Detailed view of the NFL logo on the pitch after the NFL match between the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on October 13, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Burstow/Getty Images)
Week 4 is a big one for injured players in the National Football League, because it’s the first week that many of them are eligible to return under the new NFL injured reserve rules.
The 2020 season, and the unprecedented circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, essentially forced the league to modify the way teams stash injured players. After years of injured reserve typically ending a player’s season, the NFL changed the rules to allow teams to place teams on IR for just three weeks.
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That was a major change from 2019, the last time players had to sit out a minimum of eight weeks if placed on IR after being named to the 53-man roster. The Patriots had to do that with wide receiver N’Keal Harry in his rookie season.
Fast-forward to 2021, and Harry once again had to start the season on IR – but thanks to the new rules across the NFL, he was able to return to practice on Wednesday ahead of a Week 4 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Many other players across the league were eligible to return this week, too.
So, it’s a good time for a primer on the new NFL injured reserve rules that remained intact from 2020…
NFL IR Rules For 2021
Aug 19, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver N’Keal Harry (15) takes the field against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
As a procedural move, players who end up on short-term injured reserve need to first be named to the 53-man roster. That was the case for Harry with the Patriots.
Other notable wide receivers went through the same process, including the Colts’ T.Y. Hilton, the Ravens’ Rashod Bateman, and the Giants’ John Ross. This doesn’t guarantee that any of these players will return after the three-week minimum, but it allows them to return in less than eight weeks.
Once a player returns to practice from injured reserve, as Harry did on Wednesday in Foxborough, that does not mean he’s activated. It actually starts a 21-day “clock” for the team to activate the player. If he isn’t activated within the 21-day window, he reverts back to IR and has to stay there the rest of the season. There used to be a cap on the number of players who can return from IR during the season, but that number is now unlimited.
So, in the case of Harry and anyone else who returned to practice in Week 4, they could practice for another three weeks before officially being activated to the roster.
Long-Term Injured Reserve
Jul 28, 2021; Foxborough, MA, United States; New England Patriots linebacker Raekwon McMillan (46) during training camp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports
Any player who was placed on injured reserve during camp or the preseason, before final roster cutdowns, have to stay there for the entire season. That applies to Patriots tight ends Dalton Keene and Troy Fumagalli, and linebackers Raekwon McMillan and Anfernee Jennings.
Other notable players who had to go on season-ending IR include Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins, Jets defensive end Carl Lawson, and Jaguars running back Travis Etienne.
What About The PUP List?
Players who started the season on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) have to sit a minimum of six weeks. That’s the case for Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore, Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas, and Packers tackle David Bakhtiari, among others.
The same 21-day activation window applies for players who return from PUP.
For a handy list of NFL players on injured reserve, including the date they were placed on it, head to FootballDB.com.
Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff and follow him on Instagram @mattydsays. You can also email him at email@example.com.