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Top-51 rule explained: How much cap space will it really cost to sign the Falcons draft class?

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To understand just how much it will cost to sign Atlanta’s draft class, we first have to understand how the NFL’s “top-51 rule” works. Here’s an in-depth explanation of the top-51 rule and how much it will actually cost to sign the Falcons’ rookies.

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With the passing of the June 1st date on the calendar, the Falcons have received a windfall of cap space from the cut of Desmond Trufant. Estimates currently have the team at around $11M, but how much of that can Atlanta actually use to pursue potential free agent additions? After all, the team must still sign their draft class—which will cost approximately $6.89M according to estimates from OverTheCap. But the total dollar amount of the rookie deals is not the actual charge against the Falcons’ salary cap due to a regulation know as the “top-51 rule”.

All of this may sound a bit complicated and obtuse—thanks NFL rule makers—but it actually does make a lot sense. In this piece, I’ll be explaining what the top-51 rule is, why it exists, and how it works. Then I’ll break down the actual salary cap cost of signing the draft class, which is much lower than the “total dollar amount” of the rookie contracts.

What is the “top-51 rule”?

The top-51 rule is simple: from the start of the new NFL league year in early March until the first week of the regular NFL season in September, only the 51 most expensive contracts actually count against a team’s salary cap. This is because the salary cap is designed to accommodate a 53-man regular season roster—not a 90-man offseason roster. Teams need the additional players for training camp and competition purposes, but if all 90 were counted against the salary cap, almost every team would be significantly underwater. For example, the Falcons would currently be at -$8.9M in cap space if all 90 contracts were being counted.

The top-51 contracts are calculated by their salary cap hit, not the total value of the deal or any other measure. These top-51 contracts are also liable to change at any time, and often will change throughout the course of the offseason due to the addition and subtraction of players. However, when adding (or removing) a player from the roster, determining the cap hit becomes a little more complicated than a simple +/- calculation. I’ll use a theoretical example below to demonstrate how this works.

Say the Falcons are feeling aggressive after their recent infusion of cap space, and decide to sign free agent EDGE Everson Griffen to a 1-year deal for $8M. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll say the deal has a cap hit of $8M, with no other machinations.

You might assume that the deal would simply cost $8M in available cap space, right? Instead, the deal actually costs $8M minus the difference of the 51st most expensive contract—which was already counting against the cap. This is because Griffen’s more expensive deal would actually be “pushing down” another contract below the top-51 line, thus freeing up the cap space from that deal. Here’s how it would look mathematically:

Cap space cost of example deal: $8M

Cap space cost of 51st most expensive contract: $750K (Ahmad Thomas)

Actual cap space cost of example deal: $8M-$750K = $7.25M

So, in actuality, an $8M deal for Everson Griffen would only cost the Falcons $7.25M because of the top-51 rule.

Now it’s important to remember that, come the first week of the regular season in September, the team must be able to fit the total cost of the 53-man roster onto the salary cap. Since this would be adding two additional contracts to the roster, it could result in additional salary cap charges. For instance, if the Falcons kept the top 53 most expensive contracts for the regular season, it would cost the team an additional $1.41M to cover the two new contracts (in this example, Jordan Miller at $733K and Olamide Zaccheaus at $676K).

However, depending on who makes the team, Atlanta could reduce this number significantly or even gain cap space by cutting expensive veterans. As the Falcons generally always carry an extra $3-5M into the season for emergency signings, this small amount of cap space is nothing to really worry about.

How much will the Falcons draft class cost to sign?

Now that we understand the top-51 rule and how it affects offseason signings, we can determine the total cost of Atlanta’s draft class. OverTheCap provides a good estimate of the cost of each of the Falcons’ draft selections—which you can find by hovering over the Falcons row on the linked page. Once we know the approximate cost of each pick, we can determine the actual salary cap cost of each contract under the top-51 rule.

For contracts more expensive than the $750K “cutoff contract”, the difference between the two will determine the actual cap cost. For contracts less than the $750K “cutoff contract”, they actually won’t cost any cap space at all because they won’t crack the top-51 most expensive contracts. Below are the approximate costs of each of Atlanta’s rookies.

Pick 16 - A.J. Terrell: $1.85M ($2.6M total minus $750K)

Pick 47 - Marlon Davidson: $500K ($1.25M-$750K)

Pick 78 - Matt Hennessy: $112K ($862K-$750K)

Pick 119 - Mykal Walker: $46K ($796K-$750K)

Pick 143 - Jaylinn Hawkins: $0 ($733K, less than $750K)

Pick 228 - Sterling Hofrichter: $0 ($634K, less than $750K)

Total Cost: $2.508M

As you can see, the actual cap space cost to sign Atlanta’s rookies is just $2.508M—far less than the cash cost of $6.89M. Factoring this amount into the Falcons’ current cap space ($11.03M) leaves the team with approximately $8.52M to spend in free agency. If you consider that the team is probably planning to go into the season with at least $3-5M in “emergency space”, the actual amount Atlanta is willing to spend is somewhere between $3.52M-$5.25M. That’s enough for one mid-range veteran, like Darqueze Dennard or Alec Ogletree, but probably not enough for someone like Everson Griffen or Larry Warford.