The San Francisco 49ers welcome their rookies and veterans to training camp today, with the first practice scheduled for tomorrow, July 28. Teams can begin training camp no earlier than 15 days prior to their first preseason game.
The arrival of players means all players will be taking physicals. If there are any issues, players will then be placed on the Active/PUP or Active/NFI lists. NaVorro Bowman and Reuben Foster had notable injuries, but Bowman was a full participant in the offseason workout program, and Reuben Foster has reportedly been making quality progress.
The last four years (2013, 2014, 2015, 2016), Stephanie McCarroll has 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 team does not appear to have as many issues as in past years, but you never know when a surprise might pop up.
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. We have seen another change specifically to the IR with return designation rule, so that will be the most notable difference from previous years.
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.
The 49ers did not use the PUP list last season. However, the year before on the first day of 2015 training camp, the 49ers placed center Daniel Kilgore on the PUP list. Kilgore fractured his ankle/lower leg in 2014 against the Denver Broncos, and was not ready for the start of training camp. 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.
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. Three years ago, the 49ers had Ian Williams and Aaron Lynch on the PUP list, but got them back on the practice field within a couple weeks. Once they were removed from the list, they could not be returned to the list. Starting a player 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. An example of this is Ian Williams last season, but it was listed under “non-football injury,” which we’ll explain below. But otherwise, 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 two years ago with Daniel Kilgore.
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.
Two years ago, Daniel Kilgore was the only player who opened the season on the PUP list. It buys the team some time to allow the player to resolve their injuries and protects both player and team. Kilgore could have gone 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 Kilgore’s case, his lower leg 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 the week of November 16. The team then activated Kilgore from the Reserve/PUP on December 5. He was active for five games, starting the final three at center
This year, the team does not appear to have any clear candidates for the PUP list. They had some players miss stretches of the offseason workout program, but for the most part they seem to be in good shape. We’ll find out at some point Thursday or early Friday whether or not someone is going to have to go on the PUP list.
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, the 49ers placed Jaquiski Tartt on the Active/NFI. It caught us off guard, but he also returned a week into camp once he passed his conditioning test. Additionally last year, Ian Williams’ time with the 49ers finished on the NFI list. Williams had unexpected surgeries last year, and that resulted in him going on the NFI list. I would have thought the injuries would have been connected to his previous ankle injury, but I imagine that since he played the previous season and had the surgeries after the fact, that might have impacted the designation. Whatever the reason, he was immediately placed on the Reserve/NFI list, rather than the Active/NFI list. He was later released from the NFI list and is a free agent
A few 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. The 49ers use of “medical redshirts” in recent years have provided numerous examples of that.
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, Reuben Foster could potentially be a candidate this year, but given some of his work in the offseason workout program, it seems like he has a decent chance of being ready at the beginning of training camp. I’m not quite positive if that removes his NFI eligibility, but his limited work might be enough to retain that option. If they did place him on the list, they could remove him shortly after, but like the PUP list, they must place him on the list to reserve the right to keep him there into the season if needed. If they place him on the list and are 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. The change allowed 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).
This year, the NFL has made a notable change to the rule. Now, teams are allowed to use the designation to return two players, not one.
The 49ers did not use the designation last season. The year before, they placed running back Mike Davis on the IR/Designated for Return list after their Week 8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Davis suffered a hand injury in the game. Since the injury happened during the season, they could not use the PUP list. Instead, by giving Davis the return designation, the team was prohibited from activating him for at least eight weeks. Teams are allowed two short-term IR moves and once they are 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.
Since the NFL and NFLPA negotiated to add the designated for return option, there has been one other significant change beyond just switching from one to two players eligible. Previously, a team had to declare a player “eligible to return” upon placing the player on injured reserve. Last year, the NFL changed the rule so that teams could bring back one player from IR after the eight weeks, without declaring them eligible to return at the time of injury. So, if the team has to place three players on IR at some point, they can wait and see who appears closest to return. They can still only use the move once.
The 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.
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 seasons in 2014, 2015, and 2016. He negotiated a one-year contract extension before hitting free agency after the 2016 season, and will be an unrestricted free agent after this season.
On the other hand, Keith Reaser spent his entire rookie year (2014) on the NFI list. He had his practice window activated, but was then shut down. The practice window had no bearing on accrued seasons. He accrued seasons in 2015 and 2016. If he makes the roster this year and accrues a season, he will be a restricted free agent next offseason, as opposed to unrestricted.
The 49ers could very well use the NFI and/or PUP lists when they arrive at camp. They do not have many notable candidates, but we get surprises every so often. Jaquiski Tartt was the most notable surprised last year.
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.