NFL rules allow a team to have 53 players on their roster. But on gameday, only 46 are allowed to “dress” and play that given week. If a player is considered healthy enough to play but isn’t one of the 46 players chosen, he is considered a healthy scratch.
There are several different reasons why a player may be scratched, from changes in a team’s game plan to disciplinary reasons. I’ll explore these reasons and the potential fallout of a player being scratched in more detail below.
- A healthy scratch means a player is physically able to play and is on the 53-man roster, but is not selected as one of the 46 active players that week.
- Players that are scratched still receive their full pay for the week.
- Players may be scratched for a variety of reasons such as depth at the position, disciplinary reasons, or a change in the team’s game plan.
Reasons a Player May Get Scratched
If you listen to head coaches and general managers long enough, you’ll invariably hear about a team’s, “roster crunch. “You can only dress 46 guys,” is a phrase regularly uttered whenever coaches explain their decisions to the media. 
In general, a team announces its scratches or inactives about 90 minutes before game time. A team’s justification for scratching a player can fall into several categories. 
If a team has a lot of depth at a position, they may choose to keep players lower on the depth chart off the active roster. For example, a team may carry seven wide receivers on the 53-man roster, but committing all of them to the active roster can create a number crunch at other positions.
In other instances, a player may be scratched as a disciplinary measure for something they’ve done on or off the field. This was the case with Browns DT Perrion Winfrey who was benched due to off-the-field conduct. 
A team’s matchup that week may also determine which players are healthy scratches. Depending on the opponent’s strategies and schemes, a player that would be considered useful one week may be a liability the next. These are subtle changes in roster construction as most teams have a core set of players that are active every week regardless of matchup.
Do Scratched Players Still Get Paid?
The good news for scratched players is they’re still paid their full salary and allowed on the sidelines during the game. The biggest financial drawback is that many players have performance-based incentives in their contracts that they’ll be unable to fulfill if they can’t get on the field.
Too many scratches in a season is a telling indicator that a player may not figure into the team’s long-term plans making it likely that he’ll be cut or released at the end of the year. Players in the final year of their contract are especially at risk as other teams may be unlikely to sign them if they can’t get on the field.
Examples of Healthy Scratches
There are usually instances every week in which players that were speculated to be key contributors are scratched. Rookies and other young players often see their standing on the roster fluctuate as teams try to determine their true talent level from the limited data points they have available.
Take Falcons rookie running back Tyler Allgeier. A fifth-round pick in the 2022 NFL draft, Allgeier was battling veteran Damien Williams for the backup spot to starter Cordarrelle Patterson during the preseason. Crucially, Allgeier wasn’t considered an option to play on special teams while other running backs on the Falcons roster, Avery Williams and Keith Smith, were able to contribute on kickoff and punt teams. 
But an injury to Damien Williams in week 1 left a spot for Allgeier. Through week 12 of the 2022/2023 season, Allgeier has emerged as a solid player running for over 500 yards and scoring two touchdowns.
A more curious example also occurred at the running back position in week 12. Four weeks after trading for James Robinson to improve their depth, he was a surprise scratch for their game against the Chicago Bears. 
Whether this was a decision based on Robinson’s performance or something else wasn’t clear. Unlike Allgeier however, Robinson did not take his inactive status with much grace, instead voicing his unhappiness with the decision to the press.