What is the PUP List? Injuries, IR & Other Designations (Fantasy Football)

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By the time you’re reading this article, all 32 NFL franchises will have officially begun training camp for the 2021 season, and with training camp comes injuries – Injuries that are sure to affect your fantasy football team. As a result, understanding injury designations can be helpful in making you a more knowledgeable fantasy player. Let’s take a look at what the PUP list means, how the injured reserve works in the NFL, and then dive into a detailed look at questionable and doubtful tags for in season injuries.

Worried about injured players? Check out the Injury Report section of the 2021 Ultimate Draft Kit.

The Physically Unable to Perform List

PUP stands for ‘Physically Unable to Perform.’ In the football world, you will commonly hear people refer to the acronym more often, hearing things like “Michael Thomas may start the season on the PUP after having ankle surgery in June,” or “Blake Jarwin was able to avoid the PUP list to start training camp coming off his torn ACL from last season.” Okay, great so you know your player is on some list of injured players, but is he participating in training camp? When can I expect him back?

The PUP has different rules during training camp and during the regular season. During training camp, players can be placed on the PUP for football-related injuries at any time without penalty. Teams can move the player to the active roster as soon as he is able to participate. Because this allows for greater flexibility on the roster, you will often see teams utilizing the PUP more freely. As soon as these players are healthy, they are activated to the roster and they can be treated like any other player on the roster.

Notable Players Starting Training Camp on PUP List:

Notable Players Who Were Able to Avoid the PUP List:

After the preseason ends, the PUP operates a bit differently. If a player is placed on the PUP entering the season, he is required to sit out for a minimum of six weeks. At that point, teams have an additional five weeks where they can decide whether or not to allow the player to begin practicing. Once a player begins practicing, teams then have 21 days to decide whether or not they will activate the player to the 53-man active roster. If the player does not begin practicing within five weeks, or they are not activated to the 53-man roster within 21 days after they begin practicing, he will have to remain on the PUP list for the rest of the season.

As of now, Michael Thomas is the biggest fantasy football name who is expected to start the regular season on the PUP list, suggesting his earliest possible return in 2021 is Week 7 against the Seahawks on Monday Night Football.

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Injured Reserve

A second commonly used injury designation is the Injured Reserve list, or the IR. Over the last several years, there used to be two types of IR. The first type of IR was used for players who are done for the year due to injury. Once placed on IR, the player is ineligible to return for the rest of the season, so it’s common to see players placed on IR after season-ending injuries like ACL tears. Each team was also allowed to use the ‘IR/Designated for Return’ tag on three players each season after they spent a minimum of eight weeks on IR. As the name implies, this player is eligible to return within the season.

Last season, which was played during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, the NFL changed its rules regarding injured reserve. The league did away with the limited number of IR/Designated for Return tags and decided to make this injury designation unlimited. Under the new league rules, players who land on IR are now eligible to return to the field after three weeks as opposed to eight weeks. Once a team activates a player from injured reserve, it has 21 days to return that player to the active roster.

In addition to the ‘normal’ IR for players dealing with injury, the NFL implemented the Covid-IR list in 2020 for players testing positive for coronavirus or those that were considered close contacts to those who have tested positive for the virus. The NFL will roll this over into 2021, and unlike the IR for injured players, those that land on the Covid-IR are eligible to return as soon as they clear the league’s protocol.

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Remember the real-life Injured Reserve is much different than the IR spot in fantasy football. In most leagues, you are able to move a player into an IR spot once they have the ‘Out’ designation for any given week. However, once that player no longer has the Out designation, you most likely cannot make any roster moves until you’ve moved that player off the IR and back onto your bench.

Questionable and Doubtful Designations

Back in 2016, the NFL did away with the Probable designation and went with a three-tiered system: Questionable, Doubtful, and Out. Not much needs to be said for players who are listed as Out. Clearly, they won’t play in a given week. The same can be said for those who are listed as Doubtful, which should essentially be treated the exact same as ‘Out’ according to recent data. In 2017, the first season without the Probable tag, just 2.5% of players listed as doubtful actually played. As a result, when you see the Doubtful designation, plan for that player to be inactive the vast majority of the time.

The questionable designation became a lot more difficult to understand once the league took away the Probable tag in 2016. As a result, we saw more NFL teams using the ‘Q’ tag for vague situations and those where a player normally would have been labeled Probable. According to Football Outsiders’ data, players listed as Questionable now tend to have a much higher probability of playing than they did in the past (75% in 2017 vs. 55-60% in 2015-2016).

The tricky part of the Questionable designation is that a lot of it has to do with a case-by-case basis based on a specific injury. For example, we saw Julio Jones listed as Questionable multiple weeks last season due to his hamstring strain. Early on after the injury, it was never realistic to expected Jones to play but as we saw his practice activity ramp up, the confidence in Jones’ ability to play grew. In those later weeks of rehab, his Questionable tag didn’t carry the same meaning as it did the first week after his injury, and that is the key to being able to predict if a player will be active on game day.

Without a medical background, sometimes it feels like we’re just guessing as to whether or not a player will play in a given week. Fortunately, however, my background as a Physical Therapist allows me to understand these injuries in more detail to help decipher those confusing Questionable tag situations. I discuss this concept as well as specific players’ injuries every week on the Injury Blitz Podcast, exclusive for JoinTheFoot.com supporters.

Understanding these injury labels can be overwhelming at times, especially when making those tough add/drop decisions. Hopefully, this article was helpful and you can reference it as injuries pop up this season, as they always do. After all, being the most educated fantasy player in your league can help you bring home the #FootClan Title.

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