On Monday, the Kansas City Chiefs made moves to bring their roster down to 80 players — the second such move of the preseason. One more deadline lies ahead: by 3 p.m. Arrowhead Time on Tuesday, August 31, all NFL teams must have their rosters reduced to 53 players.
Let’s take a look at all the ways they can trim their rosters.
A player is released
Sometimes called a cut, this is the simplest roster move. It may only be used with vested veterans — those with at least four accrued seasons in the league. (Basically, players gain an accrued season when they spend at least six regular-season games on a team’s active roster).
In a release, the team simply exercises its option to cancel a player’s contract. The player immediately becomes an unrestricted free agent who can sign with any other team. Whatever salary the player was due for the current season is not paid — and the team gains that same amount in salary-cap space for that year.
But any dead money from that player’s contract — that is, anything that has already been paid or guaranteed but not yet accounted for under the cap (such as a signing bonus spread across multiple years) — is immediately charged to the current year.
Therefore, the team’s cap savings will be the player’s salary that season minus any dead money remaining.
Special note: if the player’s contract extends beyond the current year, it is possible for the dead money from only the current year to be charged against that season’s cap; whatever remains can then be accelerated into the following year’s cap. This can be done only if the release occurs after June 1 — or if a release made before June 1 is designated as a June 1 release.
A player is waived
This is the way that teams cut ties with players who have fewer than four accrued seasons. The key difference is that their NFL contract might remain in force. Here’s how it works:
For 24 hours, the player may be claimed on waivers by another team. (The claiming period always begins at 3 p.m. Arrowhead Time on the day the player is waived). If multiple teams put in a waiver claim, the one with the worst record in the previous season is awarded the player, whose contract is then transferred to their new team.
The new team then must account for the player’s salary under their cap — while the old team gains cap space. Like with the release of a vested veteran, any dead money from the contract stays with the original team’s salary cap.
But if no team puts in a waiver claim, the player’s contract is canceled. The player becomes an unrestricted free agent who is free to sign with any team. In that case, the salary-cap impact for the waiving team is the same as the release of a vested veteran.
Here’s an example of a waiver transaction: an undrafted free agent is signed by Team A in May. They are waived on the final cutdown day. Team B — the previous Super Bowl winner — puts in a claim for the player. But so does Team C, which finished the previous year with a 1-15 record. Team C is awarded the player’s contract, which still has three seasons to run on its NFL minimum salary. (UDFAs always sign three-year minimum-salary contracts when they enter the league).
A player is traded
Like a player claimed on waivers, a traded player’s contract moves to their new team, leaving any dead money with the original team. So when a rare player-for-player trade is made, this happens with both teams. But more commonly, a player is traded for draft picks — meaning that the player’s original team gains some salary-cap space while the new team loses some.
Special note: in some trades — particularly for high-value players near the end of their contracts — the new team may insist on negotiating a new contract with the player before agreeing to the deal.
A player is waived/injured
“Waived/injured” is shorthand for “waived with an injury designation.” For both the player and team, it works the same way as a player being waived — except for one thing: if no team makes a waiver claim for the player, the player is placed on the waiving team’s Reserve/Injured list — which is better known as “injured reserve.”
A player is placed on the Reserve/Injured list
Of course, injured players may also be placed directly on this list.
Players on Reserve/Injured do not count on a team’s active roster. Their contracts, however, still count (at a reduced rate) against the team’s salary cap.
Special note: when a player goes on Reserve/Injured list on (or before) the final cutdown day, they must remain on the list all the way through the season. This is fine for a player whose injury is unlikely to be resolved before the end of the year. (Teams will also sometimes make this move with an injured rookie player to give them a “redshirt” season).
But players who are placed on Reserve/Injured after the final cutdown may be recalled to the active roster after they have missed a certain number of games. (Under special Reserve/Injured rules in place for 2021, this is three games). For this reason, an injured player will often make the final cutdown roster — only to be placed on the Reserve/Injured list the following day, while their roster spot is taken by another player.
When a player on the Reserve/Injured list has missed the required number of games — and is healthy — the team may return them to practice. Once they return, they must be activated to the roster within three weeks — or they must be waived, released or traded, or returned to Reserve/Injured for the rest of the season.
A player is placed on the PUP or NFI list
PUP stands for physically unable to perform. NFI stands for non-football injury. The PUP list is for players who have been injured while playing (or practicing) NFL football, while the NFI list is for those who cannot play because they have been hurt in any other activity — including players who are still recovering from injuries sustained while playing in college.
There are actually two types of each list. The Active/PUP and Active/NFI lists are used only before the regular season begins. The Reserve/PUP and Reserve/NFI lists are used during the season. As you might expect from the names, players on the active versions of both lists count against their team’s roster limit, while those on the reserve varieties do not.
Players on any of these lists may not practice with their teammates, but they are allowed to attend team meetings and work with team trainers to recover from their injuries.
Players may only be placed on Active/PUP or Active/NFI lists before training camp begins. They may then be removed from them at any time after camp starts. But once removed from one of the lists, they cannot be placed on either one. In addition, if they remain on either the active PUP or NFI list to the final cutdown day, they must be activated to the roster, waived, released or traded, placed on the in-season PUP or NFI lists or put on the Reserve/Injured list.
Players on Reserve/PUP and Reserve/NFI are subject to some restrictions. They must remain there for at least six games of the regular season. If they are not cleared to practice within five weeks after that window, they must be waived, released or returned to the list for the rest of the season. Once they begin practicing, they must be activated to the active roster within three weeks — or once again, they must be waived, released or traded, or returned to the list for the rest of the season.
For salary-cap purposes, the contracts for players on Reserve/PUP are treated the same way as those on Reserve/Injured. But unless a particular player has contract language that says otherwise, players on Reserve/NFI do not earn their salaries — and therefore, those salaries do not count against the cap.