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Explaining the ‘failed physical’ designation and what it means for the Detroit Lions

Looking into one of the lesser-known stipulations of the CBA.

Houston Texans v Detroit Lions Photo by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Detroit Lions raised a few eyebrows this week with the releases of offensive lineman Joe Dahl and defensive tackle Danny Shelton. While neither cut was particularly unexpected, on the NFL’s official list of transactions both releases were given the “failed physical” designation, leading many to ask: “What the hell does that mean?”

So I took a deep dive into the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement to see why those players were given those designations (other than failing physicals), what it could mean for the Detroit Lions’ 2021 salary cap, and why this stipulation is necessary.

If you just want to know what it means for the Lions, skip to the end. I won’t blame you. It gets a bit tedious. But if you want to know more about the CBA and don’t mind getting your hands dirty, meet me at Article 45 of the CBA.

Injury Protection Benefits

Article 45 of the CBA is all about financial protection for the players in case of injury. The primary focus of this section is the Injury Protection Benefit, which was dramatically increased in the post-lockout 2011 CBA. The benefit is intended to ensure that players who sustain major injuries retain some income if they are subsequently released and cannot get a new contract the following season with any team.

Who qualifies for Injury Protection Benefits?

The CBA lists four qualifications necessary to be eligible for these benefits. All four qualifications must be met.

1. The player missed either part of, or the entire, final game of his previous season due to “a severe football injury” OR underwent team-authorized surgery in the offseason.

For the Lions, Danny Shelton underwent tricep surgery in January. Meanwhile, Joe Dahl missed the finale with a back injury. Check.

2. The player went through “reasonable and customary” rehabilitation treatment as required by the team.

3. The player fails a physical on or before August 1 following the season of injury. Note that there is strong language in this Article that requires the team to administer a physical exam to determine benefit eligibility if it is called for. It is not optional.

4. The player does not sign a new contract with a new club in the year following the injury.

Both Shelton and Dahl meet the first three qualifications, but that fourth one is yet to be determined. We’ll get back to that in a second.

After each season is over, the NFL provides the NFLPA a list of players potentially eligible for these benefits by February 15 for non-playoff teams and March 1 for playoff teams.

What are these benefits?

If a player meets all of these qualifications, they will receive 100 percent of their salary for the season following the injury up to $2 million, but no compensation for years after that.

For Shelton, his 2021 salary was due to be $4 million. For Dahl, it was $2.675 million. So both would be due to make $2 million.

The good news for the Lions is that they wouldn’t have the full $2 million added to their salary cap. Only the first $1.2 million of Injury Protection Benefits will be charged to the team’s salary cap, the rest are considered “Player Benefit Costs.”

Okay, so what does it mean for the Lions?

As it pertains to their salary cap right now, nothing. The moves still immediately clear out the expected cap relief of $4 million for the release of Shelton and $2.875 million for Dahl.

However, if either player ends up out of football for 2021 due to the injury (qualifier No. 4 above) and files for the Injury Protection Benefit by October 15, it could mean $1.2 million is added to Detroit’s cap for each player that filed. This is one of many reasons why teams carry cap space into the season.

Hat tip to PFF’s Brad Spielberger for offering some personal clarifications on the CBA.