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Explaining how the NFL works, Part 4: Futures contracts

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

New Orleans Saints v Pittsburgh Steelers

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.

Next up is explaining Reserve/Futures contracts which occur from January to March. Much like the time period for these contracts, this will be short and sweet.

Futures contracts

Following the conclusion of an NFL regular season, there will be numerous announcements of a team signing players to a Reserve/Future contract (also referred to as a futures contract). As the word future indicates, this is a contract that does not count until later on.

At the conclusion of the regular season, players on the team’s 53-man roster remain there until the start of the next league year. There are times where players are released, often for salary cap purposes, ahead of the new league year and they become street free agents. This will be another upcoming topic. The focus for today is on the players who aren’t on a 53-man roster when the regular season concludes.

Whether a player is on the practice squad of a team whose season is over or simply a free agent, they are free to sign with any NFL team for the following year. But since rosters are locked when a team season is over, these players signed a type of contract, a Reserve/Future contract, where they do not count on the teams salary cap or roster count until the beginning of the league year. Once a player signs one of these contracts, the are on the NFL’s Reserve/Future List and they are not free to negotiate with other teams as they are under contract even though the league year has not kicked in. Teams can sign as many players to futures contracts as they choose as long as it does not put them over the 90-man limit that takes effect the first day of the new league year.

Where can a player sign?

When a player finishes the season on a practice squad, they are not obligated to the team once they finish the season. They may sign a Reserve/Future contract with any NFL team. So while a franchise cannot sign another player from another team’s practice squad to their own practice squad during the season, they can sign players from another team’s practice squad and sign them to a futures contract at the conclusion of the season.

While in many cases it is advantageous for a player to sign a futures contract, some players may wait until the free agency agency. This may make sense for a player who is a vested veteran but did not finish the year on a 53-man roster of a team, generally these type of players are better off finding their home early before teams have the opportunity to sign high-profile free agents when the league year begins.


Although there is no limitation to the contract a player can sign for a Reserve/Future contract, they are generally for the league minimum amount depending on the player’s credited seasons. While there is nothing stopping teams from including a signing bonus for a futures contract, they are more the exception than the rule.

In case you missed other parts of the series, they can be seen here: