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NFL Waiver Rules Explained

Waived? Waived/Injured? Released? Injured Reserve? Here’s what all that stuff means

NFL: Chicago Bears at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
 Chicago Bears offensive guard Kyle Long (75) is attended to after being injured in the first half at Raymond James Stadium.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Editor: The cuts will be coming at an alarming pace the next 24 hours, so check out the waiver wire rules that Ken compiled for us...

When the Chicago Bears released/injured long snapper Patrick Scales (Scales suffered a season ending knee injury in last week’s Tennessee Titans pre-season game), a lot of fans were thinking “wow, he gets injured and the Bears just cut him, that’s COLD!”

On the surface, it does look cold... but in reality, the Bears really didn’t have much of a choice because of how the league rules work.

I’m going to work through my understanding of how all of this works, based on research that I have been doing. It’s pretty technical stuff, and the NFL does a VERY poor job of explaining it’s rules, so here’s what I came up with regarding the various types of ways players are released/waived/cut.

Lets start with the Scales case and use it as an example.

Scales has been on rosters during three seasons in the league. That leaves him (obviously) in the “under 4 years accrued vested veterans” group. Those players cannot just be released, they have to go through waiver wires up until the first cut-down day of the pre-season. This year, there’s only one cut-down day so it’s through September 2 (this Saturday).

Here are the pre-season rules:

Since Scales is injured, they put the “waived/injured” tag so that other teams know he is unable to pass a physical. Any team can claim him and put him on their 90-man roster until cut-down day.

If no team claims him (which is almost certain with Scales), the Bears will have five days to negotiate an injury settlement with him. If a settlement is reached, that makes Scales a free agent. If not or if the Bears want to put him on their injured reserve, they then place him on IR.

Being on IR means he gets his full paycheck for the year (1/17th of his pay for the year per game... unless he has a split-contract, but that’s WAY beyond the scope of this article) and he cannot be waived again until he passes a physical.

Injury settlements are generally used for short-term situations (guy has a broken wrist, can play the second half of the season) but IR is better for year-long injuries.

Either way, Scales is not left out in the cold.

That brings us to our next player injured for the season in the Titans game, Cameron Meredith. Meredith is a player that would certainly never pass waivers, somebody would take a flyer on him. Since Chicago cannot place Meredith on Injured Reserve during the preseason without waiving him, he will most likely be on the season’s first 53-man roster... in other words, somebody is likely going to get cut so that he can stay a Bear. After that roster is turned in, Chicago can then put him on injured reserve for the season, and sign somebody else to the 53-man roster.

Were either of these players veterans, Chicago could just place them on IR at this point in time, with no waivers. Teams cannot just cut injured players without compensation.

All of this sounds really strange, but the league does it so that teams don’t just stash promising young players on IR right before cut-down day.

The difference between waivers and released (generally) at this time of year is, again, all about whether the player has four accrued seasons (i.e. he has been on a team’s 53-man roster or it’s IR for at least 6 games in four different seasons) and is a vested veteran, or he has less.

Vested veterans are simply released and they can sign with any team immediately. Non-vested players are released after the waiver period expires, if they are not claimed.

Claiming a player on waivers means you also claim his contract. If the young player has a higher contract (i.e. that player was a higher draft pick) this can get more expensive for teams. If the player is released, the team with the contract is on the hook for all “guaranteed” money unless the player has offset language in his contract (that’s beyond the scope of this article as well).

Here are some links for the sources for this article.

ITP Glossary: Accrued Season - Inside The Pylon - An accrued season is any season that a player is on a team’s roster (both active and inactive), Injured Reserve or (PUP) list for more than six games.

What does it mean when an NFL player is waived/injured? | - Explaining one of the terms used as NFL teams trim their rosters.

How The NFL Waiver Wire Works - Daily Norseman - With a bunch of roster moves to be made in the next 24 hours, we need to take a look at what some of these different moves are.

NFL waiver system explained - - The NFL waiver period has officially begun. Not sure what exactly the waiver wire is or how it works? We break it down.