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Providing answers to common NFL salary cap questions

Scratching your head trying to figure out NFL salary cap? Let me try to make things crystal clear.

Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL salary cap is convoluted beyond belief, and not an easy concept to figure out. Below is a list of some of the most common questions I see on BTSC with regard to it; I will try to answer them to the best of my ability. There are probably fewer than 200 people on the planet who fully understand the salary cap and all of its components. I am not one of them. Also, just a disclaimer: Not all components of the salary cap are detailed below. In addition to it being incredibly complex there also are a number of aspects of it that the Pittsburgh Steelers do not implement.

How much of total NFL revenue will the players receive?

The simple answer is 48 percent, and it will remain so through 2020. How is this calculated? Oh no, I'm not touching that one. The CBA outlines this in ten pages. Here is the full CBA in PDF if you would like to peruse it.

What is the Top 51 and who counts against it?

During the offseason when rosters are bloated with up to 90 active players, not all the players count against the Steelers' salary cap. Only the largest 51 salaries count. The only current Pitt. player who does not count against the 2016 salary cap is Martavis Bryant, due to his one-year suspension.

The Steelers have a cap total of $157 million but the NFL stated total for 2016 is $155.27 million. How is this possible?

Think of this in terms of your unused minutes on your cell phone. If you have a good plan, what does not get used one month can be carried over to the next. NFL teams can carryover any unused cap space from the previous season. Carryover amounts are declared at the end of the regular season. One notable detail, is that teams do not have to carryover the entire amount of that unused cap space. Denver for one, held back $267,000 last season to protect itself from other playoff teams stealing its practice squad players.

The Steelers currently have two draft picks unsigned: Artie Burns and Javon Hargrave. Do they currently count against the Top 51?

The short answer is: No. The long answer is: Not yet. Drafts picks count $450,000 towards the salary cap, but because this is the minimum salary, they rarely break into the Top 51. Burns and Hargrave will enter the Top 51, when they sign their contracts.

Why do some teams get more Rookie Cap pool then others?

Those teams have more draft picks. Every draft pick's salary is slotted based upon his draft position.

Can a rookie negotiate for a higher salary?

Nope. The only thing a player can negotiate is offset language and how their bonuses are paid out.

What is dead money and why is there dead money for Doran Grant even though he is on the Pittsburgh roster?

Dead money is accrued when teams cut players who already have been paid bonuses. Grant's case, he was cut in 2015 but had already been paid a signing bonus. No matter the length of the contract, all that bonus money comes due in that year, unless post June 1st. (Read below for more details on post June 1st cuts) Voidable years in a contract work in this way too.

What happens when a player is traded or retires?

The treatment is the same as if the player had been waived. All bonus comes due to the team that is trading him. This means that if the Steelers were to trade Big Ben, Pittsburgh would have to eat all of his signing bonus, but not anything else in his contract. This is the main reason there are not many blockbuster deals in the NFL.

When do teams have to come into compliance with the salary cap?

League years start the first week in March and compliance is necessary at this time.

What happens to a team that goes over the cap?

They can not exceed the cap. All contracts are approved by the NFL. A contract that would push a team over the cap would be rejected. The Steelers and Niners, in 2001, were both found to be circumventing the salary cap intentionally and were penalized draft picks for making undisclosed non-contract payments.

Why is June 1 an important date with regard to the NFL's salary cap?

Teams are able to stretch dead money over into the next season's cap if a player is cut after June 1. Only one player can be designated as a post-June 1 cut, though. Players are usually cut in this fashion due to roster bonuses scheduled a few days into the league year in March. LaMarr Woodley is the most notable Steeler to have this done.

Bruce Gradkowski is scheduled to make $965,000 but he only counts $680,000 against the cap. Why?

This is known as the Minimum Salary Benefit Rule (MSB). The MSB allows veteran players to not be replaced by younger cheaper players just because of salary cap constraints. Vets must have at least four NFL seasons accrued to qualify. This is a complicated aspect of the CBA that would take an entire article to explain on its own. The Steelers currently have four other MSB contracts, besides Gradkowski's.

As there are 53 players on the regular season roster and ten practice squad players, when do they count against the cap?

Every NFL team must come into full compliance by the first game of the NFL season. The additional two players and the full practice squad count against the cap at that point.

These are just some of the most common questions I see BTSC members asking about, some of which I have seen some misinformation on. Again there are some aspects of the team's salary cap that I didn't delve into mainly because the Steelers either never or very rarely utilize them. Unlike other teams, the Steelerss sign contracts that are pretty straight forward with few crazy caveats which makes Pitt's salary cap easier to figure out then other teams. Also contrary to what some may think, having very little cap space, is a good thing. Teams usually have larger amounts of cap space because of a lack of talent or because of backloaded contracts that are going to bite them hard. Drew Brees with his $30 million cap hit in 2016 is a prime example.