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How do waivers work in the NFL? What does it mean for a player to be on a waiver?

A look at some of the terminology used in the market place of the NFL

How do waivers work in the NFL? What does it mean for a player to be on a waiver?

In the 2021 NFL season we have heard much talk about waivers but just how do they work? What's the difference between the term and 'release' and do they change during the regular season? Let us take you through the various terms and definitions.

Waive vs. release

In many cases you will notice that various news broadcasts or publications as well as the NFL themselves, interchange between the terms “waive” and “release.” It is important to note, however, that they are most definitely not the same thing. When an NFL team cuts a player, he is either waived or released. A player who has accrued less than four years worth of seasons in the NFL is waived. On the other hand a player with four or more accrued seasons is released. As for what an 'accrued season' means, in its simplest form it refers to a year in which a player spends at least six weeks on a team’s 53-man roster.

For more from the NFL

When a player is waived, their contract is not yet terminated. In actuality they go on the 'waiver wire,' making them available to be 'claimed' by other teams. If another team does in fact claim the player then he joins said team with the conditions of his current contract. If no team claims him in a designated period - stereotypically by midday the next day - his contract is terminated and he becomes an unrestricted free agent. If a player is released, their contract is terminated effective immediately and they to sign with any team they like from that point on.

To see an example of this, have a look at the tweet below. In it we can see that Breshad Perriman, who accrued five seasons, was released. In contrast the other eight cuts were waived because none had accrued more than three seasons in the NFL.

How does the waiver wire work?

When a player is on waivers, any team can “claim” them if they wish to add him to their roster. The team with the highest waiver wire priority acquires the player and then subsequently is tasked with integrating the player into their 53-man roster.


When an NFL team waives a player who is injured, it's essentially informing the league that the player is currently suffering from an injury. He will of course pass through the same waiver wire process that was mentioned above, meaning any team can put in a claim for him, however, should he not be claimed, he reverts back to the original team’s injury reserve list. At that point, the original team can either choose to maintain him or release him directly with an injury settlement.

Who has the highest waiver wire priority?

During the offseason, waive wire priority is determined by draft order - prior to trades. We can once again use the Detroit Lions to illustrate an example in the 2021 NFL season. The Lions had the seventh-highest priority. It should be noted though, that waiver wire priority changes during the season.

After Week 3 of the regular season, waiver-wire priority corresponds directly to the current NFL standings. So teams with a worse record will logically have the higher priority.

What happens after the trade deadline?

When the trade deadline ends, every player that is cut must go through waivers with no exceptions. That is to say that the process even applies to veterans with more than four years of experience in the league.


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