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In the National Football League, players get dismissed from teams more often than in the other major sports, mainly because there are far more players on rosters, and more injuries. It triggers a question, asked of us now and again, about these waived players: Do they get paid, or not?
Waived NFL players do get paid, either by the team that waived them, or by a new team who picked up the player on the “waiver wire,” according to terms of the player’s contract.
Pro football players perform under annual contracts, with obligations that must be fulfilled by the other entity signing the document.
Whoever holds that contract pays the player. If a player’s contract guarantees a certain amount of money, the team that waived him must pay, if no other team takes up his contract.
The waiver system in the NFL is a tad complicated. An active NFL roster carries 53 players, and players can be taken off or added at any time. This is due to the rough nature of the sport and its numerous injuries.
Additionally, as NFL games are only once a week, teams change rosters week by week, specifically in response to the next game. With so few games in an NFL season, every single win is crucial; and teams do everything they can with personnel to win games.
Teams have some options to take players off that 53-man roster; being waived is just a single element.
There are various ways for NFL teams to move players into and out of their active roster, including cuts, trades, placement on an injured reserve list, and the waiver system.
Cutting a player means a team wants to completely separate, or part ways, with the player. In this instance, the player is either released, or waived.
Released means the player is free from his engagement with the team and can sign to play elsewhere. The original team is responsible for covering the remaining portion of the contract, if any.
But: whether a player gets released or waived depends on the player’s service in the league, in years, with 4 years being the cutoff:
- A player who has accumulated less than 4 years worth of seasons in the NFL is waived;
- A “veteran” player, with 4 or more seasons of NFL play accrued, is released. This means being flat-out cut, released to the freedom to go play for another team. (An “accrued season” means a year when a player spent at least 6 weeks on a 53-man roster).
For those younger players who go “on waivers,” there is a process, in which he can either remain with his original team, or get “picked up” by a new team. This is why at the beginning of this article we mentioned that to the question of who has to pay the player, the answer is, it depends.
Being “waived” does not mean a player’s contract has been terminated. Instead, the player (and contract) are placed on the “waiver wire,” a list of players being similarly moved off rosters, where they become available for other teams to “claim.”
This waiver wire period is brief: a player is only available to take within 24 hours on the waiver wire.
If a new team does indeed claim the player, then that player goes to that team, and carries with him the same conditions of his current contract. (See below for exceptions for the player).
However, if no other team claims the player in that waiver wire period (usually by midday the following day), his contract is terminated automatically. This means he has no contract and therefore is an unrestricted free agent, able to sign with any NFL team.
Just as there is the waiver wire list of players, there also is an injured reserve list. The IR is where teams place their players who remain under contract, but cannot play during a certain period of time. The player is effectively removed from the active roster, but remains the property of that team.
Basically, it’s a place for the player to rest up and get well; to be on the team in name but not on the roster.
Sometimes a team might “waive” a hurt player. This just means reporting the player’s injury to the league. The NFL has a lot of rules about how teams can designate players as injured, and about communicating when they are able to return to play.
When “waiving” a player who is injured, the player enters the same process as the waiver wire noted above. From there he is either claimed by a new team, or not. Either way, his team has to decide whether or not to “maintain” him (e.g. keep him on the IR), or release him outright with what is called an “injury settlement.”
- In “claiming” players on the waiver list, the NFL institutes a priority system to determine which team gets a player when multiple teams indicate interest. This priority list is usually based on who has waited the longest to claim a player. Basically, once a team claims a player, then that team gets moved to No. 30 (last) on the priority list. This list changes daily, whenever a player is claimed.
- Players do have a say when they are claimed on waivers. A player can reject a claim and become a free agent to sign wherever. The waiver process mostly helps because it could keep a player on the field without the potential for a break (if a new deal cannot be made quickly).
- Once the annual deadline to make player trades passes, every player cut must go through the waivers process. This is to prevent any shenanigans late in the regular season (namely) with the waivers process that could significantly impact playoff rosters.
Though it’s nowhere near what it’s like in baseball, the NFL trade deadline has become more interesting in recent years. A reason is, the league in 2012 moved the deadline back by 2 weeks, from Week 6 to Week 8.
With more time to see how a team is performing, and to get creative with trades, these types of roster moves in the NFL are happening more often. In fact, by the 2022 trade deadline of Nov. 1, a record 20 players were involved in trades between teams, the most in the history of the NFL (in a century!).
The trade deadline in Major League Baseball has become an event, something publicized heavily leading up to it, with significant sports news coverage right up to the end. Major league teams not faring well in the standings tend to trade or “sell off” players, to prepare for the next season, and beyond.
Many MLB and NFL trades made mid-season involve swapping a known player for a future draft pick, or picks.
Question: Why is 4 years the cutoff between the waiver wire, and being immediately released?
Answer: Rules regarding this are included in the contractual agreement between the players and clubs. Usually at issue is cost: there are more younger players available, with contracts paying out smaller amounts, so the teams essentially “share” these excess players. Older, veteran players will carry much bigger contracts, and teams are allowed to just outright release them. The veterans appreciate this because they cannot just get picked up by a random team; this gives the longtime players a little control over where they will go. (That 4 years of service is known as service time, or “vet life” in slang).
Q.: Is the waiver wire open all year long?
A.: No. It opens the first business day after the Super Bowl, and lasts through the regular season of that same calendar year.