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NFL Salary Cap FAQ

July 22, 2024

Al Lackner

Are you confused beyond belief about the NFL Salary Cap?

Is it impossible for you to understand why some teams are WAY over the cap, while others are way under?

Fear not. The Commish is here to help. Our goal is to provide you with a quick course in Capanomics so that you can understand what is going on here. By the time we're through with you, you will have the knowledge and power to second guess your favorite team's General Manager!

Question 1.1
How much does each team have to spend against the NFL Salary Cap?

Answer: The baseline cap for each team in 2024 is set at $255.4 Million. That is a nice increase over the 2023 figure, which was $224.8 Million. Recall that the 2021 cap was severely impacted by poor revenues in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the virus, the cap in 2020 (based on 2019 revenues) for each team was $198.2 Million. That is about $10 Million more than the cap was in 2019, $188.2 Million. By 2022, the numbers were back on track -- and the 2024 numbers have soared.

Question 1.2
How is the NFL Salary Cap determined?

Answer: The Cap is determined through a complicated calculation system, which has changed with the latest extension of the CBA. The Cap is based on income that the teams earn during a League Year. Originally that "pot" was limited to what was known as Defined Gross Revenues (DGR), which consisted of the money earned from the national televison contract, ticket sales, and NFL merchandise sales. In 2006 the CBA was modified, and the "pot" was expanded to include total revenue. Thus, other sources of revenue, including such other items as naming rights and local advertising, were added. As was the case with the original DGR, the expanded revenue is divided equally amongst all 32 teams for purposes of calculating the salary cap.

For all of you nerds out there, here is the actual mathematical calculation:

The newest edition of the CBA has a term, "All Revenues" (AR), which pretty much includes all revenue streams. The CBA spells out the particulars over the course of about 10 pages, but in a nutshell the AR includes ticket sales, revenue from luxury box suites and premium seating, local and national broadcasting (TV/radio/Internet) royalties, concessions, parking, local advertising, stadium leasing, and merchadising. The AR is then divided into 3 distinct brackets: League Media (essentially revue from regular-season games), NFL Ventures/Post Season (self-explanatory) and Local (more or less revenue generated from preseason games). Now, for the part that you have been waiting for, the distibution of these revenues: (using 2011, the first year of the previous/extended CBA, as an example)

   Projected AR x CBA Percentage = Players Share of AR. This is called the Player Cost Amount. For 2011, that amount was $4,556,800,000 (roughly $142.4 M per team).

   Player Cost Amount minus Projected League wide Benefits = Amount Available for Player Salaries. For 2011, that amount was $3,852,000,000.

   Amount Available for Player Salaries / Number of Teams = Unadjusted Salary Cap per Team. For 2011, that amount was (3,852,000,000/32 =) $120.375 M.

   The CBA Percentage is as follows: Players receive 55% of AR (Media), 45% of AR (NFL Venture/Post Season) and 40% of AR (Local). Overall, the players receive between 47% and 48.5% of total revenue. More specifically, in years 2012-2014 the overall percentage is capped at 48%. For years 2015-2020 the percentage is capped at 48.5%.

Question 1.2a
Is there a Minimum Salary?

Answer: Yep. Under the new CBA, going back to pre-Covid, the cap (max)for 2020 was $198.2 M per team. Each team had to average around $188.3 M that year. That is a league-wide average not an individual team minimum. League-wide, teams must spend 95% of the cap. So, in 2023, with the cap set at $224.8 M, teams must average about $213.68 M. In the event that player costs are less than this overall league minimum, then, on or before April 15 of the next League Year, the NFL must pay an amount equal to such deficiency directly to the players.

In terms of minimum salary for each team, the salary floor is 89% of the cap. That became effective in 2013, as this requirement was by-passed in 2011 and 2012. Hence, there was in essence no salary floor in 2011 or 2012. In 2024, every team MUST spend over $200 M.

Under a prior edition of the CBA, beginning in 2006 each team had to pay a guaranteed Minimum Team Salary of 84% of the Salary Cap. Each year that percentage went up by 1.2%. However, the Minimum Team Salary was not to extend beyond 90% of the Salary Cap and any shortfall in the Minimum Team Salary at the end of a league year had to be paid, on or before April 15 of the next league year, by the team(s) having such shortfall, directly to the players who were on that team's roster at any time during the season.

Question 1.3
How do you define "Salary"?

Answer: Salary means all compensation paid to a player, including money, property, investments, loans or anything else of value. Salary, however, does not include benefits. Furthermore, a player’s salary will also include compensation for non-football-related services if such payment does not seem to represent an approximate fair market value. This broad definition of salary becomes complicated because it is affected by numerous rules which are used in computing the precise nature of the system.

Question 1.4
Who falls under the Salary Cap?

Answer: The "Team Salary" falls under the Salary Cap. Team salary includes the amount a team must pay its current or former players under their player contracts. Notice emphasis on the word PLAYERS. The salary cap does not apply to coaches, assistants, trainers, and other personnel. Only the top 51 player salaries for a team count against the salary cap in the offseason. (Outstanding tenders apply.) During the season, all player salaries count toward the salary cap.

Question 1.5
How does the NFL Draft impact the Salary Cap?

Answer: Team salary includes the Rookie Minimum Active Salary as of the day of the draft for all drafted rookies. The salary for drafted rookies will stay at this amount until the player is signed, the team’s rights are relinquished through waivers, or until the Tuesday following the tenth week of the regular season if the player remains unsigned. Note also that there is a Rookie Salary Cap, which is a subset of the overall cap. Each team has its own unique Rookie Salary Cap, based on the number of draft picks they have and where in each round the picks ocurred.

Question 1.6
Do unsigned free agents have any impact on the Salary Cap?

Answer: For Restricted Free Agents (RFA), a Qualifying Offer is included in the team salary. This amount remains in team salary until the player is signed, the Qualifying Offer is withdrawn, or a “June 1st tender” is made. If the player is unsigned and the Team makes a June 1 or June 15 offer, this offer will be included in team salary until the player is signed, the team gives up their rights to the player, or until the Tuesday after the tenth week of the regular season if the player is unsigned.

For Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA), if a June 1 offer is made, the amount afforded will be included in team salary as of July 15.

For transition and franchise players, an offer will be included in team salary when it is made.

These offers for UFA, transition players, and franchise players will remain included in team salary until the player is signed, the offer is withdrawn, the team gives up their rights to the player, or until the Tuesday following the tenth week of the regular season if the player is unsigned. All offer sheets will be included in team salary when the offer is made until the player is signed to a contract with any NFL Team or the offer sheet is withdrawn.

Question 1.7a
If a player earns a contract that is 5 years and pays him a total of $20 Million, he counts $4 million per year against the cap, right?

Answer: If it were only that simple.

Teams with heavy payloads learned quickly that the best way to combat the Salary Cap was to circumvent it. They did this by back loading contracts, pushing all of the big money to the end of the contract. Over the years, new rules were instituted to keep this practice in check, including placing a limit on the number of years in which a signing bonus can be prorated and capping the base salary increase from uncapped years to capped years. For example, the "30% Rule" governs veteran contracts that are entered into in a capped year and extend into the final year of the CBA. The rule states that these contracts cannot have an annual increase of more than 30% of the salary, excluding amounts treated as a signing bonus, provided for in the FINAL CAPPED YEAR.

Question 1.7b
Okay...this helps the team in the first few years of the contract, but what happens in the later years when the salary begins to escalate?

Answer: The team can do one of two things.

They can either outright release the player (to avoid having to pay his salary all together) or they can renegotiate a more "cap friendly" contract.

Question 1.7c
Hold on. You said the team could release the player BEFORE the big money kicks in. Are you telling me that the contracts are NOT guaranteed?

Answer: That's right. The team is not obligated to fork over the money for remaining years of the contract if they cut the player.

Question 1.7d
If that is true, why would any player be willing to sign such a back-loaded contract if they will most likely never see the big money at the end of the contract?

Answer: Ah. That is where signing bonuses come into play.

In order to convince the player to sign such a cap-friendly contract, the team will fork over a large signing bonus. The signing bonus is guaranteed, so that money is the player's to keep if the team decides to release him later. Also, the team can specifically designate portions of the contract as "guaranteed".

Question 1.7e
That's cheating! How can you have a real salary cap if all you have to do is give a player a signing bonus to get around it?

Answer: Now we come to the tricky part. The signing bonus IS part of the player's salary. So it counts against the cap. When determining team and player salary, the signing bonus will be prorated over the length of the contract.

For example, if a player signs a four-year deal with a $1 million signing bonus, $250,000 of that bonus will count toward team salary for each contract year ($1 million divided evenly over the four-year contract is $250,000 per year). If a team releases a player, the unamoratized bonus money (the remaining prorated bonus money) counts immediately against the cap.

In our example above, if the player is released after Year 1, the remaining $750,000 (the prorated signing bonus money for years 2-4) counts against the cap in Year 2 -- even though the player is no longer on the team's roster.

The proration of the signing bonus cannot extend beyond two years after the close of the existing CBA.

An expression that was thrown about repeatedly during the various labor meetings is "cash over cap". Well, these signing bonuses are what insiders were talking about, when they brought up that term. One of the things that held up negotiations amongst the owners with the last CBA extension (both back in 2006 and in 2011) was the move to place some kind of cap on the amount of signing bonus money that could be pushed into future years for cap accounting purposes. Although there was no cap on signing bonuses, there was a limit put in place that signing bonuses could only be prorated for up to five (5) years. With the latest CBA, that five-year figure remains unchanged.

Question 1.8a
How difficult is it for a player to renegotiate his contract?

Answer: Salary renegotiations help teams greatly in getting under the salary cap in a given year. But they also lead to peril down the line. Indeed, every NFL team that is facing salary cap problems can trace their problems back to overuse of this practice.

The first renegotiation of a veteran contract can take place at any time. However, a veteran may not renegotiate to raise his salary for twelve months after the most recent renegotiation. Additionally, no player or team can agree to renegotiate a term of a previously signed contract for a prior year. No contract can be negotiated for a current season after the last regular season game. Furthermore, rookie contracts cannot be renegotiated for one year after the signing date or the following August 1, whichever is later.

No player can agree to a contract, renegotiation, or extension that expires before the last day of a season. If a player wants to terminate his contract, he must do so before the first day of any season. Moreover, renegotiated contracts are revalued for Salary Cap purposes at the time of the renegotiation. If at the time of the renegotiation an incentive bonus has already been reached, that bonus is considered Likely To Be Earned (LTBE). Also, any new or changed incentive bonuses renegotiated after the start of the regular season are automatically considered LTBE. Finally, if a player is paid any more than the minimum amount for off-season workout programs or classroom instruction, then the payment will be treated as a renegotiation.

Question 1.8b
If a player decides to renegotiate his contract, how does the bonus money he received in the original contract count against the cap?

Answer: If a player renegotiates his contract and gets a new signing bonus, the new signing bonus is prorated over the remaining years of the original contract AND over the extension. The allocation of the original signing bonus remains unchanged.

For example, Player X is currently in the third year of a four-year deal (2009–2012) that paid him a $1 million signing bonus. In 2011, Player X renegotiates his deal extending his contract to the 2014 season while getting a $2 million signing bonus. The original $1 million signing bonus is allocated at $250,000 per year over 2011 and 2012 just as it would be if there were no renegotiation. However, the new $2 million signing bonus is allocated at $500,000 per year over the remaining two years of the original contract (2011–2012) and the extended two years (2013–2014). Thus the cap liability in 2011 and 2012 is actually $750,000 for the signing bonus proration -- and $500,000 in 2013 and 2014, assuming no additional renegotiation takes place.

Question 1.9a
When must teams come in compliance with the Salary Cap?

Answer: On the first day of the league year, which is typically late February/ early March. For 2011 (given the lockout), that date was ser to Aug 4.

Question 1.9b
If that is the case, why are so many players cut AFTER June 1?

Answer: After June 1, the team can stretch their salary cap liability over the next 2 seasons. Let's look at our example above, where a player signs a big contract for 4 years, including a $1 million signing bonus.

If the player is cut after the first year of the contract, the remaining $750,000 of the "un-amoratized" signing bonus hits the cap immediately (accelerates). However, if he is cut after June 1, the team can spread that money over Year 2 and 3 of the contract instead of taking the full brunt of the cap hit in Year 2.

Doing this will save $500,000 against the cap hit for Year 2.

Clearly, this practice is a nice way of freeing up cap space in a given year. Note, however, that the money still has to be accounted for against the cap -- and the remaining $500,000 that was never accounted for will hit the cap in Year 3. In essence, many NFL teams have mortgaged their future by overusing this practice, whereby they continue to pay against the cap for players who have not been on the roster for over a year.

Question 1.10
How do voided years work when amortizing signing bonuses?

Answer: Many contracts in the NFL these days included clauses for "voidable years". These are typically incentive-laden additions to contracts that will allow the player to file for Free Agency sooner if certain goals are obtained.

The likelihood of voiding years can be included when determining the term of years for the prorated signing bonus. However, if the player meets the goal that voids the year (or years) of the contract, any amount of the signing bonus that was allocated to the voided year (or years) will be accelerated and added immediately to team salary. If the accelerated signing bonus puts the team over the Salary Cap, the amount that the team is over the cap will be deducted from the team’s Salary Cap for the next year.

If a player can void a contract based on a “Likely To Be Earned" incentive, and the player is on the roster at a later time, there will be no acceleration.

If a contract is renegotiated to reduce the number of years of the contract, the portion of the signing bonus that has not been allocated is included in team salary at the time of the renegotiation.

Question 1.11a
How does the NFL Salary Cap treat cash incentives?

Answer: All incentives are included in team salary if they are "likely to be earned" (LTBE). LTBE incentives are performance levels that the player or team has reached in the previous year.

For example, if a quarterback threw twenty touchdowns last year and his incentive clause for this year is set at fifteen touchdowns, then this incentive is “likely to be earned.” Also, incentives that are in the sole control of the player, like non-guaranteed reporting bonuses and off-season workout and weight bonuses, are considered LTBE.

An impartial arbitrator will hear disputes between the owners and the players concerning what should be considered LTBE (especially for rookies or veterans who did not play in the prior year). Conversely, if a player did not reach the performance incentive in the previous year, the incentive is deemed "not likely to be earned" (NLTBE) and is not included in team salary.

To determine whether a clause is LTBE or NLTBE for Salary Cap purposes (i.e., not whether the player actually earned the incentive), it is necessary to look at the performance of the team in the prior season, not the current season.

For example, assume Player X receives an incentive bonus if he participates in 50% of the team’s offensive plays this season. Assume further that last season the team had 1,000 offensive plays. Therefore, as soon as Player X plays in 500 plays in the current season (or 50% of last year’s 1,000 plays), the incentive will be considered earned for Salary Cap purposes.

The same incentive is considered "not earned" if the same player in the current year only participated in one of the team’s first 502 offensive plays. In this situation, it would be impossible for the player to achieve the 50% incentive based on last year’s performance of 1,000 plays. It is important to remember that looking to last year’s performance level is only for Salary Cap purposes and will not affect the player's right to receive a bonus for his performance in the current year.

Question 1.11b
So cash incentives work almost like signing bonuses, right?

Answer: The short answer to this question is that incentives are considered signing bonuses; however, for cap purposes they are not handled exactly the same way as "signing" bonuses.

While we're on the topic, let's talk a bit more about signing bonuses.

Also included in the “bonus” are guaranteed reporting bonuses and guaranteed workout bonuses. Roster or reporting bonuses earned or paid before preseason training camp are also considered bonuses. Guaranteed salary advances or advances that do not have to be repaid are treated as signing bonuses. Money guaranteed or paid for option years, contract extensions, contract modifications, individually negotiated rights of first refusal, and option buyouts are considered signing bonuses. Reporting bonuses are treated as signing bonuses if the contract is signed after the start of training camp. Roster bonuses are also considered signing bonuses if the contract was signed after the last preseason game. Finally, individually negotiated relocation bonuses are treated as a signing bonus.

The non-guaranteed amount of any salary advance, off-season workout bonus, off-season roster bonus, or off-season reporting bonus is included in the team’s salary in the year it was earned. These bonuses cannot be prorated. “Guaranteed” refers to those bonuses that are fully guaranteed–regardless of skill, injury or termination of the contract.

Contracts signed, renegotiated, or extended in the final capped year are governed by a somewhat special set of rules if the signing bonus is to be paid to the player in the final capped season. In this situation, a salary advance that the player is not obligated to repay is considered a signing bonus. Any off-season workout bonus that calls for a player to participate in less than thirty-two days of the team’s program is also considered a signing bonus. Finally, all off-season reporting and roster bonuses are considered signing bonuses.


Question 1.11c
What is to prevent a player from signing a huge contract, commanding a large (guaranteed) signing bonus, then never playing a single down in the NFL?

Answer: I call this the "Barry Sanders Rule".

Due to the Salary Cap, owners are now investing a greater amount of money up front for players in the form of guaranteed signing bonuses. Thus, the owners must try to protect their investments by including language in the contract that calls for a player to return a portion of the signing bonus to the team if the player “fails or refuses” to practice or play with the team.

In certain situations, a team will be repaid some of the signing bonus it paid to a player (i.e., a refund), or a team will fail to pay part of a signing bonus that was already allocated toward team salary. If this happens, the amount previously included in team salary will be added to the team’s Salary Cap in the next year.

Question 1.12
What happens if a player is traded or retires?

Answer: We already know that if a player is waived on or before June 1, the remaining signing bonus that has not been included in salary “accelerates” and is included in that year’s team salary. Acceleration also occurs when a player is traded or waived and picked up by another team. The new team is not responsible for any of the original signing bonus. The team that waived or traded the player is responsible for the accelerated signing bonus (in the same manner as described above).

In most cases, if a player retires, the remaining signing bonus that has not been included in salary “accelerates” and is included in that year’s team salary. Thus, the team will take an immediate salary cap hit of the remaining signing bonus.

Question 1.13
So...what happens if a team goes over the Salary Cap?

Answer: The short answer is simply that NO team CAN go over the Salary Cap. Note that every contract must go through the NFL League Office before the deal can be made official. Presumably, one of the things the league must do at this time is determine whether or not the contract would violate the NFL's Salary Cap. If the deal does violate the cap, then the NFL will reject it.

If a team releases or trades a player and the signing bonus acceleration puts a team over the Salary Cap, the team will have seven days to conform with the Salary Cap. However, they may not sign any players until there is room to do so under the Salary Cap.

There have been instances in which a team has managed to sneak a cap evading contract by the league. Upon further review, the violations were caught by the league and the respective teams were penalized. Penalties include fines and/or forfeiture of draft picks. In recent history both the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers have been penalized draft picks, while the 49ers' front office personnel (Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark) were also fined.

Question 1.14
What changes were made in the most recent extension to the CBA and what affect does that have on the Salary Cap?

Answer: As stated, the latest (and 6th) CBA was passed by the NFLPA and owners in August, 2011. Listed below are the changes that were made:

For 2011, time-based roster bonuses and other incentives (e.g. “Player must be on the roster on April 15th to receive bonus”), the contractual date is amended to July 29.

If a player is released prior to July 29, the team must pay all of his workout bonus if it is $50,000 or less, $50,000 if it it between $50,000 and $100,000, and 50% of the bonus if it is over $100,000 (up to $100,000). If the player is released AFTER 4:00 PM on July 29, then he is due the full amount of his workout bonus.

For 2011, each team could designate up to 3 of their highest paid players (who must had at least 5 accrued seasons and made at least $1 M more than the league minimum salary for that year), toward whom the team would have received $1 M cap credit. Repayment of this credit would have been applied toward the 2014-2017 league years.

For 2012, each team could designate up to 3 of their highest paid players (who must had at least 5 accrued seasons and made at least $500,000 more than the league minimum salary for that year), toward whom the team would have received $500,000 cap credit. Repayment of this credit would have been applied toward the 2014-2017 league years.

Proration for signing bonuses for contracts signed during the 2011 league year (after July 25) began cap acceleration in 2012.

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