Salary Cap Tuesday: What the Rookies Cost

All those glittery, exciting new rookies have a price. Andrea tells you exactly what it is.

Explaining the true cost of an NFL rookie class can be a complicated exercise, but it can be broken down relatively painlessly. This year, the Cleveland Browns came into the 2015 NFL draft with 10 picks and came away with 12 players. Those players’ salaries were already factored into the Browns’ salary cap, but for them it was a moot situation, given that the Browns came into the league year with over $161 million in cash they could spend—well above the league’s per-team cap for $143.28 million.

Each NFL team has a certain amount of set money they can spend on their draft picks, both in their rookie seasons but also over the course of their first contracts. According to the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, these are termed the “Year One Rookie Allocation” and the “Total Rookie Allocation,” respectively. These values are based on the round in which a player is drafted and at which pick. The formula to calculate these values is a league secret, but they generally are designed to have the Rookie Allocation reflect the total salary cap limit of the given year and to rise accordingly.

With the Browns selecting 12 players, and two in Round 1, Spotrac estimates that the Browns’ total payout to their rookies in 2015 will be $9,127,180. But that does not mean that the rookies will cost that much against the Browns’ cap immediately, or even once Week 1 rolls around. Remember, only a team’s top 51 contracts (in terms of monetary value) actually count against the cap. The Browns are now permitted to have up to 90 players on their roster, meaning that the salaries belonging to the Browns’ cheapest 39 players do not count against the cap currently—and that includes the majority of their drafted rookies.

Drafted rookies only account for their full Year One amounts against the salary cap immediately for teams with fewer than 51 players on the roster. The Browns, who have far more than 51 players on their current roster, don’t technically have to factor in the rookies’ full cap charge right now. This will change once the Browns’ rookies start signing their contracts, with the majority of them not doing so until sometime in the summer. Even then, the Rule of 51 comes into play, meaning two (likely) rookie deals won’t be part of the Browns’ Rule of 51 figure. But for now, prior to the rookies signing their respective contracts, each player effectively costs $435,000 apiece against the Browns’ current cap, making it a $3,907,180 cap charge for the time being.

This, of course, poses no problems for the Browns, who will have just over $17 million in available cap space even after the Top 51 contracts and the actual signings of the 12 rookies are factored in. So whether you want to think about the rookies immediately costing the Browns just under $4 million or about their actual cost of over $9 million for 2015, the Browns aren’t on the verge of unloading expensive veteran contracts in order to fit their rookie class into the cap.

With all that in mind, here are the basic Year One contract values for each of the Browns’ 12 picks from the 2015 draft:

Round-Pick: 1–12 Danny Shelton

Round-Pick: 1–19 Cam Erving

Round-Pick: 2–51 Nate Orchard

Round-Pick: 3–77 Duke Johnson

Round-Pick: 3–96 Xavier Cooper

Round-Pick: 4–116 Ibraheim Campbell

Round-Pick: 4–123 Vince Mayle

Round-Pick: 6–189 Charles Gaines

Round-Pick: 6–195 Malcolm Johnson

Round-Pick: 6–198 Randall Telfer

Round-Pick: 7–219 Hayes Pullard

Round-Pick: 7–241 Ifo Ekpre-Omolu

What is most interesting about these numbers is not just how big a jump downward in cash there is between the pick of Danny Shelton at 12th-overall and Cam Erving at 19th, but also the significant step downward between Rounds 1 and 2 and Rounds 2 and 3. Effectively, players drafted in Round 3 aren’t making significantly more money than those drafted in Round 7. There is a far greater step downward within Round 1 and between Rounds 1 and 2 than there is between Rounds 4 and 6. It’s not just lip-service or “draft-speak” to say that the middle rounds of the draft provide the most value to teams—it’s also reflected in the cost of the contracts versus how many players taken in Rounds 3, 4 or 5 end up making significant contributions to their respective teams. Low-cost contracts in Rounds 6 and 7, on the other hand, make straightforward sense—these are the players rounding out the bottom run of most team’s rosters and thus they are paid accordingly. Not many players drafted in Rounds 6 or 7 become big names in the NFL; it’s possible that most, if not all, of the five players the Browns selected in the final two rounds this year don’t make the 53-man roster or even the practice squad.

Like most things about the NFL salary cap, pretty simple concepts are couched within complex-seeming terms. Each team has a certain expected money to spend on their rookies, based on the round and position of each pick in the draft. That money doesn’t fully count against the cap immediately, but rather when the rookies sign their respective contracts. First-round picks make the most money, with an exponential drop-off within the round and between Rounds 1 and 2. As such, the Browns will be spending just over $9 million to sign their rookie class this year, with $3,842,142 going to their two Round 1 picks and the rest being spread, with the exception of Nate Orchard, almost equally among the rest of their selections.

All data via and unless otherwise noted

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