When the NFL expanded its practice squads from eight to 10 players this summer, it created 64 new jobs. It’s a small number in terms of job creation, but for players living on the fringe of the NFL it’s a lifeline that keeps their dream of playing professional football alive.

The vast majority of NFL players never spend time on practice squads, but for a select few the time in the developmental program is the reason they eventually make professional football a career.

Steelers reserve offensive lineman Cody Wallace is one of those players. He signed a three-year contract with the Steelers this spring that will pay him $3.48 million, but he spent his first six years in the NFL with six different teams bouncing between practice squads and active rosters at each stop.

Wallace was selected by San Francisco in the fourth round of the 2008 draft and made the 49ers’ 53-man roster in 2008 and 2009. The 49ers released him in 2010, which began a two-year odyssey that took him to New York, Detroit and Houston, where he learned his trade on practice squads.

“Without the practice squad, I would have been out of the league,” Wallace said. “After my fourth year, going into my fifth training camp, Houston drafted three offensive linemen and I was running with the third team. I knew it wasn’t looking good for me.

“Luckily, I played well enough in preseason for Tampa to pick me up. That one kind of blew me away, honestly. At that time, I thought I was done. But you just never know in this business. If someone likes you, and they give you a chance, that’s all it really takes.”

Wallace made Tampa Bay’s 53-man roster in 2012 and played in eight games. After last year’s training camp, the Buccaneers released him. The Steelers picked him up and placed him on their 53-man roster.

Wallace proved to be a valuable player for the Steelers. He had to start at center the final four games after Fernando Velasco was injured. The Steelers were 3-1 in those games and Wallace played so well the Steelers gave him a $450,000 signing bonus when he signed his three-year contract.

“I don’t feel like I was any good until my fourth year in the NFL,” said Wallace, who will turn 30 in November. “I don’t think I got faster or stronger. It was just learning the game and learning the different techniques from all the different coaches that I had been around. In year four, I was able to put that all together. For some guys, it takes longer. It takes time to put it all together.”

Players such as Wallace give hope to Ross Ventrone, who played in eight games with the New England Patriots in 2011. For the past three years he has been trying to make it back onto an NFL roster.

After being out of the NFL in 2012, Ventrone, a Chartiers Valley High School graduate, spent parts of last season on the Steelers practice squad. He went through the offseason with the team and was signed again to their practice squad after getting cut at the end of training camp.

The NFL limits the amount of time players can spend on practice squads. After this season, Ventrone, 28, will be out of practice squad eligibility.

“Once you play in those games it’s like the whole dream come true thing,” Ventrone said. “You get greedy and want it more. I just want to keep playing. It makes you realize how much you do love the game when you’re not on a roster.

“As long as I’m in the building I’m going to keep fighting and fighting. My mind right now is: what can I do to make myself a better player and help the team? Hopefully I can get brought up at some point. I want to be playing football. This is what I want to do.”

Ventrone faces long odds. Wallace is one of only five players on the Steelers’ active roster who have spent time on NFL practice squads. Defensive lineman Steve McLendon, receivers Lance Moore and Justin Brown and offensive lineman Chris Hubbard are the others.

Brown and Hubbard made the roster this season after spending their rookie seasons on the Steelers practice squad. Like Wallace, Brown was one of those players who needed extra time to make the transition from college to professional football. He said he was “running around like a chicken with his head cut off” at this time last year.

“It was an opportunity to still be around the program and learn,” said Brown, who began his college career at Penn State and was selected out of Oklahoma in the sixth round in the 2013 draft. “I took advantage of it and tried to work hard every day, learn from the veterans and compete against the No. 1 defense every day. That definitely helped me out as far as learning coverage, different techniques and route running.”

Practice squad players earn $6,300 per week during the season. If they spend all 17 weeks of the season on the practice squad they earn $107,100. After the season is over, many players sign futures contracts and get paid much smaller salaries for participating in offseason training activities, minicamp and training camp. Players who sign futures contracts can earn anywhere between $7,996 and $16,140 during the NFL offseason depending on how many years they have been with NFL teams.

It’s not a bad way to make a living, but it pales in comparison to what players on active NFL rosters earn. The rookie minimum in 2014 is $420,000 and the veteran minimum is $570,000.

The players on the Steelers practice squad might not get their opportunity in the NFL in Pittsburgh, but if they are lucky, somewhere along their NFL journey a coach will influence them and make them more marketable to other teams.

Wallace never was elevated to the active roster in his two seasons with Houston, but he credits offensive line coach John Benton, who is now with the Miami Dolphins, for helping to make him a better player.

“He coached everyone really hard,” Wallace said.

“In some places, sometimes it seems like the younger guys, if you’re not playing, you don’t get the coaching. He spent a lot of extra time with the younger guys. I give him credit for that.”


Practice squad basics

—Each team can have up to 10 players on its practice squad.

—Practice squad players can be called up to the regular roster at any point, and can sign with any other team’s 53-man roster, too.

—If a team promotes or signs a practice squad player to the regular-season roster, he will take up a roster spot for at least three weeks, even if the team cuts him.

—Players earn a minimum of $6,300 a week — $107,100 over a full season, but only about 25 percent of the NFL rookie minimum of $420,000.