Why is this important?
To know how much the team can spend in free agency when it kicks off on 17 March, it’s necessary to take many things into account. One of the variables that matters is making sure the team sets aside enough cap space to sign its drafted rookies.
That’s the job of Rob Rogers, Washington’s current salary cap czar.
There’s always a lot of confusion around this time every year about how much the team needs to set aside for this. Most people drastically overestimate the amount because they think about how salary cap works during the regular season, when signing a player has a very direct impact on the salary cap. However, the off-season calculation is different because of the Rule of 51.
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, practice squad and reserve players.
But during the off-season, with expanded 90-man 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, 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.
Rookie Pool estimates
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 Washington Football Team is 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 8 contracts for the incoming draft class are projected to total $7.3m.
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 2021.
To run the example, I’m going to assume that the Washington front office 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 (again, courtesy of OverTheCap):
Notice that the hypothetical three veteran free agents we signed pushed 3 players off of the top-51 list. Now, the lowest paid player on the list is Isaiah Wright, a 2020 UDFA.
The April Draft class
Let’s look at the expected 2021 cap hits for the 8 drafted rookies that the WFT expects to sign:
- Rd 1 $1.837m
- Rd 2 $1.006m
- Rd 3 $823,880
- Rd 3 $812,182
- Rd 4 $775,043
- Rd 5 $709,538
- Rd 7 $675,304
- Rd 7 $674,802
The Round 1 pick will have a cap hit of $1.837m, but he will push Isaiah Wright and his $781,666 cap hit off the list. Net cap hit for Rd 1 pick = $1,055,507
The Round 2 pick will have a cap hit of $1.006m, but he will push James Smith-Williams and his $804,425 cap hit off the list. Net cap hit for Rd 2 pick = $202,509
The Round 3 pick from the 49ers will have a cap hit of $823,880, but he will push Kamren Curl and his $808,332 cap hit off the list. Net cap hit for first Rd 3 pick = $15,548
The WFT Round 3 pick will have a cap hit of $812,182, but he will push Kelvin Harmon and his $811,960 cap hit off the list. Net cap hit for second Rd 3 pick = $222
Now the pattern breaks.
The lowest remaining salary on the top-51 is $850,000 (Jeremy Reaves). The final 4 draft picks from Rounds 4, 5, & 7 all are projected to have a cap hit of $775,000 or less in 2021, 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 Washington needs to reserve (in this partially hypothetical example) is $1,273,786 (The net cap impact of the first four draft picks: $1,055,507+$202,509+$15,548+$222).
Based on this simulation, the Washington Football Team would need $1.27m to sign their 8 draft picks.
Of course, the number of free agents signed from other teams may be more or less than the three I assumed, and 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 team will need to reserve for the rookie pool.
Just in case you were wondering, the player is charged against the team’s salary cap the moment he is drafted, regardless of when he actually signs his contract.