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Navigating Cowboys Roster Designations: PUP, Injured Reserve And NFI Designations

We review the different injury designations available to the Cowboys as we enter the second week of camp.

Rick Yeatts/Getty Images

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

Active/Non-Football Injury: Mark Nzeocha
Active/Physically Unable to Perform: Rolando McClain, Darren McFadden, Chaz Green

Additionally, the Cowboys have the option of using the Reserve/Injured designation, which they did for Sean Lee at this time last year, and can also use the Reserve/Non-Football Illness designation, which they used for Chris Whaley last year.

Those designations will become an important roster management tool as the Cowboys start trimming their roster. The Cowboys have to reduce their roster to 75 players on September 1st and and further reduce it to 53 players by September 5. So here's a rundown of the different designations:

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.

Rolando McClain and Chaz Green, who are both coming off surgeries, are on the Active/PUP list.Darren McFadden, who is recovering from a hamstring injury suffered prior to camp, is on the list as well. Once they are medically cleared, all three can re-join team practices at any time.

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 Chaz Green for example 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.

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 NFL 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 Mark Nzeocha, who is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in college. Nzeocha has been working out with the trainers at camp, but 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. Typically, this would be applied to rookies who enter the league with a pre-existing injury and have the equivalent of a red-shirt season. But it could also be applied to players who suffer an injury while handling a gun in a nightclub or playing with fireworks, to use just two random examples.

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.

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 for example was placed on season-ending IR after his ACL injury on the first day of OTAs last year, but took advantage of the ability to "be around the team" in training camp and throughout the season, when he 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 DeMarcus Lawrence on injured reserve/designated to return at the start of the season, which made him eligible to return in Week 9, which he did. The Texans Arian Foster is expected to receive the designation this year while he recovers from groin surgery

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 Rolando McClain (once healthy) and Greg Hardy are expected to. During final roster cuts, both McClain and Hardy will be moved to an inactive or reserve list and will not count against the 53-man roster limit.


You'll notice that I used a lot of examples from last year's roster above. And that's a good thing, because it means that I don't have many injury examples from this year to make my points.

The Cowboys had their sixth official practice yesterday, and as heading into the afternoon practice, only four players were not participating (R. McClain, McFadden, Green, Nzeocha). Here's a summary of the players who were out due to various injuries after the sixth practice last year:

POS Player Injury Status per 7/30/14
Last Full Practice in 2014
DE DeMarcus Lawrence Ankle TBD July 28
LB Rolando McClain Illness Day-to-day July 27
OT Darius Morris Hamstring Day-to-day July 26
LB Will Smith Groin Day-to-day July 26
DE Ben Gardner Shoulder Day-to-day July 25
S Matt Johnson Hamstring Out "about a week" July 26
DT Terrell McClain Ankle Out "about a week" July 26
LG Ron Leary Hamstring Out "about a week" N/A
DT Amobi Okoye Illness Out indefinitely N/A
DE Anthony Spencer Knee Out indefinitely N/A
LB Sean Lee Knee IR N/A

With a little bit of luck, the Cowboys will continue to stay below last year's injury totals, and that may make a lot of those injury designations I described above moot. And that would be a good thing.

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