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Antonio Pierce rewards practice squad players with spot on sideline

Among the changes Raiders interim coach Antonio Pierce made in his first week on the job was to open Sunday’s game-day sideline to the 16 players on the practice squad.

That wasn’t the case under Josh McDaniels, who preferred that those players watch the game from a suite inside the stadium.

To some, it might have seemed like an insignificant gesture. No more impactful than changing the flavor of the game-day Gatorade. Inside the locker room, though, it was a pretty big deal.

It was a big deal in particular to linebacker Curtis Bolton, a proud graduate of the Raiders’ practice squad and the embodiment of the motivational message Pierce delivered to a group of players who normally fly far under the radar.

“That was major,” said Bolton, who spent time on the Raiders’ practice squad last season before being promoted to the 53-man roster. He has been a special team stalwart for the club ever since.

“From the standpoint of our practice squad players, they’re a part of this team,” Bolton added. “They come in and bust their butts harder than most guys on the squad because that’s what they have to do to stay here. So I think getting them on the sideline was absolutely the right move.”

Over the years, NFL practice squads have evolved in size and salary, with the 2020 COVID season serving as a catalyst for a major shift and leading to the practice squads expanding from 12 to 16 players.

Before 2020, practice squad eligibility was limited to players who had not accrued more than two seasons of NFL service. Now, each team can have six veteran players with no experience restrictions.

As opposed to the past, practice squad players now can be added to the game-day roster and then returned to the practice squad without being exposed to the waiver wire process. But teams can elevate an individual player only three times per season before having to add them to the 53-man roster.

The weekly pay for practice squad players with less than two years of NFL service time is $12,000 for the 2023 season. It will increase by $500 per week over the final seven seasons of the current collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and players union.

The minimum weekly salary for a veteran practice squad player in 2023 is $16,100, with the ability to negotiate to a maximum of $20,600.

Even under McDaniels, the Raiders were aggressive in terms of building strong practice squads and promoting the idea that opportunities exist to be elevated to the regular roster.

Just like everyone else, practice squad players attend every meeting, weight room session, practice and walk-through. The Raiders also set aside end-of-practice developmental periods in which practice squad players get the stage to themselves in seven-on-seven, red zone and fully padded pass-rush and pass-block segments.

Every second of every practice is filmed and up for evaluation, so every move and every rep is open to evaluation by decision-makers. For players who don’t get rewarded with an actual game-day experience, they are doubly motivated to put something positive on tape during workouts.

“Our practices are our game days,” practice squad cornerback Sam Webb said. “That’s really how I look at it. I go hard on practice days, making the fellas better.”

That was the case for Bolton and cornerback Tyler Hall last season, with each now earning roles on the 53-man roster after proving they belonged through their efforts on the practice field and classroom. Initially, though, Bolton and Hall understood the primary role of the practice squad was to prepare the starters for what they were going to see from that week’s opponent.

They do that by serving as the “scout team,” which mimics the opponent’s offense and defense throughout the week. That might seem like a thankless job, but for young, developing players who aspire to have NFL careers or veterans trying to remain in the game, it’s an opportunity to either seize or squander. Part of that means recognizing the value of their role.

“No one really talks about it, but I take a lot of pride in the scout team because that’s literally been my job the last couple of years,” said offensive lineman Hroniss Grasu, who spent most of the past two seasons splitting time between the Raiders’ practice squad and 53-man roster.

And with it, the opportunity for a bigger role and more lucrative payday,

“If you take pride in the scout team, coaches and front office people notice that,” Grasu said. “And that’s how you’re going to get on the field. And you’re going to keep a job in this league for a very long time.”

The Raiders have made that clear over the years.

“Top-down, they talk a lot about going in and giving the starters a good look on scout team and the importance of that for them on Sunday,” Bolton said. “The individual pride of coming in and understanding this is your job, and your job is to get better and that eventually an opportunity is going to present itself.”

Bolton came to the Raiders in 2022 after spending the previous four seasons in the Packers, Colts, Texans and Lions organizations, mostly as a practice squad player. He was sold on the Raiders’ promise that practice squad players would get every opportunity to earn consideration for the 53-man roster.

“Over the course of the time I’ve been here, that’s obviously rang true for me and other guys as well,” Bolton said. “They stand on what they say when they say that, so it definitely gives the young guys and the guys on the bubble a little boost to get through.”

And under a coach such as Pierce, they get to experience a Sunday game day on the sideline.

“That’s where the culture comes in,” Bolton said. “Just establishing that culture of rewarding guys that come in here and bust their ass, and if they play good, opportunities will come as a result.”

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsignore@reviewjournal.com. Follow @VinnyBonsignore on X.

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