You might hear that the Jets claimed a player off waivers from time to time. What does that mean?
It partially has to do with the amount of service time a player has in the NFL. Players with at least four accrued seasons in the NFL become free agents immediately when their team cuts them. They can sign a new contract for a new dollar amount with bonuses.
That isn’t the case for players with less than four accrued seasons. For them to become free agents, they need to clear waivers. At the point a team lets one of its players go, the other 31 teams are notified and generally have 24 hours to claim that player.
If a team claims the player, he goes to that team. The new team absorbs his contract from the old team.
What happens if more than one team claims a player? The league has a priority order. Essentially it is reversed from each team’s record. The worst team in the league has the top claim, the second worst team has the second claim, and so on.
During the offseason through Week 3 of the regular season, the order is determined by the NFL standings from the year before. After Week 3, the order is determined by the current NFL standings.
If no team claims a player, only then does he become a free agent and eligible to sign a new contract.
If you are looking for more concrete examples of how this weeks, think about recent Jets moves. Nick Mangold and Darrelle Revis automatically became free agents when the Jets cut them. They had over four accrued seasons.
If you want to go back to the 2015 season, Quinton Coples did not at the time the Jets let him go so he had to go through the waiver process. The Dolphins claimed Coples so he ended up as part of that team. They had to take Coples’ contract.
Other teams might have been willing to sign Coples for a cheaper deal if he cleared waivers and became a free agent, but they were not willing to take his then higher salary which would have come from claiming him.