Within a few days after next week’s NFL draft, the NFL will announce each team’s “Year One Rookie Allocation” (formerly known as the “Rookie Pool” or “Rookie Salary Cap”). This is an oft misunderstood number, because while it is part of the team’s Salary Cap, it does not have a dollar-for-dollar impact on the team’s overall Salary Cap.
The Rookie Salary Cap is often referred to as “a cap within a cap” because it limits the amount that teams can allocate to their rookies in the year they were drafted (and over the life of the rookies’ contracts). But, beyond that, there is a lot of confusion about the Rookie Salary Cap and exactly how it works. It is sometimes reported as a totally separate pool of money that is not included in the team’s overall Cap and it is sometimes reported that the entire amount of the Rookie Cap is included in the team’s overall Cap, meaning that teams will need that much overall Cap space to sign their rookies.
Both of those characterizations are incorrect.
The Rookie Cap is not a separate, distinct pool, but rather, a separate calculation, and there is not a dollar-for-dollar correlation between the Rookie Cap and the overall Cap. So, while all of the Salary Cap numbers of a team’s draft picks must fit under the team’s Rookie Salary Cap, very rarely will all of that amount actually impact the team’s overall Salary Cap.
The reason for these misconceptions revolves around the Rule of 51, which is contained in Article 13 of the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement. The Rule of 51 dictates that, from the beginning of the league year in early March until the beginning of the season, only the top 51 Salary Cap numbers and all of the pro-rata shares of bonus money for the players outside of the top 51 count toward the team’s overall Cap. All “dead money,” i.e. amounts that count against the Salary Cap for players who are no longer on the roster, counts as well.
Said a simpler way, during this period of the offseason, a team’s Rule of 51 Salary Cap number can be calculated by removing the base salaries of all players who do not fall amongst the top 51 Cap numbers.
This rule is necessary because, during the offseason, team rosters can number up to 90 players. As such, it would be impossible for teams to fit all of those players under the Cap. So, to counter this problem, the NFL has instituted the Rule of 51.
So, by way of example, let’s say a team’s 51st highest Cap number is $710K (a 2nd year minimum base salary of $675K + $35K in bonus proration) and the next highest Cap number is $685K (base salary of $675K base salary + $10K in bonus proration). Because the “52nd” highest Cap number is not part of the top 51, that player’s base salary of $675K will not count against the team’s Cap, but his $10K in bonus proration will. This would also apply to all other players who are outside the team’s top 51 – the player’s base salary will not count, but any bonus proration will.
OK, so what does this have to do with how the Rookie Cap works?
First, as way of further explanation, under the terms of the CBA, all draft picks receive four-year contracts, generally with a signing bonus and often with minimum base salaries set for each year of the deal. While 1st and 2nd round picks may have base salaries of more than the minimum in years two through four of their deals, even those players will almost always receive the rookie minimum base salary during their first year. For 2020, the minimum base salary for a rookie is $610K. For Salary Cap purposes, the bonus received by the player is prorated over the four years of the deal and that prorated amount is added to the base salary to create the player’s Cap number.
So, because of the low base salary and the small signing bonuses that many of the lower round draft picks receive, those draft picks will most likely not be amongst the top 51 Cap numbers on the team (assuming the team has at least 51 players signed or tendered). As such, under the Rule of 51, those players’ base salaries of $610K will not count against the teams overall Salary Cap and only the player’s bonus proration will count toward the team’s overall Cap.
So, how will this affect the Ravens in 2020?
As we know, the Ravens are set to have nine (9) draft picks in next week’s draft. As we also know, it’s highly unlikely that the Ravens will end up using those exact 9 picks. Whether they trade up or down, the Ravens are likely to move all over the draft board and it’s anyone guess which picks they will actually use.
However, for the purposes of this illustration, we’ll base our example on the present nine picks.
According to OverTheCap.com, those nine picks would equal a Rookie Cap of approximately $8,704,653 and each draft pick’s Cap number breaks down as follows:
1st round: $2,183,799
2nd round: $1,034,323
2nd round: $973,547
3rd round: $828,165
3rd round: $814,509
4th round: $779,790
4th round: $773,873
5th round: $682,155
7th round: $634,492
Presently, the Ravens’ bottom 9 Rule of 51 Cap numbers are:
43: $750,000 ($610K + no bonus proration)
44: $750,000 ($610K + no bonus proration)
45: $749,820 ($675K + $74,820 bonus proration)
46: $715,172 ($675K + $40,172 bonus proration)
47: $714,450 ($675K + $39,450 bonus proration)
48: $678,333 ($765K + $3,333 bonus proration)
49: $677,666 ($675K + $2,666 bonus proration)
50: $610,000 ($610K + no bonus proration)
51: $610,000 ($610K + no bonus proration)
Again, the team will need to fit all nine of the draft picks into its $8,704,653 Rookie Cap, but will not need $8,704,653 in overall Cap space to accommodate the signing of its draft picks.
So, based on the above numbers, the first seven picks will have Cap number of greater than $749,820, which is the team’s 45th highest Cap number. As such, those seven draft picks will become part of the top 51 and, under the Rule of 51, will replace the Cap numbers of the players who are currently 45th through 51st on the team’s Cap. So, only the bonus prorations, if any, for the players who are removed from the Top 51 will remain to count against the Salary Cap.
The Cap numbers of the remaining two draft picks will then fall outside of the top 51, so the base salaries of those players ($610K), while counting against the Rookie Cap, will not count against the team’s overall Salary Cap. Only the bonus prorations for those players will count against the overall Cap.
So, to calculate the exact impact of the Rookie Cap on the team’s overall Cap, the amount of the base salaries – $610K – for each of the lowest two (2) draft picks ($1.22M) can be deducted from the rookie Cap of $8,704,653. Then, for the top seven draft picks, while their Cap numbers do count against the overall Cap (by virtue of being part of the top 51 Cap numbers), they displace the seven players who were formerly part of the top 51, so the base salaries of those seven (5 x $675K + 2 x $610K = $4.595M) will be also deducted from the team’s rookie Cap.
When those two numbers ($1.22M + $4.595M = $5.815M) are deducted from the team’s Rookie Cap ($8,704,653), the true impact of the signing of the team’s rookies – $2,889,653 – is revealed. This is the actual impact of the team’s rookie Cap on the team’s overall Cap and the true amount of Cap space necessary to fit in the team’s rookie draft class.
The Ravens currently have $11,263,779 in available Cap space, so once the team’s draft picks are signed, the team’s available Cap space will be reduced by $2,889,653, leaving the team with $8,374,126 in available Salary Cap space. That is the true impact of the Ravens’ rookie Cap.