A lot of confusion is swirling around how the Pittsburgh Steelers are situated regarding their salary cap, with respect to their 2016 rookie class. I intend to shed some light on the subject, all while putting some misconceptions to rest. The biggest misconception is, where the team actually sits in regard to our salary cap, and ability to sign our rookie class. A second misconception is what happens when Pittburgh signs the rookie class and how it effects the cap. Here is how our current salary cap situation sits.
First, it's important to understand that NFL rookies are slotted to a certain salary each year due to the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Teams already know exactly what their cap implications are with their draft class. Because of this, the Steelers aren't going to be hit by any major surprises in terms of their salary cap. Only the top 51 salaries count during the offseason. However, things change for Week 1. At that point, all 53 players count against the salary cap, including PUP, IR and the 10-man practice squad players. I‘ll leave my thoughts on the final roster for another time; for right now, I'll only focus on the 51 salaries that count in the offseason and deal with our 2016 fledgling class.
Some basics of NFL rookie contracts:
All the draftees from the top pick to Mr. Irrelevant, have slotted salaries based on their draft position. Rookies' salaries do count against the cap once they are drafted. Their pay is set at $450,000 until they slap their John Hancock on a contract. For Pittsburgh, the greenhorns will not count against the top-51 salary cap. This is due to the fact that their salaries are not more than those of players such as Doran Grant and Alejandro Villanueva. Villanueva and Grant's salaries for 2016 are $525,000. Currently, there are six players in Pittsburgh's top 51 who make $525,000.
As all contracts must be approved by the NFL League Offices, a team cannot actually go over the salary cap. (Things sure have changed since the Steelers were stripped of a third-rounder back in 2001.) All rookies who are drafted are initially signed to four-year contracts, fifth-year contracts are team options and all undrafted rookie free agents are signed to three-year deals.
Let's take a peek at how Pittsburgh sits right now with its salary cap and freshman/fresh meat class.
2016 salary cap: $157,067,378
Top 51: $153,742,346
Cap space: $3,325,032
Steelers' Rookie Pool: $5,103,599
Steelers rookies' projected contracts:
Artie Burns —$1,743,815
This is where it can become baffling. The bottom four players on the Steelers' roster of 51, each have a salary cap figure of $525,000. The $525,000 is their base salary and are not eligible for any bonuses. As you can see, three of the rookies make less than that. Therefore, the team does not actually have to clear cap room for the entire $5.1 million, for the entire Rookie Pool. The salaries of signed rookies Feeney, Ayers and Matakevich will most likely not count until prior to Week 1, when final cuts are made, unless they shine tremendously in camp and preseason, the 3 are most likely destined for the practice squad, at reduced salaries.
The salaries of Burns, Davis, Hargrave and Hawkins, will total $3,695,836. Take the cap space plus the four salaries that drop off the top 51, then subtract the salaries of Burns, Davis, Hargrave and Hawkins and you can see that Pitt remains $1,729,196 below the NFL mandated salary cap. Thus, being able to sign the rookie class and stay under the rookie salary cap, is not something fans need to lose sleep over.
Cap space: $3,325,032
Total rookie cap: $5,103,599
Top 4 draft class: $3,695,836
Bottom 4 salaries: $2,100,000
Steelers' cap space after signing draft class: $1,729,196
Fun fact that should fascinate everyone, but probably only fascinates me (Yeah, I am a big Peter King fan.):
The Bengals were the only team to draft in the same position in every round in 2016.