By Brian McFarland
How Does the NFL’s Waiver System Work?
As of 4:00 p.m. on the Saturday after the final Preseason game, “the Turk” arrives, as teams have to make their first and final cut down of the preseason. In the past, there were two (2) cutdown dates, whereby teams first cutdown from 90 to 75 and then after the final preseason game, cut down to 53. In 2017, the NFL basically consolidated those into one cutdown date.
When viewing the NFL waiver wire, there are four designations that come into play, each with different ramifications. Often, these designations are confused when reported in the press or simply labeled with the generic moniker “cut,” but there are different ramifications of each designation.
1. Players with less than four (4) years of service time (“non-vested” veterans) are “waived” and are subject to waivers. The normal waiver period in the NFL is 24 hours, but for the final cutdown to 53, the waiver period is shortened and ends at Noon on the following day (instead of the normal 4:00 p.m.). So, if another team wants to claim that player, they must do so by Noon on Sunday. If multiple teams place a waiver claim on the same player, the player is awarded to the team with the highest waiver priority (draft order during the 1st couple weeks of the season; the reverse order of the standings after week 3). If a player goes unclaimed, he clears waivers and is a free agent, free to sign wherever he can find work.
2. Players with 4+ seasons of service time are “released.” These players, known as “vested veterans,” do not pass through waivers and are free agents immediately, free to sign with any other team.
These rules apply until the trade deadline (presently the Tuesday after Week 8 of the NFL season). After the trade deadline (until the start of the next league year in March), all players – whether a vested veteran or a non-vested veteran – are “waived” and subject to the waiver process.
3. Injured players with 4+ seasons of service time can be immediately placed on Injured Reserve (IR).
4. Up until the final cutdown date, injured players with less than four years of service cannot go onto IR without first passing through waivers. Those players are released with the “waived/injured” designation. Known as “injury waivers,” this process exposes the player to waivers, but warns other teams that the player is injured. If the player clears injury waivers, the team can then either place the player on IR or agree to an injury settlement (paying the player for the weeks that he is expected to be recovering from his injury) and then release the player.
It is important to keep in mind that injury waivers only apply during the offseason, up until the final cutdown date. From that point on, a non-vested veteran can be placed directly on IR, although some teams will still use the “waived-injured” designation, hoping that another team will claim the player, thereby relieving them of the financial responsibility for a player while on IR.