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NFL PUP, Injured Reserve And NFI Designations: Cowboys Must Use Them Wisely

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We review the different injury designations available to the Cowboys as we fast approach roster cut dates.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The official Cowboys roster shows the following players with specific injury designations that are keeping them off the active roster:

Reserve/Injured: Sean Lee
Active/Non-Football Injury: Amobi Okoye
Active/Physically Unable to Perform: Anthony Spencer
Reserve/Non-Football Illness: Chris Whaley

Additionally, DeMarcus Lawrence is out for the first few weeks with a foot injury, and Matt Johnson may be facing a third year on injured reserve. With all of these different injuries and different designations, it's important to understand what the options are for the Cowboys as we fast approach roster cuts. The Cowboys have to trim their roster to 75 players next Tuesday, and further reduce it to 53 players by 4:00 pm ET Saturday next week.

Physically Unable To Perform (PUP) List

There are two types of Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) lists. One is the Active/PUP, the other is the Reserve/PUP.

The Active/PUP is only used in the preseason. The Active/PUP designation is used for players who are unable to start training camp. Once these players are medically cleared, they can immediately join team practices.

Anthony Spencer, who is coming off microfracture surgery sustained while playing football last year, is on the Active/PUP list. Once he is medically cleared, he can re-join team practices at any time. Spencer has been with the team throughout OTAs and training camp, and while he most recently has been working out with trainers on the sidelines, he has not participated in an official practice, so he remains on the Active/PUP for now.

The Reserve/PUP is the regular season equivalent of the Active/PUP, but with slightly different rules. A player on the Active/PUP list automatically moves to Reserve/PUP at the end of training camp, provided he hasn't practiced with the team. Once a player moves off the Active/PUP list during camp and starts practicing, he is automatically ineligible for Reserve/PUP.

Complicating things is the fact that once a player is moved to Reserve/PUP, he is automatically excluded from practicing or playing with the team for the first six weeks of the season. If Spencer were to be moved to Reserve/PUP, he wouldn't be allowed to practice with the team for at least the first six weeks of the season. Every player, even a player of Spencer's caliber, needs practice time to be effective in an NFL game. If Spencer isn't able to practice with the team until after Week 6, that would probably push his return to action to around Week 10 (putting him on the active roster to start the season could potentially see him return much earlier).

The benefit of placing a player on Reserve/PUP is that the player won't count against the 53-man roster limit. Teams have a six-week window (day after Week 6 to day after Week 11) during which the player can return to practice. If the player is not ready by then, the player either has to be released or moved to season-ending IR. Once a player returns to practice, teams have an extra three-week window before they have to activate the player to the 53-man roster (or release or IR him).

Non-Football Injury (NFI) List

The NFI list is largely similar to the PUP List, except this is for players who suffered their injuries unrelated to football (i.e. away from NFL team activities). Ironically, despite its name, the NFI also covers injuries sustained during activities such as college football. But you can't just put anybody on the NFI. The NFL requires players on the NFI List to have suffered a major injury (an injury that keeps a player out of practice for at least six weeks from the date of the injury).

The Active/NFI designation means players can return to practice at any time once medically cleared. For the Cowboys, this applies to Amobi Okoye, who is recovering from a medical condition unrelated to his previous stint in the NFL. Okoye was cleared to return to practice a week ago, but (to my knowledge) hasn't practiced with the team yet. Once he does, he loses his NFI designation.

The Reserve/NFI designation is applied to players who will not return to the active roster during the current season. DT Chris Whaley falls into that category for the Cowboys. Whaley suffered a knee injury last year in college that will keep him out of football this year.

For both the PUP and the NFI lists, "active" designates a player who counts against the NFL roster limits, "Reserve" designates a player who doesn't count against a roster limit, be it the 90-man, 75-man, or the 53-man limit. However, regardless of active/reserve status, all players on PUP and NFI (and on injured reserve) count against a team's salary cap during the season

One key difference between NFI and PUP lists is that teams can withhold parts of the salary of players on NFI. This largely punitive and seldom-used option is available when a team feels it is not responsible for injuries suffered by players on their own time, but it is not as easy to implement as it may sound.

After Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg in 2008, the Giants tried to withhold a portion of his bonus. That attempt was ultimately denied by a special master, who ruled Burress' taking a gun into a night club didn't constitute a "willful" act to prevent himself from reporting for practice and games.

Last year, kicker Lawrence Tynes contracted a MRSA infection during Tampa Bay's training camp. By placing him on NFI instead of IR (even though Tynes likely contracted the infection on the Buc's facilities) Tynes was ineligible to receive 401k matching or annuity benefits and also was blocked from accruing a season of service towards his pension, both of which have significant financial ramifications. Tynes filed a grievance against the Bucs, the resolution of which is still pending.

Injured Reserve

Teams can place any number of players on injured reserve (technically: "reserve/injured list"). Any player placed on the IR list counts against the cap, but not against the roster limit. These players are ineligible to play again (for the same team) during the ongoing season. They may not practice with the team at any time, but can attend team meetings, and generally be around the team as much as they like.

Sean Lee is on season-ending IR, but took advantage of the ability to "be around the team" when he joined the team in Oxnard and took on a mentoring role for his fellow linebackers.

IR (designated for return)

Since 2012, teams are allowed to place one player on injured reserve that they can bring back to the active roster during the season. The player is not allowed to practice until after Week 6, and can only be activated to play after Week 8. If the designation is made during the season, the player cannot practice for six weeks and cannot be activated for eight weeks. During this time, the player doesn't count against the 53-man roster limit, but he does count against the cap.

Last year, the Cowboys placed defensive end Edgar Jones on injured reserve/designated to return in mid-October, which made him eligible to return in Week 15.

Suspended List

Players who have been suspended by the NFL are not eligible for PUP (unless they have a pre-existing injury situation that's keeping them out of practice). Suspended players are allowed to practice and play in preseason games, as Orlando Scandrick is currently doing. During final roster cuts, Scandrick will be moved to an inactive or reserve list and will not count against the 53-man roster limit.

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As the Cowboys reduce their roster, they must weigh their options carefully:

  • Placing Spencer on Reserve/PUP will keep him out of practice for at least six weeks, and probably keep him from playing for longer than that. If the Cowboys clear him for practice, he can practice with the team immediately, with the upside of potentially playing earlier than after Week 6. The downside of this option is that Spencer would take up one spot on the 53-man roster as he continues to recover.
  • While medically cleared, the Cowboys may choose to be extra careful with Amobi Okoye's return, and could well hold him out of practice long enough to let him enter the season on Active/NFI. The Cowboys would have until after Week 11 to see how much Okoye has progressed by then. Once they clear him for practice, they have three more weeks before they have to activate, cut, or IR Okoye. That decision needs to happen after Week 14 at the latest. In any case, the Cowboys need to decide whether they want to make Okoye the fourth defensive lineman (along with Spencer, Lawrence, and probably Terrell McClain) to enter the season without having played a single preseason snap. Sounds a bit risky, no?
  • DeMarcus Lawrence is also bit of a tricky case for the Cowboys. If they want to place him on IR designated for return, they'll have to wait until September 2 to do so. That means they'll have to carry him on their 53-man roster through final roster cuts on August 30, thus taking up a spot on their 53-man roster that will be unavailable for one of their down-roster guys. Also, with the IR/return designation, Lawrence wouldn't be eligible to return until after Week 8, which would put him on the extreme outer edge of his estimated 8-12 week recovery time.
  • Ben Gardner and Matt Johnson can be put on IR. Neither will take up a roster spot, but both will count against the cap. However, the potential upside of getting both back healthy next year far outweighs the relatively small cap charge they will incur.