Over the weekend, the San Francisco 49ers took care of some business with regard to most of their injured players. The team placed WR Kyle Williams, LB Darius Fleming, WR Mario Manningham and RB Kendall Hunter on the Active/Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list. They also placed DE Tank Carradine, DT Quinton Dial, RB Marcus Lattimore and OT Luke Marquardt on the Active/Non-Football Injury (NFI) list.
I think most fans scanned the players placed on the Active/PUP (Preseason PUP) and NFI lists and immediately wondered about Michael Crabtree. Since he was not listed on the Active/PUP and based on the tweets of Matt Maiocco and Matt Barrows, it appeared the 49ers planned to utilize the Injured Reserve with the designation for return for Crabtree.
To put it simply, the 49ers have two options for Michael Crabtree. The options are: 1.) Injured Reserve, with designation for return; or 2.) Reserve/PUP (regular season PUP list). I want to discuss both options and my prediction for what is best for Michael Crabtree and the 49ers.
Injured Reserve, Designated for Return
The NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed to a new short-term IR rule change which took effect last year. This change allows one player (per team) to be activated from the IR list. Before the enactment of this rule, any player that was placed on the IR list was not eligible to play again for the same team in that season (regular season and postseason).
In order for a team to designate a player for return, the one player selected must be immediately "designated for return" at the time he is placed on the list. Teams cannot make the IR with return designation until after 1:00 p.m. PT on September 3.
Note: The player must be active at the time of designation. A player cannot be on the Reserve/PUP and subsequently jump to the IR with return designation. Theoretically, a player could be on the Active/PUP and the team could activate him. The purpose of activation would simply be to place him on the IR with return designation. However, it is highly improbable and completely unnecessary in Crabtree's case.
First of all, Crabtree is not required to report until Wednesday. The season has not yet begun, so technically there is no "injured reserve" right now. After training camp, we will immediately see a few players added to the 49ers' IR list. For example, Brandon Carswell and Alex Debniak are both currently listed as Reserve/Injured. The 49ers will make it official, once it is time to do so.
Once a player is put on the IR, he is out for the season. That is, unless he is the one player designed to return to practice. That designated player is eligible to return to practice if he has been on the IR list for at least six weeks from the date he was placed on Reserve. 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.
If the 49ers used up their one designation on Crabtree, the team would have to activate him on day one of the regular season and put him on the IR with the return designation. The clock would then begin and he would be unable to return to practice until week seven and could not return to the active list until week nine. If the 49ers believe Crabtree will need nine weeks or longer to activate him, this makes the most sense.
The NFL rules state a team must declare the Reserve/PUP (regular season PUP) list on August 31 at the time they reduce the team to 53 players. So, we will likely see some of the players on the Active/PUP list transfer to the Reserve/PUP list after the season begins. I believe Mario Manningham is a good candidate for the Reserve/PUP list. He would not count against the 53-man roster, and it provides adequate time to get healthy.
In order for a player to be eligible for the Reserve/PUP, he cannot have practiced at camp. Once a player practices, all PUP list options are off the table. The 49ers must be extremely cautious about letting any player practice, no matter how good he looks following an injury. When veterans report on Wednesday, they will go through physicals, giving the team another opportunity to determine injured players' statuses.
Players on the Reserve/PUP are prevented from playing and practicing during the first six weeks of the season. Any player on the Reserve PUP list does not count against the 53-man roster. However, if a player isn't activated after the sixth week, the team has a three-week window to make a decision to: 1.) place the player on injured reserve; 2.) release the player; or 3.) get him back to practice. As soon as the player returns to practice, the team has another three-week window to add the player back to the 53-man roster, or place them on the Injured Reserve list. So, conceivably, a player can play be activated anywhere beginning week seven until week thirteen.
In the case of Crabtree, he injured his Achilles on or about May 22, 2013. The 49ers announced it projected Crabtree would return in six months. The six month mark would put him at November 22, 2013. If all goes as projected, the math puts Crabtree's return in between week 11 and 12. Last month, in discussing the options, I stated it was entirely possible the 49ers could utilize the Reserve/PUP on Crabtree, because of his projected return timetable.
However, there are variables. The foremost is what his doctors say. Let me put it this way, if everything is going perfectly --Crabtree is just able to walk. I am not one to camouflage the seriousness of injuries. While I want to remain positive, many have an unrealistic viewpoint as to the rehabilitation. It is not easy.
Since the 49ers are not required to make a PUP decision until August 31, I suspect they will remain tight-lipped until they must make the formal designation. If he is progressing on or ahead of schedule, it is entirely possible they put him on the Reserve/PUP list. He would have not have to be activated until week thirteen. After Week 13, the 49ers could still activate Crabtree and have him as one of the inactive players on game day, but he would count against the 53-man roster and they'd be a man short. It may be a risk the 49ers would be prepared for and they would still be able to hang on to their one IR with designated return option, should there be another player injured unexpectedly.
There is one very specific advantage to using Reserve/PUP as opposed to Injured Reserve with return designation. Each team is only allowed to use the return designation once in a given season. Last year, the 49ers held off using it for Parys Haralson, and Jim Harbaugh recently admitted he wished he had used the designation. Last season, the Ravens used a PUP list designation for Terrell Suggs, and were then able to use their IR with return designation on Ray Lewis when he later tore his triceps muscle. Suggs injured his Achilles earlier than Crabtree, but it is simply one example for the 49ers.
The 49ers have both options, and with a decision not due until the end of next month, there is no reason to rush the decision. In a month they will know that much more about where Crabtree stands in his rehabilitation, and can thus make a better, more informed decision.
If you have any questions about the various designations, you can review my article detailing the differences here. Feel free to post your questions and/or concerns in the comments below, and I will answer any questions you may have.