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Salary Cap Nuggets - No. 9: The difference between a “rookie” and a “first year player”

The little things matter

This series is called Salary Cap Nuggets because ‘nuggets’ is such an interesting word in English. It calls to mind chicken nuggets - tasty, bite sized and easy to eat. But it also calls to mind gold nuggets - small, but valuable.
The salary cap is a product of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), which is a 301-page contract between the NFL Owners and the NFL Players Association. In these articles, I try to explore just one or two small parts of the NFL salary cap defined in the massive CBA. Hence, Salary Cap Nuggets - small, bite-sized, easy to digest, yet valuable information for NFL fans.
The goal is to, one bite at a time, get a clear understanding of the salary cap.

Click this link for handy access to all the Salary Cap Nuggets

The CBA constantly distinguishes between players based on level of prior experience in the NFL.

One minor but potentially confusing point is that there is a distinction between “rookies” and “first year players”. In the NFL, they are not the same.

“First year players” are not rookies

  • A “rookie” has never before signed an NFL contract.
  • “First year players” have previously signed a contract, but did not qualify for an accrued season.

An example of a first year player from the current Redskins roster is long-snapper Andrew East, who is 27 years old and has signed eight NFL contracts, but was on an NFL roster for only 3 games, in 2018. Because he has not qualified for an accrued season yet, East is considered to be a first year player.

One example of where the details become important in the CBA is with regard to payments for post-season play, discussed in Nugget #5.

For some of the clauses related to postseason play that apply to “First Year Players”, the CBA says, “A player who has not signed an NFL Player Contract or NFL Practice Squad Contract during a previous NFL season is not entitled to postseason pay under [the relevant] Subsections.”

In other words, a player has previously signed a contract, but more than a season ago would not be eligible for certain payments that a first year player who had a contract last season may be eligible for. So, not even all first year players are created equal — there’s a distinction, in this case, based on when the player’s last NFL contract was signed.

(Click here to read Nugget #5 for details).

Rookie of the year?

Here’s a different example that dates from 2016 of how rookie status can be affected by a player signing an NFL contract but never having before appeared in an NFL regular season or post-season game. The exact same situation applies with Derrius Guice this season (2019).


Does Kevin White retain rookie status next year since he didn’t play a down? Would he be eligible for a Rookie of the Year Award?


No. I’ve gotten this question from multiple readers over the last couple weeks and White will not be considered a rookie in 2016 despite the fact that he did not suit up for a game during the 2015 season and spent the year on the physically unable to perform list. An NFL spokesman confirmed this.

It’s worth noting White’s base salary will climb to $525,000 in 2016, the amount second-year players receive. Had he spent the entire season on the PUP list in the final year of his deal, the contract would have tolled. He was in his first season, so his pay goes up and he remains under contract to the Bears for the next three years with a fifth-year club option for 2019.

He will not be eligible for rookie of the year honors in 2016.

Note that Kevin White in 2016 and Guice in 2019 count as second-year players, despite not having played in a regular season game in the NFL prior to the start of the relevant season because each was injured but on a roster for more than three games in the previous season.