The Salary Cap Cost of Rookie Draft Picks

The NFL draft always brings about confusion with the way rookie contracts work with the salary cap so this will be our annual look at what will be the actual impact on teams salary cap space once all rookies are signed to hopefully reduce some of the confusion.

The confusion with the way that the rookie contracts works is due to two things. The first is that it will be reported that every team has a “rookie pool” or “rookie salary cap” to spend on draft picks. In some places it may be reported that this covers all rookie contracts while other will correctly state that it’s a “cap within a cap”. A “cap within a cap” simply means that there is a limit on what every team can pay their rookies and this salary has to fit within the regular salary cap.

As time goes on there will be reports of each teams rookie cap as determined by the NFL. Those will be official totals but in the meantime you can get the estimates on our draft page, though with a new CBA we cant say if this will remain as accurate this year as in years past or not, though I believe it should be close enough. However this leads to the second confusing aspect of it which deals with the total cap space actually required to sign the draft picks.

The reason for this is because most people will see a big total like $11.8 million for the rookie cap and conclude that a team with $10 million in cap space can not sign their draft class without cuts or contract modifications. What people fail to understand is that during this time of year only the top 51 players have their base salaries count on the salary cap and every team has more than 51 players so each rookie will displace another player’s contract on the roster. Either the old player will have his base salary drop out of the calculation while the new base salary climbs in or the rookie will only have the prorated portion of his contract count on the cap.  So the net cap space required to sign rookies is very different from the total rookie cap number.

The easiest way to estimate the number is to take the rookie pool and subtract from it $610,000 multiplied by the number of draft picks. Why $610,000? It’s the minimum salary a player can earn and represents the worst case scenario for a team. Using that formula here is how teams cap space would look following the signing of rookies based on our current cap space estimates and draft pool estimates. The only exception here was the Ravens who wont displace their entire draft class so I adjusted accordingly.

TeamPlayersCap SpaceDraft PicksDraft CostNet Draft CostCap Space Post Draft

As you can see based on the numbers we currently have only five teams are likely in danger of not having the cap space to sign rookies. Those teams are the Chiefs, Bengals, Falcons, Patriots, and Rams. The Bengals are close enough that they probably have the space if you account for the actual salaries displaced which will be a few $675,000 players rather than $610,000 ones. The Chiefs, Rams and the Patriots will be the ones that will likely have to make some minor tweaks (the reason I’m including the Chiefs is I don’t have any idea what Bashaud Breelands cap number will be this year but assume it will move them negative). The Rams used a June 1 release (Todd Gurley) which will clear around $5 million, but will likely still need to do some changes to get their guys in after that is processed. I would not expect the Rams to rush for anything since they are generally the last team to sign their rookies and do them all on the same day following a seminar they present to their incoming players. Atlanta wait until June 2nd to sign any players as they will pick up over $10.75 when Desmond Trufant June 1 designated release becomes official.

One last thing to keep in mind is if you see things being reported about a minimum rookie allotment or minimum year one allotment for each team and/or draft pick. That is a minimum number the NFL must pay for a draft pick while the rookie pool represents the max number. In the 9 prior years almost no one has been under the highest possible number and most of that happened in 2011. The only reason an agent should ever consider under would be if the team gave up a big concession like a no tag provision which would be an interesting scenario but to the best of my knowledge has never even been broached. So if you hear those numbers just tune them out.

The other thing you can look at with the table above is the max players under contract if you add in the draft picks. NFL teams are limited to 90 contracted players. Following the draft each rookie is tendered a contract to make things official so they after the draft ends. Miami will be over the 90 person limit so they will have to cut at least two players if they don’t trade any draft selections. The Broncos, Lions, Jets, 49ers, Raiders, Redskins, and Giants will all have at least 80 players under contract. Why is this important?  As soon as the draft concludes teams sign undrafted free agents and the average amount of undrafted players is around 17 per team. Generally every team signs at least 10 (I think last year the only team under and they were way under were the Panthers) so the teams around 80 contracted players will likely make cuts just to sign undrafted players. So unfortunately, decisions made during the draft will likely cost a few players their opportunities before “virtual” workouts even give them a chance to work with the team.

On the opposite end of the spectrum the teams with few players should be the ones that are heavily active in signing undrafted players. These include the Chargers, Ravens, Rams, Titans, and Falcons who will all be under 70 players post draft.

This should be an interesting year for the undrafted process. Since front offices wont be in the same location there may have to be a pecking order in the chaos that usually ensues to make sure they can sign the players. The lack of a rookie showcase practice will also potentially hurt players who often go unsigned but are given tryouts with the other rookies which sometimes leads to a contract. With no practice session to occur teams will either agree to sign even more undrafteds than usual and evaluate them if and when camp opens or those players simply wont get an opportunity at all.