There’s a lot of confusion every year around this time about how much cap space the team needs to set aside to pay for the draft class. 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 (or, week 18 in 2021 and beyond), 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 league's Collective Bargaining Agreement (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.
Findng the 2021 cap hit of each draft pick
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.
Let’s look at the bottom of the Washington Salary Cap relevant roster (again, courtesy of OverTheCap):
Notice that the lowest paid player on the list is Kyle Allen, one of the team’s backup quarterbacks. He is one of eight players in the picture above that is scheduled to cost $850,000 against the salary cap in 2021. Those eight players could be listed in any order and it wouldn’t matter to our calculation – it ony matters that two of these players are currently counted among the top-51 salaries while the other six are not.
Washington's 2021 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
Calculating the cost after adjusting for the Rule of 51
- The Round 1 pick will have a cap hit of $1.837m, but he will push Kyle Allen and his $850,000 cap hit off the list. Net cap hit for Rd 1 pick = $987,000
- The Round 2 pick will have a cap hit of $1.006m, but he will push Devaroe Lawrence and his $850,000 cap hit off the list. Net cap hit for Rd 2 pick = $156,000
Now the pattern breaks.
The lowest remaining salary on the top-51 is $855,000 (Steven Sims). However, the remaining 6 draft picks from Rounds 3, 4, 5, & 7 all are projected to have a cap hit of less than $824,000 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 for the April draft class is $1.14m (The net cap impact of the first two draft picks: $987,000+$156,000).
The other six picks in the draft will have cap hits that will not be large enough to impact the top-51 calculation. Although each of them is charged to the team the moment he is drafted, regardless of when he actually signs his contract, none of the players drafted in rounds 3 – 7 will have any salary cap impact at all prior to the start of the regular season. It's probable that any undrafted college free agents that are signed after the draft will also fall below the top-51 cut off, and will have no impact on the available cap space. At this point, even veteran free agents who are signed rarely get a contract worth more then $1m per year, so the salary cap impact is negligible.
This means that Washington will be able to add eight quality rookie players at a cost of just $1.14m to the salary cap. Over the Cap currently estimates Washington to have $17.9m in available cap space, so the team should enter training camp with about $16.8m in available cap.