Yesterday, the San Francisco 49ers announced several roster movies involving their rookie players. The 49ers placed Bruce Ellington, Marcus Lattimore, Marcus Martin, Trey Millard, Keith Reaser, and Brandon Thomas on the Active/Non-Football Injury (NFI) List, and they placed Aaron Lynch and Kaleb Ramsey on the Active/Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) List. Here is a quick rundown of the injuries involved:
Bruce Ellington - No idea what it is, but Barrows says it is not considered serious
Marcus Lattimore - Knee rehab connected to his college injuries
Marcus Martin - Kneecap injury suffered in November
Trey Millard - ACL injury suffered in college
Keith Reaser - ACL injury suffered in college
Brandon Thomas - ACL injury suffered in college
Aaron Lynch - Hamstring injury suffered during offseason workout program
Kaleb Ramsey - No idea what it is
Last year, we provided Niners Nation with the rules regarding the difference between the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform), the Non-Football Injury (NFI) and IR (Injured Reserve) rules, and used examples of 49ers players heading into 2013 training camp.
Considering the 49ers have drafted several players with pre-NFL injuries, had several players sustain injuries last season and because we know injuries are an inherent part of football, it is important to understand what options are available.
The NFL and NFL Players Association have agreed on terms to allow injured athletes to return. However, when a player suffers an injury, the team is given options. We look at the difference between the PUP, NFI and IR lists, and what that means for our injured players.
Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) Rules
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.
The Active/PUP (Preseason PUP list) allows players who are unable to start training camp the ability to sit out until the medical staff provides clearance. Once they are medically cleared, they're allowed to practice immediately.
For example, 49ers placed draft picks OLB Aaron Lynch and DL Kaleb Ramsey on the PUP list yesterday. If players begin training camp on the PUP list, which is likely -- once the players receive full clearance from the 49ers medical staff, they are eligible to practice. Lynch suffered a hamstring strain in the offseason workout program, while we are unsure of Ramsey's injury. Since they occurred 49ers football activities, they are "football-related injuries".
Last year, Kyle Williams and Kendall Hunter were placed on Active/PUP while they were wrapping up their rehab from their respective ACL and Achilles injuries. Williams practiced 5-days later and Hunter practiced 20-days later. This classification, as the name implies, is reserved for the pre-season.
Second, there's the Reserve/PUP (regular season PUP list). Any player starting on the Active PUP list (and has not practiced) with the team becomes eligible for the Reserve/PUP at the end of training camp. Once a player practices during training camp, all PUP list options are off the table. This is important to note. Both Lynch and Ramsey could be cleared within a day or two of the start of training camp, but starting them on the PUP list leaves it on the table as an option if there is a setback.
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. But, the injured player is counted against the 53-man roster.
In the alternative, teams must go straight to the Injured Reserve list or waive the player. So, it means the 49ers are extremely cautious about letting any player practice, no matter how good he looks following an injury. When it comes to classifications, the difference is whether or not a player practices. Allowing a player to practice limits the options of the team. It can tie up roster spots and dollars.
It should be noted, 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).
If a player started on the Active/PUP list and isn't medically cleared by the end of the preseason, the 49ers may transfer any Active/PUP player to the Reserve/PUP.
These players are prevented from playing and practicing during the first six weeks of the season. What makes the Reserve PUP advantageous is that any player on the Reserve PUP list does not count against the 53-man roster. If a player isn't activated after the sixth week, the team has a six-week window (day after Week 6 to day after Week 11) 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.
For example, NaVorro Bowman is a good candidate to see the Reserve/PUP this year. It buys the team some time to allow the player to resolve their injuries and protects both the players and the team. Bowman could go twelve weeks into the season before he must be practicing again. The team would then have another three weeks (Week 15) to return him to the 53-man roster (according to the new rules). After that point, they can have him as one of the inactive players on game day, but he would still have to be on the 53-man roster. But, the risk is carrying the player for no more than two weeks.
If Bowman is progressing well, the 49ers could activate him as early as week 7 and as late as week 15. Even though Bowman would occupy a spot on the 53-man roster, the 49ers may see this as the best option available. If he is medically able to return for the playoffs, for example, they may be willing to go a man short for a week or two, just to keep that door open.
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). If a player gets hurt away from team activities, the team would be eligible to place him on the NFI list.
Last year, as an example, 49ers placed Aldon Smith on the NFI list due to his alcohol rehabilitation. Considering alcoholism is a medical disability, but not one sustained during the course of a game or practice -- this is a perfect example of a non-football injury. It is worth noting the team had to receive permission from the NFL to designate Smith on the in-season NFI list.
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. 49ers announced Marcus Lattimore, Bruce Ellington, Marcus Martin, Trey Millard, Keith Reaser, and Brandon Thomas would start on the NFI list.
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. However, teams will often work out deals with NFI players to pay some or all of their salary when there is a common understanding about the injury. This is particularly true with players who the team knows will go on the NFI list upon arrival to the team.
You may recall that defensive end Tank Carradine was on the NFI list due to a pre-NFL injury. Carradine was activated after Week 8, with the hope he could give the defense needed relief. Unfortunately, that never came to fruition. During the offseason, details emerged Carradine had developed a complication (known as osteoarthritis), which required a second surgery. As an aside, it is good to see Carradine left off these injury lists. Knowing the 49ers used one of their two second round picks (40th overall) in the 2013 NFL draft on Carradine, it helps to know he may be moving past some of his injury history.
Additionally, Jimmie Ward has not yet been placed on the NFI list. He had foot surgery in March, and was limited in the offseason workout program. The fact that he is not included on the NFI list would seem to be a good sign about the progress of his rehab.
Injured Reserve (IR) List, Injured Reserve with Return Designation
If the team decides to place a player on injured reserve, it must be a major injury. The NFL defines major injury as an injury that renders the player unable to practice or play football for at least six weeks -- or 42 calendar days -- from the date of injury.
The NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed to a new short-term IR rule change which took effect in 2012. 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).
Last year, the 49ers placed linebacker Nick Moody on the IR/Designated for Return list. By placing him on the list, the team was prohibited from activating him for at least eight weeks following the placement in September. Teams are only allowed one short-term IR move and once it is made, no other designation is possible.
So, while the NFL does not limit the number of players on the PUP or IR, the salary cap sets its own constraints. One of the reasons the salary cap came into effect is the alleged abuse of the IR list to get around the NFL roster limit. High revenue teams, like the Dallas Cowboys, 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 receive full pay for the season (and it's counted against the cap), but are forbidden to dress again for the entire season. 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 player designation rule.
The one player selected must be immediately "designated for return" at the time he is placed on the list. That designation must appear on the day's Personnel Notice. 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.
The Reserve/PUP is usually a medical designation available for players injured early in the season. The 49ers have some flexibility. If needed, the 49ers would undoubtedly be willing to use their one designation on Bowman. I believe Bowman has an excellent shot at returning this season, and my belief is the 49ers utilize the Reserve/PUP as they did with Michael Crabtree last season.
Depending on rehabilitation during the season, we may see several injured athletes begin on one of the lists, and if necessary, be transferred to another, including the IR list.
Between now and mid-August, the team will be required to cut from 90 to 75 players. At the beginning stages, most cuts will be done primarily by placing some of these players on the various injured lists. Then, the team will cut down from 75 players to 53. So, correct designations are important and can really make the difference throughout the season.
Perhaps some of these players will not count against the 49ers 53-man roster limit at the beginning of the season, but several could end up on the field at some point later this season. The 53-man roster will evolve and will not be the same 53-man roster down the road. Niners Nation will continue to monitor the injuries and see 49ers utilize the rules to the team's advantage. It is definitely one of the most skilled teams in this regard.