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Injury list rules and the 2018 San Francisco 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers report to training camp on July 25th. The team will begin using injury lists, which means it’s time to break down the differences between the Non-Football Injury (NFI), Physically Unable to Perform (PUP), and the Injured Reserve (IR) lists.

The San Francisco 49ers welcome rookies and veterans to training camp on Wednesday, July 25 with the first practice scheduled for Thursday, July 26. Teams can begin training camp no earlier than 15 days prior to their first preseason game, and the 49ers open their preseason against the Dallas Cowboys on August 9.

When the players arrive on Wednesday, they will be taking physicals. If there are any issues, players will then be placed on the Active/PUP or Active/NFI lists. Richard Sherman is rehabbing his torn Achilles, and while he did get in team drills during mandatory minicamp in June, it is still possible he opens camp on the Active/PUP list. Draft pick Kentavius Street will open camp on the Active/NFI list due to the ACL tear he suffered in April.

The last five years, 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. Jimmie Ward opened camp on the PUP list last year due to a hamstring injury suffered during his camp opening conditioning test. The team also ended up placing Ronald Blair on injured reserve and used their return option on him in Week 9.

The NFL and NFL Players Association have agreed on terms to allow injured players 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 the 49ers’ 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.

The 49ers used the PUP list last season when Jimmie Ward injured his hamstring the first day of camp. Players go through a physical and a conditioning test when they report. Ward was placed on the PUP list on July 28th and activated from it on August 23rd. 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. The 49ers took their time activating Ward from the PUP list. The reason for that is once he came off the list, he could not be returned to it. 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, and he counts against the 53-man roster. In recent years, the NFL has added the ability to return up to two players from the injured reserve list. If they think the player will miss more than a few weeks, this is an option, described below.

Given the requirements for a player returning to practice, this 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. Last year, Jimmie Ward opened training camp on the Active/PUP list, but was removed before the end of camp. The last time a 49ers player opened the season on Reserve/PUP was three years ago with Daniel Kilgore.

A player moved to Reserve/PUP is 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. This means that teams can effectively hold a player on PUP until Week 15. At that point, they either have to place him on injured reserve, activate him to the 53-man roster, or release him.

This year, the team has several candidates for the PUP list. Richard Sherman is the most notable, coming off a torn Achilles last season. He was practicing in mandatory minicamp at the end of the offseason workout program, but odds are decent he opens on PUP. He could come off the list within a day or two, but if the 49ers play it extra cautious, they’ll place him on the list just in case.

Jonathan Cooper, Brock Coyle, and Trent Taylor will all be worth watching as well, having sat out the offseason workout program. In January, Cooper had surgery on an MCL tear, and Coyle had surgery on a torn labrum. Taylor had back surgery this offseason, and while it was described as cleaning up bone spurs, it will be something to watch at the start of camp.

Safeties Don Jones and Chanceller James both tore their ACL last year during training camp. They should be good to go, but like with Sherman, the team might play this extra cautious. We’ll find out for sure on Wednesday or Thursday.

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, 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. Alternatively that year, Ian Williams was immediately placed on Reserve/NFI to start training camp that year. He had an assortment of ankle issues and he was later released from the NFI list.

A few years ago, as an example, the 49ers placed Aldon Smith on the NFI list during the regular season 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” during Trent Baalke’s reign as general manager 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, fourth round pick Kentavius Street is the most obvious example for the NFI list. He suffered an ACL tear in April during a pre-draft workout. Barring a decision to release him, Street will spend the season on Reserve/NFI. Sixth round pick Marcell Harris tore his Achilles last summer prior to the start of his final college season. He should be on track to be ready for training camp, but again, the team will likely be cautious with him. If he does open camp on Active/NFI, he will likely be activated fairly quickly during camp.

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, and has since been changed so each team can return up to two players during the season. Additionally, teams originally had to declare a player as return eligible when placed on IR. They no longer have to declare a person eligible to return when they first go on IR. 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).

The 49ers used one of their two returns last season, bringing back defensive lineman Ronald Blair in Week 9. He suffered a thumb injury in the third preseason game. Once placed on IR, the 49ers were prohibited from activating him for at least eight weeks.

The NFL does not limit the number of players on the PUP or IR, but 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 often receive full pay for the season (some contracts include a split pay, where their salary is reduced if on IR), 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 IR return rule.

A player on injured reserve 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 IR. 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.

Kentavius Street is all but certain to spend the season on the NFI list. His contract will expire after the 2021 season, but barring him remaining on the NFI list through next year as well (or otherwise ending up on it later during his rookie contract), he will be a restricted free agent after the 2021 season.

Looking ahead

The 49ers will use one or more of their injury lists when they report on Wednesday. Kentavius Street will open on the NFI list, and Marcell Harris could join him. Richard Sherman, Chanceller James, and Don Jones are all candidates for the PUP list. And a we saw with Jimmie Ward last season, unexpected injuries could pop up during Wednesday’s physicals and conditioning tests.

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.