roster could be just one play — or one injury — away.

"You have to prepare like you're going to be starting, because you never know what could happen. Someone could get hurt in practice and the practice-squad guy is starting that game a few days later," Austin said. "You always have to be on point in knowing what you're supposed to be doing."

Playing within the offense also helps Peacock improve his skills, where he mimics the other team's top receivers to help the defense prepare — and to get a gauge of where he stands.

"The best part for me is going against the (Lions) No. 1 defense every day and knowing you can compete with them and make them better," Peacock said. "Knowing you belong here and everybody grows up thinking, 'Am I good enough to play in the league? When we're going at it every day, it's a reassuring factor to know I can play against those guys."

Lions practice squad

Rodney Austin, G

Patrick Edwards, WR

Jerrell Harris, LB

Mike Harris, DB

Emil Igwenagu, FB

Nate Ness, S

Andrew Peacock, WR

William Powell, RB

Jordan Thompson, TE

Michael Williams, T