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The 5 O’Clock Club: A deeper dive on the salary cap - Rule of 51 & the Rookie Pool

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…


The 5 o’clock club aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.

People have a lot of interest in salary cap right now

This time of year, fans and journalists spend a lot of time focused on salary cap, but often struggle to really understand the nuances of how salary cap works.

It relies on the principles of accrual accounting, which can be complex and difficult, and since some pretty smart lawyers are involved with crafting contracts that are controlled by the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement — a document typically renegotiated every ten years or so — the player contracts and cap implications are often based on arcane principles that defy common sense.

I have published a couple of articles previously aimed at explaining the basics of salary cap and NFL contracts:

Click here to read A Primer on Salary Cap Management

Click here to read Why calculating Total Contract Value, APY and Total Guarantee for an NFL contract can be really hard

I thought I’d take the opportunity today, in this short window between the ‘frenzied’ part of free agency and the college draft, which is about 5 or 6 weeks away, to look in a bit of detail at some concepts that people struggle with.

Filling up a 90-man roster

Most teams enter the offseason, say, a week after the final game, with about 60 to 70 players under contract for the upcoming league year. For example, in early January, the Redskins had 66 players under contract, while, at the time of writing this article, a few days after free agency opened up, OverTheCap lists 71 players under contract for 2018.

Obviously, most of these players were on the 53 man roster in Week 17. Some of them were on reserve lists (Su’a Cravens, would be one example of that). Also, the Redskins have a dozen or so players who were signed to futures contracts in early January.

Click here to read A Primer on Reserve/Future Contracts

By the time free agency ends, it is typical for a team to have around 75 players in total under contract.

Each team can bring 90 players to Training Camp.

This year, the Redskins have 7 draft picks; barring any trades, then, they can expect to bring those seven players to camp.

That would leave room for about 8 UDFAs (undrafted college free agents), but traditionally the Redskins bring 10-12 UDFAs to training camp. These are players that the team targeted in the draft, but didn’t actually pull the trigger on. NFL teams compete with one another to get the best undrafted players into camp, and every year, one or more UDFAs makes the Redskin roster.

Among the notable UDFAs that have played for the Redskins in recent seasons: Rob Kelley, Junior Galette, Maurice Harris, Anthony Lanier, Qinton Dunbar, and Deshazor Everett.

How can the team bring a dozen UDFAs to camp when they only have 8 roster spots available (for example)? Well, usually they cut several players who have future contracts to make room, since there is a hard limit of 90 players on the roster during the off-season.

Teams cut down to 53 players, and form a 10-man practice squad, two days after the final pre-season game.

The “Rule of 51”

From the roster cutdown deadline following the end of preseason to the final game of week 17 (and into post season as well), teams are required to stay within the annual salary cap with their 53-man roster.

But during the off-season, with expanded rosters, this simply isn’t feasible.

Because of this, the CBA establishes the “Rule of 51” that applies to every NFL offseason roster. The rule is very simple:

Throughout the off-season, only the players with the 51 largest cap hits for the season will be counted toward the salary cap.

This is significant because, when a player is signed to a contract, as Paul Richardson was this past week, we don’t just account for his cap hit, we also have to account for the cap hit of the player he pushes out of the top 51.

Let’s look at the bottom of the Redskins roster as it stands today (the date that I’m writing the article). Information is courtesy of OverTheCap

You can see that Tavaris Barnes, a player on a future contract, is NOT counted in the top 51 contracts.

But before Paul Richardson was signed to his contract, with its $4m cap hit, Barnes was in the top-51.

So, when we calculate the impact of Paul Richardson’s contract on the Redskins off season cap space, it isn’t $4m, but $3.445m, which is Richardson’s cap hit, minus that of Tavaris Barnes, who is no longer counted against the cap.

Like Tavaris Barnes, Otha Peters has a $555K cap hit. The next player contract to be added to the Redskin roster during free agency will push Peters off the top-51 list.

The next player signed in free agency after that will push Joshua Holsey and his $575,239 cap hit off the list, and so on.

This is one reason why free agent signings never seem to use up as much of the available cap space as you expect them to.

The other reason is that the Redskin front office uses a fairly standard template for most of its veteran contracts. Josh Norman’s contract had an unusual structure that was driven, in part, by the desire to have cap space available for Kirk Cousins in 2017.

Paul Richardson, on the other hand, signed what is basically the standard Redskin template for a contract.

He has a low first year cap hit ($4m), and an easy “out” on the contract at the end of Year 3. If the Skins cut Richardson after 2020, he would be paid $24m for 3 years (the same $8m APY as the full 5 year contract). Fully guaranteed money is $12.5m (including the $10m signing bonus). If he plays the full contract, $10m cap hit should be affordable after 4 or 5 years of cap increases.

The average person, when they read that Richardson signed a 5 year, $40m deal, typically assumes that the Redskins just lost $8m in cap space.

As we’ve already seen, due to contract structuring and the Rule of 51, the actual impact on the Redskins available cap space is only $3.445m.

The Rule of 51 and contract structuring make free agents signed this time of year much more affordable than one would expect based on the Twitter reporting that provides the headline numbers on player contracts.

Rookie Pool estimates

One thing that every team needs to account for is the money needed to sign the draft picks that will be joining the team at the end of April.

With the current CBA and its “slotting” of draft picks, teams can project with a great deal of accuracy the cost of each draft pick.

Absent any trades, even as fans, it’s easy for us to know how much the Redskins are going to need for their draft class before the draft even starts.

Again, though, the Rule of 51 makes the calculation less straighforward than it seems.

Step One of the calculation is simply to identify the team’s draft picks, and the expected contract value of each of those picks. Fortunately, the people at OverTheCap do all that work every season for us, and it’s as simple as clicking the link to the Rookie Pool page at OverTheCap.

Because of this handy tool, we can see at a glance that the 7 contracts for the incoming draft class are projected to total $6.5m.

But that’s not the end of the calculation!

Remember that the Rule of 51 means that we’re only counting the 51 highest cap hits for 2018.

To run the example, I’m going to assume that the Redskins will sign 3 more veteran free agents between now (when I’m writing this article) and the draft, pushing 3 players off of the top 51. So, let’s revisit the bottom of that list:

Notice that the three veteran free agents we signed pushed 3 players off of the top-51 list. Now, the lowest paid player on the list is Chase Roullier, a 2017 6th round draft pick.

Let’s look at the expected 2018 cap hits for the 7 drafted rookies that the Redskins expect to sign:

  • Rd 1 $2.631m
  • Rd 2 $1.166m
  • Rd 4 $651,418
  • Rd 5 $552,861
  • Rd 6 $519,982
  • Rd 7 $502,768
  • Rd 7 $499,028

The Round 1 pick will have a cap hit of $2.63m, but he will push Chase Roullier and his $591,795 cap hit off the list. Net cap hit for Rd 1 pick = $2,039,250

The Round 2 pick will have a cap hit of $1.166m, but he will push Jeremy Sprinkle and his $624,129 cap hit off the list. Net cap hit for Rd 2 pick = $542,650

The Round 4 pick will have a cap hit of $651,418, but he will push Matt Ioannidis and his $630,000 cap hit off the list. Net cap hit for Rd 4 pick = $21,418

Now the pattern breaks.

The lowest remaining salary on the top-51 is $630,000. The final 4 draft picks from Rounds 5, 6 & 7 all are projected to have a cap hit of less than $630,000 in 2018, so these final four draft picks are not counted in the top 51, and have no impact at all on the off-season salary cap.

This means that the actual amount of available cap space that the Redskins need to reserve (in this example) is $2,603,318 (The net cap impact of the first three draft picks: $2,039,250+$542,650+$21,418).

The Redskins will need $2.6m to sign their 7 draft picks.

Of course, any trades (up or down) will affect these numbers, but absent a big move in the first round, there will be very little change in the amount of money the Redskins will need to reserve for the rookie pool.

Just in case you were wondering, the player is charged against the Redskins salary cap the moment he is drafted, regardless of when he actually signs his contract.


Who will be the next free agent signing for the Redskins?

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    Bashaud Breeland
    (10 votes)
  • 3%
    Orlando Scandrick
    (14 votes)
  • 2%
    Dominique Rogers-Cromartie
    (11 votes)
  • 71%
    Johnathan Hankins
    (287 votes)
  • 17%
    Junior Galette
    (72 votes)
  • 2%
    Somebody else
    (9 votes)
403 votes total Vote Now