|"Let's have that playbook, son."|
One way you might hear of a player parting ways with his team is that he is released and “placed on waivers.” Since this is a circumstance that happens a lot during the preseason and the early part of the regular season, I thought it would be a good time to explain what this means.
Being placed on waivers is another polite way of saying that a player’s been canned, but, generally, it only applies to players who have less than four years of experience in the NFL.* Usually a player is cut and placed on waivers because his services are no longer required, but it can also be done for strategic reasons, which I’ll explain later.
OK. How does it work?
When a player is on waivers, the other 31 teams have a chance to pick him up, or “claim” him. Since the player will still be under contract with his former team, the team that claims him will also be taking over the terms of that contract. During the offseason, teams have ten days to claim the player. During the season (which for these purposes actually starts with the beginning of training camp), the player is only on the “waiver wire” for 24 hours. Once a player “clears waivers,” he is considered an unrestricted free agent and any team can attempt to negotiate a new contract with him.
So, what if more than one team wants the player? Any team interested in a player on the waiver wire must submit a claim on that player. When multiple teams submit claims, priority is given to the team with the worst record from the previous season. This year, therefore, the Indianapolis Colts will have first dibs at players on the waiver wire; the New York Giants are last on the list.
The process is different (read: more complicated) for veterans with more than four years of experience. If a four-year veteran is released from his team before the trade deadline (which this year is October 30) then his contract is terminated and he is free to negotiate a new contract with any team. If he is released after October 30, he and his contract will enter the waiver system. Here’s where it gets complicated: if there is more than one year remaining on his contract, he won’t be obligated to play for his new team through the rest of the contract’s term. If the player’s contract had a “no-trade” clause, he has the option to declare himself an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. In other words, after the season is over, he can negotiate a new contract with any team, including his former employer. If his contract did not have a no-trade clause, he has to play for his new team one more year under that contract.
So, you said something about strategy?
A good example of using the waiver wire for strategic reasons is the recent case of former New York Giants tight end Jake Ballard (who, incidentally, was the first Player of the Day on Naptime Huddle’s Facebook page). Ballard suffered a torn ACL during the Giants’ Super Bowl victory against New England. Although they intended to stick with him through his recovery, the Giants placed Ballard on waivers over the summer. This is sometimes done by teams when a player isn’t expected to play for the entire season, or at least well into the season, to temporarily make roster space before training camp.
When they released Ballard, the Giants presumably expected to resign him after he cleared waivers then place him on injured reserve. However, New England, the 31st team in the waivers order (the Giants being the 32nd), snagged him. With New England already deep at the tight end position (with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez), and Ballard guaranteed to be unable to play for the near future,** was the move payback for the Super Bowl loss? Giants fans certainly believe so. Either way, Jake Ballard is now a Patriot.
*More precisely, this is four “credited seasons,” which is a term from the NFL Players Association retirement plan, as outlined in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. A player gets a “credited season” if he is paid for at least six regular season games. Note that he doesn’t have to play in those games; he could be on injured reserve or the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.
** Ballard is currently on the Pats’ “physically unable to perform” (PUP) list, so he is inactive for at least the first six weeks of season.