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Explaining how the NFL works, Part 14: The Reserve/Injured List

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

Carolina Panthers v Philadelphia Eagles 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.

Next up is looking at the much more complex Reserve/Injured List (IR).

IR in the preseason

Since teams used to take players they weren’t able to keep on the roster but didn’t want to lose and place them on IR, there is a different set of rules for when a player is injured in the preseason. A veteran player can go directly onto the Reserve/Injured List, but a player who is not a vested veteran (see Part 1) must go on waivers (see Part 2). Every other NFL team would then have the opportunity to claim the player knowing they are injured. If the player goes unclaimed, they move on to the next stage of the process.

Any player who goes on the Reserve/Injured List before the roster is cut to 53 players cannot return to the active roster with one exception which will be discussed later.

Injury settlements

The next phase for a player who is not claimed after being Waived/Injured, they have five days to reach an injury settlement with the team. Injury settlement keeps the player from going on IR for the rest of the season. If a player and the team come to an injury settlement, a player is released and compensated for the amount of time agreed upon by both parties in which the injury would keep the player from being able to perform their NFL duties. The player is then free to sign with any team at that point but may not sign back with the original team until the length of the injury settlement has concluded as well as an additional three weeks.

The typical structure of an injury settlement would be to pay the player the portion of their base salary they would be paid weekly times the number of weeks agreed upon for the injury. For example, if the two parties decide the injury would take six weeks to recover, a player would be paid 6/18ths of their base salary.

If the two parties do not agree on an injury settlement, then the player goes on IR for the remainder of the season. In either case, the amount of salary paid to the player either from an injury settlement or from being on IR counts against the team’s salary cap for that season.

Designated to return

Once a player has been added to the team’s 53-man roster to start the season, they can be placed on IR and not have it end their season. Once a player has been placed on IR after being on the 53-man roster, they must miss at least four games before they would be eligible to return.

As the NFL has adjusted exactly how the designated to return rules are applied, the following were the rules for the 2022 season. Teams do not have to designate which players can return from IR at the time they are placed on the list as they did many years ago. A team may designate players to return from IR up to eight times in the season. With a smaller window of only missing four games, this means a player can go on IR and be designated to return twice in the season, but both cases count towards the eight total allowed.

The 21-day window

Once a player has missed the required four games in order to return from IR, they may begin practicing again when the team chooses. Once the player begins to practice, they have a 21-day window in which to be designated to return. Even when they are practicing, the player is still technically on IR and does not count towards the team’s 53-man roster.

A player may be designated to return to the 53-man roster at any point during their 21-day window. If the player is not returned to the roster at the end of the window, they remain on IR and must stay there for the remainder of the season. This is what happened in 2022 with rookie wide receiver Calvin Austin III.

The 21-day window can also be utilized when a player is returning from PUP (Part 12) or NFI (Part 13).

Passing a physical

There can sometimes be a circumstance where a player believes they are ready to return from injury but was placed on season-ending IR. If the player passes a physical, they can agree with the team to be released and would be free to sign with any new team and immediately participate in games. This practice is more common when a player is on a split salary and playing for the season is more financially beneficial.


As previously discussed in the minimum salary article (Part 5), players receive their full salary while on IR. The only difference is if the player has a split contract which changes their minimum salary in the case they are injured.

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