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DeShawn Shead will start the season on the PUP list, but how long will he stay there?

What PUP means for both him and the team.

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Detroit Lions at Seattle Seahawks
DeShawn Shead amped up during the playoff win over Detroit.
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

The end of the preseason is just days away and roster cuts are due at 1 PM Seattle time Saturday. One player whose status for the start of the season is not in question is DeShawn Shead.

Shead tore his ACL in the playoff loss to the Atlanta Falcons, and then in late July it was reported that he had a follow up procedure on his knee to address a cartilage issue. Earlier this week Pete Carroll stated that Shead is not right around the corner, and is still a good deal of time away from coming back and joining the team, and this means Shead will undoubtedly be starting the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, leaving an intriguing question unanswered heading into the season.

Typically, PUP is pretty straightforward: The player starts the season on the PUP list and stays there through at least the sixth game of the season, at which time they become eligible to rejoin the team on the 53 man roster. And, if a player is not recovered enough by that point, the team has a few weeks to decide how to handle it, as the drop dead date for handling players on the PUP list is the eleventh game of the season. It is prior to the eleventh game of the season that a player on the PUP list must be moved either to injured reserve, which ends their season, or to the active roster.

While it may seem odd that this decision is required prior to the eleventh game of the season, there is a specific reason for that requirement: Players on the PUP list do not earn roster credit towards earning an accrued season, and accrued seasons are very important in the NFL, as it is through the accumulation of four accrued seasons that players earn the right to become free agents.

Shead currently has three accrued seasons, and needs a fourth season to become an unrestricted free agent next offseason, and in order to earn that fourth accrued season, he needs to be on either IR or the 53 man roster for at least six weeks. Players on IR and on the 53 man roster do earn credit towards an accrued season, which is why the CBA requires players be moved to one or the other prior to the eleventh game.

If this requirement did not exist, it would be completely acceptable for teams to wait until after the eleventh game of the season and activate a player from the PUP, putting him on the roster for the last five games of the season. That would then put the player in a position where he could play in those five games, but as he would not be on the roster for enough games to earn an accrued season, and thus his contract would toll, forcing him to play the following season under the exact same terms as the prior season.

This is similar to what happened to Josh Gordon in 2014.

Gordon was suspended for the first ten games of the 2014 season, was reinstated in time for game 11, but then after playing five games was suspended by the team for week 17 (game 16) and thus only logged five weeks on the Cleveland roster that season and did not earn an accrued season.

Unfortunately for Shead, a very similar situation played out early in his own career. Shead signed with the Hawks as an undrafted free agent in 2012, and spent all of 2012 and the majority of 2013 on the team’s practice squad. He was promoted from the practice squad to the active roster on November 27, prior to the twelfth game of the season. Had he been activated just a couple of weeks prior, in advance of the eleventh game of the season, he would have earned an accrued season that year. Now, it’s not as if the Hawks did this on purpose just to keep Shead from earning an accrued season, they did it in order to replace Walter Thurmond, who was suspended under the team’s substance abuse policy. (Author’s note: technically the team first signed Perrish Cox to fill Thurmond’s spot on the roster on 11/26, however, he was cut on 11/27 when Shead was promoted from the practice squad.)

In any case, what creates such an interesting question in the present situation with Shead is a specific clause buried deep within the CBA pertaining to players on the PUP in the last year of their contract. The two sentences of Article 20, Section 2 on page 128 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement read as follows:

Article 20, Section 2. Physically Unable to Perform: Any player placed on a Physically Unable to Perform list (“PUP”) will be paid his full Paragraph 5 salary while on such list. His contract will not be tolled for the period he is on PUP, except in the last year of his contract, when the player’s contract will be tolled if he is still physically unable to perform his football services as of the sixth regular season game.”

Reading that literally, if Shead is unable to pass a physical and be cleared medically before the Seahawks sixth game of the season on October 22 against the Giants, it is theoretically possible his contract will toll, and he would then be under contract to the Hawks for 2018 at the same terms as 2017.

Before everybody starts thinking Shead will be back with the team in 2018 on the same bargain contract, there are a couple of thing working in Shead’s favor. The first of these is the early bye week. The game against the Giants comes on the heels of the team’s bye week during week 6, meaning Shead has an extra week before needing to be physically able to perform his football services. Another thing working for Shead is the simple fact that in the past when situations such as this have come up, the Management Committee for the NFL has interpreted the CBA in favor of the player rather than the team, and has traditionally only tolled the player’s contract if the player remains out for the duration of the season. For Shead, that would mean needing to be physcially able to perform his football services prior to the Hawks eleventh game of the season against the Niners on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

That Sunday after Thanksgiving will be the deadline by which the team must either move Shead to the 53 man roster or place him on Injured Reserve. That is a full three months from now, and hopefully for Shead that will be plenty of time to complete his recovery from both the ACL and the cartilage repair, even in light of the fact that Pete stated it would be some time before he is ready to go.

Lastly, also working in Shead’s favor on this matter would be the precedent set by Jeremy Lane just a couple of years ago. When Lane suffered the gruesome arm and leg injuries in Super Bowl 49, he opened the 2015 season on the PUP, and stayed there until being activated on November 28, the day prior to the eleventh game of the season. Even though he was not physically able to perform his football services for the team as of the sixth game of the regular season - as required by the CBA - his contract did not toll and he was allowed to prepare to enter free agency before reaching agreement on his current four year contract extension on the day free agency began.

In addition, if Shead employs a quality agent, that agent may have taken this portion of the CBA into consideration and it is entirely possible there is specific language in Shead’s contract which takes this point into consideration. I have no idea on that either way, however, this specific clause in the CBA also helps to explain the option portion of the contracts signed by players like Kelvin Beachum and Russell Okung last offseason. By creating the option portion, they not only gave themselves upside when they bet on themselves, they also created a situation where they would be going into training camp coming off a major surgery and were not in the last year of their contract. Thus, even if Okung or Beachum had spent the first ten games of the 2016 season on the PUP list before being moved to IR without ever hitting the 53 man roster, both of them still would have been free agents by virtue of the combination of the fact that they were not in the last year of their contracts.

In contrast, because Sebastian Vollmer was in fact in the last year of his contract and did get placed on IR rather than the active roster, his contract tolled. That is why the Patriots cut him, rather than let him potentially remain on the PUP list again in 2017 and earn another $2.25M for sitting out another season.

This is just something to keep in mind for both Shead and Dion Jordan as we prepare for the 2017 season, and to file away in the back of your minds as Thanksgiving weekend begins to draw closer.