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How waivers work for the Jets and other NFL teams on cutdown day

New York Jets Training Camp Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Over the next few days as teams trim their rosters, you will likely hear a lot about players being waived or waiver claims being put in. Let’s talk about what this means.

Players with four or more years of NFL experience instantly become free agents once their team releases them. Their contract is gone. They are free to sign a new contract with any team.

That isn’t the case with players who have less than four years in the NFL. They enter the waiver process. After their team lets them go, the other 31 teams all have a chance to claim them.

If a player is claimed, the claiming team gets the player and assumes his existing contract.

If more than one team claims a player, he is awarded to the team with the higher waiver priority. That is currently based on the order from the first round of this year’s NFL Draft so the Jets currently have the second priority. That means the Jets will get anybody they claim unless that player is also claimed by Jacksonville.

This is not like your fantasy football league. Once a team claims one player, that team does not revert to the back of the line in the priority process. The priority order will remain the Draft order until a few weeks into the season when it will be based on the standings. The point of this process is to help bad teams improve and help find players optimal homes. It’s generally easier to a waived player to find a spot on a bad team than a good one.

If nobody claims a waived player, then he becomes a free agent. His contract is gone, and he is free to sign a new one with other teams. He also becomes eligible to sign onto a practice squad. Thus you can see why completing the waiver process is important to filling out a practice squad. Most players on practice squads are young and need to clear waivers to get there.

How much can the Jets improve through the waiver process? My guess is a little bit but not appreciably. There are definitely rosters where the 54th best player is better than the 53rd best player on the Jets. Still these are players who weren’t good enough to make their own team. There are always exceptions, but the waiver process when done well is usually a tool that improves depth rather than addressing major needs.

Last year the Jets did not claim any players off waivers on cutdown day, which was somewhat surprising given the lack of talent and depth on their roster. The strict protocols for onboarding players during the pandemic might have played a role. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Jets add players this year through waivers on cutdown day.