May 28, 2024

Rookie salaries and contracts in the NFL are often misunderstood. Even many media types that cover the NFL don’t seem to fully understand how it all works.

In 2011, as part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), the NFL and NFLPA made significant changes to how rookies are compensated and how their compensation impacts the salary cap. They created the Rookie Cap, the Rookie Pool, and the Rookie Wage Scale—three separate things. Let’s clear up the confusion.


The Rookie Pool

What is the NFL Rookie Pool? The NFL Rookie Pool is the total amount of money that is to be spent for all rookie contracts, collectively, across the entire league. There is a hard cap on the amount of total money that NFL teams can collectively spend on all drafted rookies.

Note: The Rookie Pool only accounts for rookies that were drafted in the NFL draft. Undrafted rookie free agents are not a part of this calculation. Undrafted rookie free agents are free to sign with any team and their salaries count against the team’s salary cap, just like any veteran free agent—the cap hits are determined by the parameters of their individual contract. Also, Rule 51 often comes into play with most undrafted rookie free agents.

Rookie Pool Calculations
How is the NFL Rookie Pool calculated? The precise formula for how the NFL Rookie Pool is calculated is a secret that the NFL and NFLPA have never published. However, we’ve got a good idea as to the Rookie Pool determination process.

1) Determine the Number
The first step of the entire process is for the NFL and the NFLPA to determine the total Rookie Pool—the total amount of money available for all drafted rookie contracts across the NFL.

2) Determine Each Slot’s Value
Next, the NFL and NFLPA then assign a dollar value to each draft slot, from the first pick down to the last pick. The first pick will always be worth a certain amount and then each subsequent pick will be worth less than the previous pick. This also helps to create the Rookie Wage Scale (see below for more details on the Rookie Wage Scale).

The total value of all monies paid to drafted rookies in the NFL, collectively, across all teams, will always be equal to that Rookie Pool—whatever the total amount that was determined by the NFL and NFLPA.

3) Determine Each Team’s Portion of Rookie Pool
Each team gets a slice of that Rookie Pool. Each team’s specific portion is determined by which draft slots they used to select their rookies. Obviously, teams with higher draft picks, and more draft picks, will end up getting a bigger slice of the total overall pie.

The Rookie Pool typically goes up each year by a small percentage (in-line with inflation), but there have been years where it stayed the same.

For example, the salary cap rose by $10 million from 2013 to 2014, an increase of 8.1%, but the total size of the Rookie Pool remained the same from 2013 to 2014. Then the salary went up again from 2014 to 2015, also by $10 million, an increase of 7.5%, while the Rookie Pool only increased by 3% from 2014 to 2015. However, the Rookie Pool has significantly increased each of the last seven seasons.


The Rookie Cap

What is the NFL Rookie Cap? The NFL Rookie Cap is the total amount of money from a team’s rookie salaries that will count against that team’s overall salary cap. Teams will pay drafted rookies each season, but only a portion of those rookies’ salaries will count against their salary cap in the year in which those rookies are drafted. In the CBA the Rookie Cap number is officially called the “Year One Rookie Allocation.”

The Rookie Cap is a number that is specifically calculated for each team. Each team’s Rookie Cap is based on the NFL’s overall Rookie Pool.

Once the total Rookie Pool has been set by the NFL and NFLPA, each team is given their Rookie Cap (usually a week or so after the draft). As previously stated, the Rookie Cap is specifically calculated for each team, this allocation is not uniformed across the league. It’s a custom calculation for each team, limiting the amount of the total value of their rookie contracts that will be counted against the salary cap in year one of those contracts.

How is the NFL Rookie Cap calculated? The precise formula for how each team’s Rookie Cap is calculated has never been made public by the NFL and NFLPA.

While we don’t know the precise formula, we can track the results. Each team’s Rookie Cap typically ends up being somewhere between 33% and 58% of their team’s Rookie Pool. The calculation does seem to be somewhat convoluted, but it’s clearly tied to each team’s number of draft picks, where they selected their rookies in the draft, and each team’s other salary cap obligations.

After this process, each team gets two numbers from the NFL, their portion of the Rookie Pool and their specific Rookie Cap. For example, according to Over the Cap, the Panthers will likely receive these two numbers for the 2024 season: $9.5 million (their portion of the Rookie Pool) and $3.2 million (their team specific Rookie Cap).

$9.5 million will be the total maximum amount of cash that the Panthers will be allowed to pay drafted rookies on their team in 2024, but only $3.2 million of those monies (less than 34%) will actually count against the Panthers’ salary cap in 2024. Of course, if they were to acquire more draft picks, or move up in the draft, these projections will change.

In this scenario the Panthers have a balance of $6.3 million left over ($9.5 million minus $3.2 million). That balance will count against the Panthers’ salary cap in future years.


Rookie Cap Misconceptions

Not a Separate Pool
One common misconception is that the Rookie Cap is a totally separate pool of money that the teams spend on rookie, distinct from the rest of the team’s salaries, that is not included in the team’s overall salary cap. But as we’ve seen herein, this is not so. The Rookie Cap is a cap on how much of the team’s drafted rookie contracts get counted against the cap in the year in which those rookie players were drafted. It is not a separate pool of dollars.

No Dollar-for-Dollar Impact on Cap
Another common misconception is that the total amount of the rookie’s first-year salaries are to be counted against the team’s overall salary cap number, which would mean that each team needs that make sure that they have that amount of cap space saved in order to get their rookies under contract. But this is not the case.

The NFL calculates a portion of each drafted rookie’s total salary package, and that portion is to be allocated toward the salary cap in the year in which the player was drafted. Rookie contracts do not actually have a dollar-for-dollar impact on the team’s salary cap obligations during the rookie’s first year.


Rookie Wage Scale

What is the NFL Rookie Wage Scale? The NFL Rookie Wage Scale is the mechanism that determines how much each drafted player will get paid in the NFL based on where they are drafted in the NFL draft. The Rookie Wage Scale is a descending slide from the first overall pick to the last pick.

For example, Bryce Young was selected by the Panthers with the overall first pick of the 2023 NFL draft. His initial total salary package was capped at $37.9 million over four years (that’s his annual base salaries plus bonuses). The Panthers also have a fifth-year option in Young’s contract (all first-round draft picks have the fifth-year option built into their contracts).

The $37.9 million that Young received was the biggest contract given to any drafted rookie in that season. The amount then goes down with each subsequent pick.

For example, the next player selected after Young, C.J. Stroud, taken by the Texans, had his total initial salary package capped at $36.3 million over four years. The third player selected was Will Anderson, Jr., also taken by the Texans. His total initial salary package was capped at $35.2 million over four years.

This step-down approach continues all the way down to the last pick. In the 2023 NFL draft the last player selected was Desjuan Johnson, selected by the Rams with the 259th overall selection. Johnson’s total initial salary package is for $3.9 million over four years.

The Rookie Wage Scale only applies to drafted players. Undrafted players become free agents and are free to negotiate their own contracts with teams apart from the Rookie Wage Scale.