The San Francisco 49ers will welcome their rookies and quarterbacks to training camp this coming Monday, July 27. That will be followed by veterans on Friday, July 31, and then the first full squad practice on August 1. The two reporting dates involve all the players taking physicals. If there are any issues, players will then be placed on the Active/PUP or Active/NFI lists.
The last two years (2013 & 2014), we have 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 each training camp.
The 49ers are much healthier at this point than in previous years, but they still have some injury questions as camp approaches. Since we know that 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, on the first day of 2014 training camp, the 49ers placed draft picks OLB Aaron Lynch and DL Kaleb Ramsey on the PUP list. When players begin training camp on the PUP list, they are immediately eligible to practice once they receive full clearance from the 49ers medical staff. Lynch suffered a hamstring strain in the offseason workout program. We are still not entirely sure what happened with Ramsey, other than an injury during the program. Since their injuries occurred 49ers football activities, they are "football-related injuries". Lynch eventually recovered and returned to practice during training camp, at which point he was removed from the PUP list. Ramsey on the other hand, spent the entire year on the PUP list.
Among non-rookies last year, Ian Williams, Garrett Celek and NaVorro Bowman were all placed on Active/PUP. Williams was rehabbing his ankle injury, Celek had suffered a back injury, and Bowman was rehabbing his NFC title game knee injury. Williams was activated on August 12, while Bowman and Celek were not removed at the end of camp. The name Active/PUP 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. Once Ian Williams and Aaron Lynch were removed from the list last year, they could not be returned to the list. Starting them on the PUP list at the beginning of camp 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). The NFI requires some differentiation, which is made below.
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. The 49ers did that last year with Garrett Celek, NaVorro Bowman and Kaleb Ramsey.
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.
Last year, Garrett Celek was an example of a player activated later in the season. It buys the team some time to allow the player to resolve their injuries and protects both player and team. Celek could go twelve weeks into the season before he had to start practicing again. The team would then have another three weeks (Week 15) to return him to the 53-man roster (according to the current rules). After that point, they could 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.
In Celek's case, his back surgery kept him sidelined into the season. He was moved to Reserve/PUP, and then the team opened the practice window for him and other players on November 18. Nine days later, the team activated Celek from the Reserve/PUP. He was active for three games before a separate injury put him on injured reserve.
This year, Daniel Kilgore, Darnell Dockett and Jimmie Ward are all candidates to start the season on the PUP list. Aaron Lynch dealt with a hamstring injury during the offseason workout program, so he is a possibility, too. We'll likely find out the plan for all of them on July 31.
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.
Two years ago, as an example, the 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. Last year was a perfect example of this, as the 49ers placed Marcus Lattimore, Bruce Ellington, Marcus Martin, Trey Millard, Keith Reaser, and Brandon Thomas on the NFI list to open training camp.
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.
This year, DeAndre Smelter is the most likely to start the season on the NFI list. He suffered a torn ACL late last season. Trent Baalke has said the team hopes he will be able to contribute at some point, but odds are high that he opens training camp on the NFI list. If the team is not prepared to remove him from the NFI list at the end of training camp, he will have to miss the first six weeks as part of the NFI/PUP timeline.
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 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 defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey on the IR/Designated for Return list. Dorsey suffered a torn biceps muscle in training camp. Since the injury happened during camp, they could not use the PUP list. Instead, by giving Dorsey the return designation, 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 49ers brought Dorsey back from the list after Week 11. He returned to practice on October 27, and was activated on November 17. The 49ers left him inactive for three games, and then moved him back to injured reserve to end his season. If the season was not going south at the time, my guess is they would have kept him on the roster a little bit longer.
Note on accruing service time
There is one thing to note about the various lists. The NFL requires players be on full pay status for six or more regular season games to accrue a season. If a player's contract ends with two or fewer accrued seasons, he is an exclusive rights free agent. If a player's contract ends with three accrued seasons, he is a restricted free agent. If a player's contract ends with four or more accrued seasons, he is an unrestricted free agent. A player is considered on "full pay status" if he is on the 53-man roster, the PUP list or injured reserve. If he is on the NFI list, the practice squad or the Commissioner's Exempt list, he does not accrue games.
The 49ers have numerous examples of this given their recent draft classes. The team brought Tank Carradine off the NFI list in 2013, but they discovered a setback on his injury, and he was moved to injured reserve. He accrued a season due to being on the 53-man roster or IR for at least six games. He accrued a season in 2014, and barring a non-football injury, is expected to do so in 2015 and 2016. His contract expires after the 2016 season, at which point he will be an unrestricted free agent.
On the other hand, Brandon Thomas and Keith Reaser spent their entire rookie years on the NFI list. They had their practice window activated, but were then shut down. The practice window has no bearing on accrued seasons. If they are on the 53-man roster this year through 2017, they will be restricted free agents when their contracts expire, because they would only have three accrued seasons.
The 49ers could very well use the NFI and/or PUP lists when they arrive at camp. The team is expecting all the injured players to make full recoveries, and at this point, aside from DeAndre Smelter, none of the injured players are expected to open the regular season on the Reserve/PUP or NFI lists.
Between now and mid-August, the team will be required to cut from 90 to 75 players. If any players are not fully recovered, or any major injuries happen in training camp, most of the preliminary 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.
Ideally, the 49ers have a fully healthy roster when they have to make their final cuts. The injury lists provide an opportunity to stash players, but we would obviously prefer fully healthy players. That being said, 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 how the 49ers utilize the rules to the team's advantage. They have been skilled in this regard.