Could the Seahawks recoup some of his salary? What's the NFI? Will Malik McDowell play this season? A question-by-question breakdown.
Even for those who have followed every move, the situation with Seahawks rookie defensive lineman Malik McDowell may seem somewhat confusing.
The announcement Monday that he has returned to his home in Michigan and that there is no specific timetable for his return — with even uber-optimistic coach Pete Carroll sounding pessimistic about when or if he will play this season — means there may be nothing new on the McDowell front for quite a while.
And that makes it a good time to try to wrap up some of the key issues of this situation in a Q&A format that maybe will help better explain some of what has happened, as well.
Q: Can you briefly recap what happened with McDowell?
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A: Sure. McDowell, recall, was the team’s first pick in the 2017 draft, taken in the second round out of Michigan State. A defensive lineman who left school after three years and turned 21 in June, McDowell was viewed as a player who could contribute immediately on the line playing both end and tackle in a manner somewhat similar to that of Michael Bennett.
McDowell, though, was then injured in an ATV accident at home in Michigan about two weeks prior to the start of training camp on July 30. The news was kept quiet in part because there was no police report or any other public record that became available. The team announced McDowell’s accident after the first practice to explain why he wasn’t there — he had stayed in Michigan to continue his recovery after the accident.
Q: But the team has been really vague on the nature of the injuries, correct? Why is that?
A: It is correct that the team has not detailed his injuries the way they generally would a player who was injured on the field, though Carroll on Monday did acknowledge that there is a concussion and other head injuries and did clarify he did not suffer a fracture of his skull.
Carroll has explained that McDowell’s family wanted information on how he was injured and the exact nature of the injuries to be kept as general as possible and that the team is “complying’’ with that. And it’s worth noting that it has been ruled that professional sports leagues are not immune to HIPPA rules regarding the release of medical records.
Q: Why did McDowell report to camp if the team is unclear whether he has any chance to play this season?
A: Indeed, the news early last week that McDowell had reported might have led some to assume that meant he was close to returning to the field — and that’s an easy assumption to make without closely reading what can be admittedly confusing NFL roster rules.
To recap, when McDowell did initially report he was placed on the reserve/did not report list. For the team, that meant McDowell did not have to be put on the 90-man training camp roster, which opened up a spot for another player.
However, that also put McDowell at risk of the team fining him or taking bonus money away for not reporting — that list is the same used for holdouts such as when Kam Chancellor did not report in 2015 or Marshawn Lynch in 2014.
McDowell, recall, signed a four-year contract worth $6.9 million with a $3.1 million signing bonus (a slotted contract based on the fact he was picked 35th).
Seattle could have fined McDowell up to $30,000 a day that he was absent as well as eventually recouping 25 percent of his signing bonus. And if McDowell hadn’t reported within 30 days of training camp he wouldn’t earn a year of service toward free agency.
McDowell may have been motivated to report to avoid all of those things even if there’s been no reports that the team is interested in taking money away. In fact, the team might have preferred McDowell wait a little while to report to keep that extra spot on the 90-man roster. McDowell reporting, though, did allow the Seahawks to talk to him and have their trainers look at him and make their own assessment of his injuries.
Q: So when he reported he was placed on the Non-Football Injury list — what does that mean?
A: The NFI list is exactly what it sounds like — a designation placed on players who suffer an injury separate from a team activity (most commonly this is used on players who are injured working out on their own).
It has many of the same rules as the more commonly used PUP (or Physically Unable to Perform list). But the PUP list is reserved for players who are injured in a team activity (such as CB DeShawn Shead, who was hurt in the Atlanta playoff game last season).
Players on both lists count against the 90-man roster during camp. They then can be placed on a regular season NFI or PUP list WITHOUT counting against a team’s 53-man regular season roster (which is one reason to put them on such a list to begin training camp — only players on an NFI or PUP list to start camp can be placed on it for the regular season). Being on either list for the regular season means a player then must miss the first six weeks of the season but can then return any time between week six and 11. Once a player comes off the NFI or PUP lists teams have three weeks when the player can practice before that player must either be placed on the 53-man roster or placed on season-ending Injured Reserve (or after the 11th week if the player is not returned to practice he simply reverts to IR).
Carroll said Monday to expect McDowell to be on the NFI list “for a while.’’ So unquestionably he will begin the regular season on NFI and then not be eligible to play or practice until week six. That doesn’t mean he will play or practice then, just that that would be the earliest he could return.
Q: If McDowell were to miss the season due to an injury suffered away from the football field could the Seahawks get back any of his salary?
A: Yes they could, which is the one big difference between the NFI and PUP lists. Players on PUP must be paid their contracts since they were injured playing/practicing football with the team. The NFI, however, includes a clause stating that a team can withhold a player’s base salary while on the list. But since much of McDowell’s contract is bonus money which is not subject to that rule the base isn’t all that much this season — just $465,000.
Teams, though, do not have to withhold all of the salary and can simply negotiate something with the player. This happened in 2013 when Philadelphia’s Jason Peters missed the year due to an off-field injury with the Eagles coming up with a deal to pay him basically half of his $7.9 million base.
But as noted earlier, the fact that McDowell reported and is on the active roster means the team can no longer fine him or take away any part of his bonus money. And the fact that the money involved is not overly significant might mean it’s a non-issue considering McDowell is a player with whom the Seahawks are hoping to have a long-term relationship.
Q: So what happens now?
A: Probably nothing for a long time. As noted earlier, the team is foreshadowing that McDowell will begin the regular season on the NFI list which means nothing could happen until week six. If he’s recovered enough at that point to potentially practice — which seems like a longshot but that’s the option that would be available — then the team could take him off of it and let him try for three weeks and see what happens. Then, as noted, he would need to either be activated to the 53-man roster or placed on IR and his season over.
While the signs and Carroll’s comments seem to indicate it’s more likely that McDowell does not play this season than that he does, the Seahawks don’t need to do anything at this point but wait and see if there’s a decision of any sort to make at week six.