Team salary includes the amount a team pays its current or former players under their player contracts. The Salary Cap does NOT include pay to coaches, assistants, trainers, or other team employees. Only the highest 51 player salaries
for a team count against the Salary Cap in the offseason while ALL player salaries of a team count in calculating the team total Salary Cap during the season.
This includes a player that is on Injured Reserve (IR), Physically Unable to Perform (PUP), and the Practice Squad (PS). Practice Squad contracts are included in a team’s Salary Cap during the season except in certain situations where a practice squad player is signed to another team’s 53-man roster.
The top 51 rule states that from the beginning of the League Year (early March) until the day before the first regular season game, only the highest 51 highest P5 (“Paragraph 5” of a standard NFL contract, which is typically the player’s yearly base salary) player contracts amounts will be included and counted against a team’s Salary Cap. Each team must be under the Salary Cap by the first regular season game.
The top 51 rule means that for any player whose P5, again essentially meaning base salary, is not among the team’s highest 51 Cap numbers, his base salary would not count against the team’s total Salary Cap number during the offseason. However, all of the bonuses a player who does not fall under the top 51 would count against the team’s total Salary Cap.
For example, imagine a team’s 51st highest Cap number is $500,000. The team’s next highest Cap number is $475,000, which belongs to a second year player and the base salary is $465,000. That means there is $5,000 of a signing bonus proration and say a $5,000 workout bonus. This player falls outside the team’s top 51 highest salaries, therefore the players base salary of $465,000 does not count against the team Salary Cap, but the $10,000 would count against the team Salary Cap. The rest of the players on the team who are outside the top 51 would not have their minimum base salaries count against the Salary Cap, but would have their bonuses or other compensation count against the team Salary Cap.
There are two exceptions to a player who is not in the top 51 counting against the teams Salary Cap. In the case of if an amount exceeds the minimum active/inactive list salary for an undrafted rookie free agent (meaning if an undrafted rookie receives a salary greater than the league minimum) and if any amount exceeds twice the applicable minimum active/inactive list salary for all other players. These two exceptions have been extremely rare because teams traditionally give undrafted rookies minimum base salaries.