Practice-squad players key to Seahawks’ success

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RENTON, Wash. — Akeem Auguste shows up to work each day to a locker that features Doug Baldwin to his right, and Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas a few steps to his left.

Yet Auguste, a member of the Seahawks practice squad, would undoubtedly pass unnoticed through a crowd of even the most die-hard Seahawks fans.

As the rest of the practice squad, Auguste takes part in every workout and meeting during the week, then spends game days on the sideline out of uniform — and out of sight and out of mind of the 68,000-plus spectators who cram CenturyLink Field on Sundays.

What matters to Auguste, though, is that he gains the notice of his teammates and coaches.

He has accomplished that, which became apparent during a recent interview. While Auguste talked to a reporter after a recent practice, Baldwin and quarterback Russell Wilson each interrupted to throw in a few compliments.

“That’s a good football player right there, man,’’ Wilson said. “He (intercepted) me in practice the other day.’’

Such words, Auguste hopes, foreshadow getting what he really wants — a chance to join Wilson and the rest of the Seahawks on the field someday.

“And you never know when that might be,’’ said receiver Phil Bates, another member of Seattle’s practice squad.

In fact, Seattle has five times this season promoted players from the practice squad to the active roster, including receivers Ricardo Lockette and Bryan Walters, who each played significantly Sunday in the NFC West Division-clinching victory over the Rams.

“You’re always one little injury from getting called up, so you always have to stay prepared to play,’’ said Walters.

The practice squads of today essentially are just more formalized versions of what long ago were called “taxi squads.’’

Taxi squads, groups of players who were not on the active roster for whatever reason, are said to have originated with the Cleveland Browns in the 1940s and acquired their name after the team’s owner temporarily put them to work as cabdrivers.

Practice squads these days are highly regulated.

After final rosters are set the week before the season, teams can sign eight players who are not on the active rosters of any other team to their practice squad. The rules on practice-squad eligibility are somewhat complicated, but essentially practice squads are reserved for rookies and young players — players cannot be on a practice squad for more than three seasons.

Practice-squad players get a minimum salary of $6,000 per week. By comparison, the weekly minimum salary for a player on the active roster is just more than $23,000.

Players on the practice squad can be paid more than the minimum. The Seahawks this season were reported to be paying defensive back DeShawn Shead and defensive tackle D’Anthony Smith each more than $8,500 a week, in part as an inducement to keep them on the practice squad.

Practice-squad players can be signed to the active roster of another team at any time. The 49ers, for instance, signed rookie receiver Chris Harper and offensive lineman Ryan Seymour away from Seattle’s practice squad earlier this year. But practice-squad players can turn down such offers if they want, and some do if they think their better long-term future is to remain with their current team.

Shead, a second-year player from Portland State who was promoted to Seattle’s active roster Nov. 27, also was on the Seahawks’ active roster last season for four games and said he didn’t want to go anywhere else, confident another chance with the Seahawks was coming. He also signed originally with Seattle because it was interested in him as both a corner and a safety.

“I was just being patient, waiting for my opportunity,’’ he said.

Before that day arrives for practice-squad players, though, comes lots of work.

True to its name, the main function of the practice squad is to help prepare the team for its next game.

“Those guys are huge,’’ said offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. “They get worked so hard each and every week. Our offensive guys are going 30-40 plays a day and those practice-squad guys are going 80 plays a day because they are taking reps on the offensive scout team and then some of the guys will go play defense when our first-team offense is out there, and they are giving a scout-team look. So they are going both ways and getting double the workload out there.’’

Bates jokes that the practice-squad receivers are the “research and development team’’ for Seattle’s vaunted Legion of Boom secondary, emulating specific players from the opponents that week during practice.

“We kind of pride ourselves on what they do during the game,’’ Bates said. “If we gave them a good look during the week and they got a bunch of picks, that looks good on our part. That’s how we look at it.’’

The Seahawks, who have made 47 transactions involving the practice squad since the beginning of the season, sometimes alter the makeup of the practice squad based solely on whether they need another receiver or linemen for the scout team to better prepare for that week.

Defensive tackle Michael Brooks has been released off the practice squad and re-signed five times this season. Once released, players are free agents and can go anywhere.

Bates says living what might seem to be a pretty uncertain day-to-day life is just an accepted part of the deal.

“You don’t think about it,’’ he said. “You can’t think about it. You just go out and do the best that you can. The thing is to try to get better each week, and put weeks on top of weeks of getting better. If you don’t do that, then it’s a lost cause because you are looking for your opportunity to play.’’

Practice-squad players often are those who were with the team during training camp, such as Walters, Bates and Brooks.

Then there are stories such as Auguste’s. He was released by Cleveland in the last cutdown before the season when the Browns decided to keep just four cornerbacks. He wasn’t brought back to the practice squad and returned to his home in Hollywood, Fla. In the second week of the season, he had a tryout with the Seahawks, but then didn’t hear anything else from them, or any other team, for 2½ months.

“It’s definitely tough,’’ said the 5-foot-10, 185-pounder who played in 44 games while at South Carolina. “But the strong survive, you know? You can’t sit there and dwell on ‘Ah, man, I got released.’ You’ve got to keep working.’’

He’d returned from a workout in late November, the week after Seattle learned Walter Thurmond had been suspended for four games and Brandon Browner might also be suspended, when he saw a call coming in with a 425 area code.

“Out of the blue,’’ he said. “I can’t believe I came out here and got through what I got through. I missed 10 weeks and now I’m in one of the best situations in the league. I’m blessed.’’

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