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NFL: What’s the difference between cutting, waiving and releasing?

As teams in the National Football League progress through this 2023 season, we look at the ways in which they can trim the players. Shaquille Leonard has been waived by the Colts.

NFL teams have several ways to reduce the number of players on their active roster — from cuts to trades to injury and other reserve lists.

“Cutting” a player is when a team chooses to part ways with a player. But there is more subtlety to it through the difference between getting waived and getting released.

After 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, while a so-called vested veteran, or a player with four or more accrued seasons, is released. An ‘accrued season’ simply refers to the year a player spends at least six weeks on a team’s 53-man roster.Let’s get in more detail about waiving vs releasing.

Waiving vs Releasing in the NFL

When a player is waived, it means that their contract is not yet terminated, but rather that they are on a “waiver wire” that makes them available to be “claimed” by other teams.

If another team claims the player, then he joins that team with the same conditions of his current contract. On the other hand, if no team claims him in a certain period of time, stereotypically by midday the next day, his contract is terminated and he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Waiving” an injured player is basically informing the league about that player’s injury. The player then goes through the same “waiver wire” above, and undergoes one of two options: a certain team puts in a claim for him, or no team claims him. When he’s not claimed, he reverts back to his original team’s injury reserve list. And then his team decides whether to “maintain” him or “release” him directly with an injury settlement.

Meanwhile, if a player is “released”, their contract is terminated effective immediately and they are free to sign with any team they want from that point on.

The four years of service time in the NFL, or the “vet life,” like Cowboys’ Jaylon Smith likes to call it, is the key to the process. Once that rookie deal is over, a player has the freedom to sign with any team he chooses.

What is the Waiver Wire?

The “waiver wire” is the system that allows all NFL teams to sign young players, or in other words, the time period a player is placed on waivers until they go unclaimed.

“The waiver period runs from the first business day after the Super Bowl through the end of the NFL’s regular season. Except in rare incidents, the waiver period lasts 24 hours and all waivers are categorized as “no recall” and “no withdrawal,” which means once a club waives a player, it cannot take the player back or change the player’s status,” as per the NFL.

The waiver system is based on priority, so teams have an ordered chance to claim a player or “waive” them.

When the trade deadline ends, every player that is cut is required to go through waivers with no exceptions.