Why NFL Teams Cut Veterans the Day Before the Opening Game

Since I had a few questions about the Chiefs cutting of CJ Spiller two times this week I thought it was easier to do a small post on this here rather than replying on twitter to a number of people with essentially the same question. Now this is not to imply that the Chiefs are definitely doing this with Spiller its just to discuss the strategy that is somewhat common in the NFL regarding such moves.

Spiller is at the stage of his career where he is signed to a minimum salary contract. Generally such players have some interest around the NFL, but it’s minimal compared to a player earning millions a year. Often these players are considered expendable and are not always in a team’s gameplan week after week.  They generally hold a spot that is somewhere between 40 and 53 on the roster, which means that they are not expected to be a firm contributor all year. Sometimes they become starters with big seasons, but the odds are they won’t reach that level.

Because they are not always needed, carrying the player on a roster is almost like having a dead weight for a given week and working with 52 instead of 53 players.  Some of these players also are going to disappoint and you want to be able to be free of the player. Think of them like younger players in the NFL who bounce back and forth between the active roster and the practice squad multiple times in a year.

The big difference between the two situations comes from a small rule in the CBA called termination pay. Termination pay is the technical term for the “contract becomes guaranteed at the start of the season” talk that always takes place in the summer. Termination pay only applies to veterans and protects their entire salary in the event they are cut during the season. Since teams don’t like paying people money to not play this is not an ideal situation for players that are on the bubble.

The big disclaimer though is it only protects the entire salary if they are on the 53 man roster for the first game.  The deadline for that is 4PM today for the Thursday game and then 4PM Saturday for everyone else. If the player is not on the roster for the game he only earns a partial guarantee that is equal to 25% of his salary, which is basically 4 weeks of pay.

So to retain flexibility in their roster during the year teams will often cut these player if they are not expected to play a big role in the first game.  After the first game is over the team re-signs them to the same contract but is only on the hook for 25% of the future salary. The team makes good to the player in this situation by carrying him past the Tuesday pay deadline (all players on the roster 4PM on Tuesday earn a weeks pay) so he earns his gamecheck and he doesn’t look for employment elsewhere. Spiller also gets to work with the team which would not happen had be cut earlier since he is not eligible to also join the practice squad.

So that covers this release, but what about the first release?  Teams have to get down to 53 players and sometimes they don’t want to expose certain players to waivers during that time. Its often easier to move guys through waivers after that initial wave of cuts onto your practice squad rather than that first day. If you wait until Monday to cut the player a waiver claim to another team also requires the team to pay the player for the week for what may just be a look at the guy.

So in this case “cutting” a player like Spiller gets you down to the mandatory 53 man limit and knowing you wont lose him since he isn’t exposed to waivers and that he is not signing elsewhere. While the latter is not 100% guaranteed the odds are strongly against a strong offer coming in since Spiller was cut multiple times last year and he signed with the Chiefs for the minimum when any other team could have offered him that same contract. As things turned out the Chiefs moved a player to IR and didn’t need to waive anyone to bring back Spiller.

If Spiller comes back is he safe next week?  Not exactly. They can continue to do this as long as they want. Even though 25% of his contract would be guaranteed as long as they don’t miss a week’s salary the clock doesn’t start over. So he could be cut every Saturday and re-signed the next week for roster management purposes without incurring extra guaranteed charges.

So that’s all these moves usually are. Its just strategy from a team to optimize the amount of players that they can have on the roster all season long.

If you are interested in learning more about the rules of the CBA and NFL contracts please check out my book Crunching Numbers if you have not done so already.