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. In the past, prior to the final cutdown date, injured players with less than four years of service could not go onto IR without first passing through waivers. A 2018 NFL By-Laws change has made it no longer necessary to place non-vested veterans on Injury-Waivers before placing them on IR. In the past, the need for Injury Waivers caused teams to risk losing the player to a waiver claim and on occasion some teams took advantage of this to poach players. As such, teams would often continue to carry the player on the 90-man roster until the final cutdown in order to not risk losing the player. The new By-Law solves this issue and non-vested veterans can now go directly onto IR without having to first pass through Waivers.