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PUP, IR and NFI - exploring the different designations

It can be confusing to keep up with NFL rules on injuries

NFL: FEB 28 Scouting Combine Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images


I want to take a look at some special designations today; specifically, PUP, IR and NFI. These designations are used to help a team manage its roster within the 53-active-player limit.

It should be noted, almost all player salaries of a team count in calculating that team’s total salary cap during the season. This includes players that are on Injured Reserve (IR), Physically Unable to Perform (PUP), and the Practice Squad (PS). However, the NFI requires some differentiation, which is made below.

One of the reasons the salary cap came into effect back in the mid-90s was the alleged abuse of the IR list to get around the NFL roster limit. High revenue teams, like the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins, allegedly had the ability to redshirt unlimited young players by claiming they were injured (when they weren’t). Teams could place unlimited players on IR, thereby circumventing the roster limit.

The salary cap effectively curbed the abuse of limitless players on IR. However, another problem was created. As stated previously, those on IR often receive full pay for the season (some contracts include split pay, where their salary is reduced if on IR), but are forbidden to dress again for the entire season.

In the past, if a team believed the player could return that season, they had to keep the player on the 53-man roster (thereby occupying a precious roster spot). In this scenario, it is anything but a “level playing field” the NFL claims to be providing with these rules. This kind of occurrence is likely why the NFL and NFL Players Association came up with the IR return rule.

Starting a couple of years ago, two players per year on injured reserve have been eligible to return to practice if the player has been on the IR list for at least six weeks from the date he was placed on IR. He is eligible to return to the active list if he has been on the IR list for at least eight weeks from the date he is placed on Injured Reserve.

Physically Unable to Perform (PUP)

This is an injury designation that has a lot of relevance at the start of training camp.

First, under the NFL Rules, there are two classifications of Physically Unable to Perform (PUP). There’s the Active/PUP and the Reserve/PUP. Both PUP classifications are for football-related injuries (which means that a player injured in an Non-Football Related Injury (NFI), like Josh Holsey in 2018, is not placed on the PUP list).

  • Once a player practices during training camp, all PUP list options are off the table.
  • This designation is only for players who do not practice at all with the team during the summer.
  • Starting a player on the PUP list at the beginning of camp leaves it on the table as an option if there is a setback, and if he comes off the PUP list during the preseason, he can’t return.

When roster cuts roll around after the final preseason game:

(i) if a player isn’t medically cleared; and

(ii) if he was on the Active/PUP list during training camp,

then he can be transferred to the Reserve/PUP, which prevents that player from playing and practicing during the first six weeks of the season. Players are only eligible for PUP if they were on the Active/PUP list all summer and did not play or practice with their team at any point.

Once they are medically cleared, they’re allowed to practice immediately.

Which Redskin players does this apply to in 2019?

Only three Redskin players currently under contract can fall into this category of ‘did not play or practice with the team’ and qualify for the Reserve/PUP list when the season begins:

  • LB Jordan Brailford
  • CB Danny Johnson
  • QB Alex Smith

My understanding is that the injuries to Brailford and Johnson are both relatively minor and shouldn’t lead to them still being on the list when the regular season rolls around.

The injury is unfortunate for Danny Johnson, who ended 2018 on IR and is likely “on the bubble” anyway after producing less-than-impressive play when called upon to play last seeason. He needs the time on the field in training camp if he hopes to retain his roster spot.

I don’t really understand why Alex Smith is on the PUP list instead of IR. There may be a provision of the CBA that forces this, but I’m not sure what it is. The only advantage I am aware of is that being on the PUP list right now keeps the door cracked open to a return to the field in 2019 for Smith, who will not be eligible to return if he is not on the roster in Week 1 (discussed further below).

Roster impact

The good news is PUP allows teams to apply roster exemptions while keeping their players under contract with the ability to play later in the season, which is why most teams apply PUP at the start of training camp for any injured players. In other words, if a player like Danny Johnson starts camp on the PUP list, doesn’t practice or play in the preseason, and at the time of the roster cutdown to 53 players is moved directly to the Reserve PUP list, he doesn’t count toward the 53 active player limit.

If an injured player isn’t placed on PUP at the beginning of the year, then:

(a) a roster spot must be used on him, or

(b) he must be placed on IR.

This will be important when the Redskins have to make decisions about Alex Smith at the end of August. The downside of having him on PUP instead of IR is that he is occupying a roster spot that could be used on another player, but with a 90-man limit, the disruption to roster churn seems a fairly minor consideration. It will be much more significant if the front office chooses to keep Alex on the active roster in Week 1 to keep open the possibility of a mid-season return; I just don’t see that happening. I expect Alex to be place on IR when the cutdown to 53 takes place.

Once someone is activated from PUP onto the active roster, the team will have to make a corresponding move by releasing/waiving someone to open a spot. In other words, by coming off of the PUP list, the player counts toward the 53-player limit.

How long can a player stay on the PUP list?

By rule, players on Reserve/PUP and Reserve/NFI are excluded from practicing and playing during the first six weeks of the regular season. They’re allowed to do conditioning work with the trainers -- similar to what they did during training camp on the Active/PUP list.

What are the options after six weeks?

After six weeks are in the books, teams have another six week window for that player to begin practicing.

  • If they’re unable to practice when this window expires, they remain on the PUP list for the rest of the season.
  • Once they do practice, teams have 21 days to make a decision:

1) Activate the player to the 53-man roster,

2) Release/waive the player or

3) Do nothing and keep him on the PUP list. If teams maximize all their windows, a player could be held out and not activated until well into December.

Other stipulations

Players can only be placed on the PUP list prior to the start of Week 1. The designation is not available once the regular season begins. This is only for players who have injuries coming into an NFL season.

If, during the season, a player sustains injury but practiced at camp, the PUP list is not an option. The team can keep the player on the roster, if they believe he will come back that season, and he counts against the 53-man roster. Otherwise, that player goes to Injured Reserve.

Injured Reserve (IR)

NFL teams are permitted to place any number of players on Injured Reserve (as Redskins fans probably know well after 2017 and 2018).

  • Any player placed on the IR list counts against the salary cap, but not against the roster limit.
  • For most players on IR, they are ineligible to play again for the same team during the current season, but they can be cut and sign with another team.
  • While on IR, players may not practice with their team at any time, but can attend team meetings and be around the team.
  • Starting in 2017, two NFL players from each team are eligible to come off IR after eight weeks of being on the list. While, under 2016 rules, only one player could return, and it was necessary to designate that player at the time he was placed on IR, under the current NFL rules, players who return to the active roster do not have to be designated in advance. This means that any player who goes onto IR in the first half of the season has the possibility of being activated during the latter half of the regular season. Teams can decide about each player on IR as he reaches his 8-week window, as long as the team hasn’t already returned two players to the active roster. Last year, the Redskins reactivated wide receiver Trey Quinn and running back Byron Marshall from IR during the season.
  • One constraint here is that a player must be on the 53-man roster in Week 1 to be eligible for the IR designation to return. That means, anyone who was placed on IR before roster cuts were made to trim the roster down to 53 players is not eligible, and is out for the season.

An example of a player who didn’t qualify for the PUP list, then went on IR during OTAs and is out for the year, is Reuben Foster, the LB who was picked up on waivers at the end of last season. According to media reports, Foster suffered the knee injury during the Redskins’ first OTA practice on May 20, going to the ground and writhing in pain after tearing both ligaments.

Because Foster practiced with the team, he is ineligible for the Active/PUP designation. Since he was injured during team activities, the Redskins had to either put him on IR, or count him on the active roster for the entire season. Since he is on IR, and will not be on the active roster Week 1, he is ineligible to return to the team in 2018.

Non-Football Injury (NFI) List

The NFL has a second injury list that is similar to the PUP list, but is based on different timing of injuries. The Non-Football Injury list has rules that closely adhere to those in the Active/PUP and Reserve/PUP, but it is classified differently. The most obvious inclusion would be injuries suffered off the football field (game AND practice fields), but it also includes injuries suffered by players before joining the league.

If a player gets hurt away from team activities, the team would be eligible to place him on the NFI list. This is what the Redskins did a year ago with Josh Holsey, who apparently injured his foot when a table dropped on it.

Additionally, a draft pick who sustained any injuries before being selected by his NFL team can be placed on this list. This covers ANY injury suffered before the draft, including injuries on the football field at the collegiate level. A good example of this is Bryce Love, the Redskins 4th round draft pick, who was injured at the time he was drafted, and started his career on the NFI list. Even though Love’s injury happened on a football field, since it happened in college, he was place on the NFI.

One notable difference between the NFI and PUP lists is that the team has the right to not pay base salary to a player on the NFI list. The idea is that if a player suffered his injury outside the purview of the team, they should not be responsible for his salary. This provision applied to Junior Galette when he got injured working out on his own, away from the team facility in 2016.

The Redskins do not have to pay Junior Galette this season after placing the outside linebacker on the Reserve/Non-Football Injury list.

The NFI list is not the same as the injured reserve list. Players on that list sustained injuries while either playing in games or while practicing or working out at the team facility.

A player on injured reserve has to get paid per the CBA. He either gets his full salary or, if he signed a contract permitting it, a partial salary.

NFI pertains to injuries suffered while participating in anything else. A player could be on NFI after getting injured in a car accident or while playing basketball. Or, as was the case with Galette, working out on his own preparing for the season. Players injured under such circumstances do not have to be paid.

Note on accruing service time

There is one thing to note about the various lists. The NFL requires players be on full pay status for six or more regular season games to accrue a season.

A player is considered on “full pay status” if he is on the 53-man roster, the PUP list, or injured reserve.

If he is on the NFI list, the practice squad or the Commissioner’s Exempt list, he does not accrue games leading him closer to free agency.