The annual NFL roster cuts deadline is one of the busiest 48-hour periods on pro football’s calendar, and you’ll see a lot of different terms thrown around — but what do they all mean? What is a vested veteran? What is the difference in being released and being waived? How does it all tie together in forming the New Orleans Saints practice squad? Let’s break it down.
Released vs. Waived
This is an important distinction. Players earn accrued seasons by being on a team’s roster for six or more games each year, and those with four or more accrued seasons will immediately become free agents upon being released (at least until the NFL trade deadline in November, at which point they’ll hit waivers like everyone else).
That isn’t the case for rookies, second-year pros, and most players returning from last year’s practice squad. The vast majority of players cut on Tuesday are being waived, which of course means they’re testing the waiver wire. That gives other teams an opportunity to freely claim them, though any additions require corresponding moves to open up spots on the 53-man roster.
Practice squad rules
Teams are allowed to keep 16 players on their practice squad, and those accrued seasons come back into play here. 10 of those spots are reserved for players with fewer than two accrued seasons. The other 6 slots are open to players with two or more accrued seasons — meaning veteran players. Last year the Saints had experienced pros like Kirk Merritt, J.P. Holtz, Nick Martin, and Taco Charlton on their practice squad to open the season.
Those accrued seasons matter in pay, too. Players on the practice squad with fewer than two accrued seasons are paid $12,000 each week. Those with two or more accrued seasons are paid at least $16,100, with room to negotiate up to $20,000 in their weekly game checks. That’s an important recruiting tool teams use when assembling their practice squads but it’s also a cost-cutting measure for the NFL to pinch every possible penny.
Injured reserve protocol
So this is another important point we should touch on. The NFL allows teams to activate up to eight players from injured reserve (and the same player can be designated to return twice, if needed, but they also count against that limit each time) but they must start the season on the 53-man roster in order to qualify, even if it’s only as a day. That’s why you’ll see these referred to as procedural moves.
This is also why so many media projections have the Saints keeping Tre’Quan Smith on the team at wide receiver, or Landon Young at offensive tackle, despite both players being sidelined for weeks with significant injuries. As was the case last year with Trevor Penning and Malcolm Roach, both guys would need to stay on the roster past the cuts deadline on Tuesday before being designated to injured reserve on Wednesday (that’s also the case for players who might have made the cut but are dealing with injuries, such as linebacker Ryan Connelly). Theoretically none of them would be available until Week 5’s road game with the New England Patriots, but it really depends on each player’s recovery timeline.
Teams can put as many players on injured reserve as they need to, but again, just eight of them may return to activation in a single season. A large number also puts a strain on the training staff’s resources. So you’ll see a lot of players who are hurt agree to be released with an injury settlement. That’s a payout which covers the weeks they would have been inactive. It also requires the player to finish rehab on their own. They’re also a free agent and can sign with a new team once they can pass a physical.
Right now the Saints have three players on season-ending injured reserve: Trai Turner, Andrew Dowell, and Eno Benjamin, all of whom were hurt during training camp. None of them will be eligible to play again this year even if they did heal up in time, which is really unfortunate. But the team’s medical staff will handle their recovery and they’ll still be paid the guarantees they were owed.