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Falcons’ roster now at 51 players after Fabian Moreau signing: Top-51 rule explained

With the signing of CB Fabian Moreau on Wednesday, the Falcons have 51 players under contract for the 2021 NFL season. That means any future signings are subject to the “top-51 rule”. We explain the rule and its implications for Atlanta’s salary cap.

Philadelphia Eagles v Washington Football Team Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

What seemed almost impossible because of a very sketchy cap situation just a few weeks ago has managed to work itself out: the Falcons have filled out their roster with 51 players after the signing of cornerback Fabian Moreau on Wednesday. While the exact details of Moreau’s contract aren’t known, the deal is expected to fall somewhere in the range of $850K-$1M. That means the team has somewhere in the ballpark of $400K in cap space remaining.

The fact that Atlanta now has 51 players under contract is very meaningful because of a particular rule designed to help teams carry 90 players for training camp. It’s called the “top-51 rule”, and it will now officially take effect for the Falcons. I explained the rule in more detail in a recent article:

For those who aren’t familiar with the rule, the “top-51” rule is designed to help teams sign UDFAs and fill out their 90-man roster for training camp without blowing up their cap space.

The rule essentially only counts the most expensive 51 contracts against the salary cap until the end of training camp. So after Atlanta signs their next free agent, any future contracts would be subject to the rule. If the new contracts are cheaper than the 51st contract, they won’t count against the cap at all. If they’re higher, you only pay the difference between the 51st contract—which at this point would be valued at $660K—and the more expensive new contract.

As an example, let’s say the Falcons sign an offensive lineman—Stefen Wisniewski, perhaps—to a 1-year, $1M deal. In this scenario, Wisniewski’s deal would be more expensive than the 51st contract ($660K), so it would “replace” the lower deal on the cap. However, because the $660K from the cheaper deal was already counting against the cap, the Falcons only owe the difference between the two—which would be $340K.

Any future signings by the Falcons will be subject to the top-51 rule, which means they’ll be significantly cheaper against the cap. The team is still likely to add a few more low-priced free agents—OL, backup QB, and LB are spots where depth is very limited—and the draft class will still cost approximately $7M. That means Atlanta needs to free up cap space through additional moves: extensions, restructures, or cuts.

The top-51 rule will make it easier to add veteran minimum players for very minimal cap charges. Because of the cap situation, expect Atlanta to lean heavily on cheap 1-year deals, a large rookie class in the 2021 NFL Draft, and a very high number of UDFAs to fill out their roster for training camp.