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2021 NFL rules: Refresher on how the waiver wire works

An explainer of how the NFL’s waiver wire process works.

Detroit Lions Off-Season Workout Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

As we wait for the Detroit Lions to make their initial cuts down to a 53-man roster by the 4 p.m. ET deadline on Tuesday, I felt this was a good moment to refresh NFL fans on how the NFL waiver wire system works. For Lions fans, this is going to be pretty important this time of year, because head coach Dan Campbell said general manager Brad Holmes will be active in keeping an eye on the wire, hoping to add more talent to Detroit’s thin roster.

“Brad and his crew, man, they’re scouring the transactions and looking for everything that could or couldn’t be and any way that we can upgrade our roster that we think is going to help us, now and long-term, we’re looking for it,” Campbell said on Monday.

So what is the waiver wire? How does it work? How does it change during the regular season? Let’s break it down.

Waive vs. release

A lot of times you’ll see news outlets—and even NFL teams—use the terms “waive” and “release” interchangeably, but they are not the same thing.

When a team cuts a player, they either waive or release them. A player who has less than four years of accrued seasons in the NFL is waived. A player with four or more accrued seasons is released.

Note: An accrued season, in the simplest terms, is a year in which a player spends at least six weeks on a team’s 53-man roster. There are other stipulations, but let’s keep it simple.

When a player is waived, their contract is not yet terminated. Instead, they go on the waiver wire, where teams can put in a claim for them. If a team claims them, then he joins the new team on his current contract. If no team claims him in a designated period (usually by noon of the next day), his contract is terminated and he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

If a player is released, their contract is terminated and they are free to sign anywhere immediately.

To illustrate this, look at the Lions’ roster cuts on Monday.

Breshad Perriman, who has five accrued seasons, was released. All of the other eight cuts were waived because none had more than three accrued seasons in the NFL.


When a team waives a player with an injury designation, it lets the rest of the league know that this player is currently suffering from an injury. He still goes through the same waiver wire process, allowing another team to potentially claim him. However, if he goes unclaimed, he reverts back to the original team’s Injured Reserved list. From there, the original team can either choose to keep him there or release him outright with an injury settlement.

How does the waiver wire work?

When a player is on waivers, any team can place a “claim” on them if they want to add him to their 53-man roster. The team with the highest waiver wire priority acquires them and has to make a corresponding move to fit him on their 53-man roster.

Who has the highest waiver wire priority?

Throughout the offseason, waive wire priority is determined by draft order (prior to trades). So for the 2021 offseason, the Lions had the seventh-highest priority.

HOWEVER, waiver wire priority changes in the season. After Week 3 of the regular season, waiver-wire priority matches the current NFL standings. So teams with the worst record will have the highest priority.

After the trade deadline...

When the trade deadline passes—which is November 2 in 2021—every player that is cut must go through waivers, even veterans with more than four years of experience.

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