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Explaining how the NFL works, Part 1: Accrued seasons

Let’s examine the process of some of the inner workings in the NFL and how teams manage the situations.

Dallas Cowboys v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Whether it’s when the NFL is in the full swing of its regular season or if it’s during the downtime of the early summer, there still is constant news and happenings with the league that has made itself relevant 365 days a year. When various things are discussed, sometimes there are terminologies and procedures where fans might have a general understanding of things. Even the most die-hard fans may have certain areas they don’t understand exactly what various things mean and wish to have a better understanding.

Over the next few weeks, I will take some time to do my best in thoroughly explaining some of the various inner workings of things in the NFL. These are not on-field items but more from an administrative standpoint. Whether it be understanding the waiver wire, the Reserve/Injured List, or the breakdown of the practice squad, we’ll take a look at some of the various terms that are thrown around and utilized in descriptions of things in the NFL but may not be fully understood.

Although it is not the most exciting place to start, one piece of terminology that needs to be defined because it is used in so many other places is what determines an accrued season for a player in the NFL. Additionally, there are actually two different terms used which are not interchangeable as there is a difference between an accrued season and a credited season as well as what determiners if a player is a vested player.

Accrued seasons

When it comes to determining how many years a player has under their belt in the NFL, the most common term used is a player’s accrued seasons. This is the general item used as it is what determines a player's free agency status once their contract expires. The number of accrued seasons dictates if they are an exclusive rights free agent, a restricted free agent, or an unrestricted free agent based on their total.

In order for a player to have an accrued season, they must be on a team’s roster, Reserve/Injured List (IR), or Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) List for a minimum of six games in a season. It does not matter if the games are in the regular season or postseason. Additionally, a player does not have to be active on game day as players on the inactive list still get a game credited towards gaining an accrued season.

I will use an example of two wide receivers on the Steelers 2023 offseason roster that have the same number of accrued seasons but are in different situations. Calvin Austin III has one arcrued season and is deemed to be entering his second year. Drafted in 2022, Austin spent the entire season on IR. But by being on this list, he gained an accrued season in the NFL. Cody White is a player who has spent three years in the NFL but has one accrued season. In 2020, White bounced around before the season with the Kansas City Chiefs, New York Giants, and Denver Broncos. Landing on the Steelers practice squad for all of 2020, he did not gain an accrued season. In 2021, White was on the Steelers roster and appeared in 15 games which gave him one accrued season. In 2022, Cody White was on the Steelers practice squad and only appeared in one game. Therefore both White and Austin are deemed to be entering their second NFL season, assuming they would gain an accrued season this year.

So when is a player not getting an accrued season? As mentioned above, when a player is on the practice squad they are not acquiring games towards an accrued season. Additionally, if a player is on the Non-Football Injury List then games do not count towards being accrued.

One final example with the Pittsburgh Steelers was when Le’Veon Bell held out the entire year in 2018 and did not play a second season under the franchise tag. One of the downfalls for Bell was that he did not gain an accrued season.

Credited seasons

Different from an accrued season, a player gets a credited season if they meet the same criteria of being on the 53 man roster, IR, or PUP list but only for a total of three or more games in the regular season or postseason. Additionally, if a player was released with an injury settlement that carries the equivalent of three or more regular season games, they get a credited season. A credited season comes into play for players for a variety of reasons, but is mainly used when it comes to their pay and other things offered as player benefits with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). A players pension, health insurance, and other benefits are based on credited seasons.

Vested veterans

There are actually two different systems when it comes to being “vested” in the NFL. In terms of the NFLPA and their benefits, a player becomes vested once they have earned three or more credited seasons and can receive the appropriate benefits. For other things that will be covered in the series, to become a vested veteran a player needs four accrued seasons which can come into play in various situations. Typically when a player is said to be a vested veteran, it is in reference to having four accrued seasons. This will be important in Part 2 of the series when we discuss the waiver wire.

Be on the lookout for additional stories in the “Explaining how the NFL works” series.