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Giants have mastered the art of the practice squad

Pharoh Cooper of the New York Giants against

Pharoh Cooper of the New York Giants against the Las Vegas Raiders at MetLife Stadium on Nov. 7, 2021. Credit: Getty Images/Sarah Stier

Pharoh Cooper was a Pro Bowler.

Around here they have a different title for him.

He’s a practice-squadder with the Giants.

That doesn’t mean much on game days when he is elevated, as he was last Sunday for his first game with the team. He handled all of the returning duties for the team and even got some reps as a wide receiver despite having been with the organization for just a few days.

But it really hit him during this bye week when, during the workouts, the Giants were split into two different groups. The veterans and regular players were ushered off the field to treatment sessions and classroom work while the backups and younger guys remained on the turf to get some valuable reps. Guess which group Cooper was in.

"It’s weird," Cooper told Newsday. "Doing that, the after-practice stuff, while the rest of the team goes and does recovery? I’m used to being with the starters. But that’s not the case right now."

This is the second year in which the practice-squad rules have been adjusted in the NFL, not only expanding the group but allowing for more two-way traffic between it and game-day rosters. It’s a tool that the Giants seem to have mastered much faster than the rest of the league has, and Cooper is only the latest example of it.

The first established veteran the Giants brought in under such a seemingly insulting title was Alfred Morris, the running back who helped replace Saquon Barkley last season. This year their practice squad has been home to two former Pro Bowlers — Cooper and linebacker Benardrick McKinney — and a former first-round pick in offensive lineman Isaiah Wilson. They have nearly as many Pro Bowl players in that auxiliary group as they do on their active roster.

The practice squad used to be a place to stash developing players. The Giants still use it partly for that purpose. Linebacker Trent Harris has been called up three times this season. Last year defensive lineman Niko Lalos came from that part of the team to make impacts on Sundays.

"We tell guys all the time, we’re not looking for a group full of Rudys to come out here and just run around all high energy," Joe Judge said. "We want guys to improve as players to make our team better and we want guys constantly competing to be on the field. We get all these guys ready to play every week because they will eventually. If we do it the right way, we should have a number of guys from our practice squad step up, make contributions and make our roster."

There is another part of the unit, though, that they now use for low-risk, high-potential-reward signings. It’s for veterans they want to roll the dice on such as McKinney, who has been playing for them and likely will need to be added to the active roster at some point (practice squad players are allowed only three game-day elevations before they need to be permanently promoted), and such as Wilson, whom they see as a long-term project.

The new practice squad rules aren’t all good, Judge said. It has depleted the labor market considerably.

"There’s not going to be that inventory on the street like there used to be," Judge said. "It used to be if you had a guy hurt on Sunday, on Tuesday you had a long list of workouts, you’d picked someone Tuesday morning, you’d meet with them Tuesday afternoon, they’re practicing with your team on Wednesday. The reality now is most of the better football players are already on someone’s practice squad kind of in that holding pattern for when they get elevated or taken off for somebody else’s roster."

Once in a while, though, there are players who can help who are not on anyone’s roster. McKinney, Wilson and Cooper were those types of players. The Giants found a home for them, not on their active roster, but on the practice squad.

"That’s different, for me especially," Cooper said of his new designation. "That’s just how the league is. You can be on the active roster for five, six, seven years and then you are on the p-squad. But you can’t take it for granted. It’s always a blessing."

Especially considering the alternative.

"I was on the couch last week and now I’m playing," Cooper said. "So I’m grateful for that."

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