The NFL salary cap is expected to exceed $126MM in the 2014 season, and while that figure gives teams a good deal of spending flexibility, each and every club will still have to fill out the back of its roster with players earning minimum salaries. The amount of that minimum salary varies from player to player, depending on service time. A veteran with 10 or more years of NFL experience is eligible for a minimum salary that more than doubles a rookie’s minimum salary.
For the 2014 season, the minimum base salary for a rookie will be worth $420K, while a veteran of 10+ years will earn $955K on a minimum salary. However, those figures are on the rise with each passing year, increasing annually by $15K. Here’s a breakdown of what the NFL’s minimum salaries will look like from the 2013 season through 2020 (dollar amounts in thousands):
Hypothetically, let’s suppose that when free agency opens next month, a player with three years of experience signs a two-year contract worth the minimum salary, with no signing bonus. His salary for the first year of the deal would be $645K, the 2014 amount for a player with three years of experience. The second year would check in at $745K, the 2015 figure for a player with four years of experience.
Players on minimum base salaries can still receive various kinds of bonuses, but those will count toward the player’s cap number, so teams are generally reluctant to include significant signing bonuses on minimum salary contracts.
As for that cap number, a team can avoid having a veteran player’s full minimum salary count against the cap by signing him to a qualifying contract. The league’s Minimum Salary Benefit Rule ensures that, for a player with four or more years of experience, his cap hit on a minimum salary contract will only be equal to the cap number for a minimum-salary player with two years of experience — for 2014, that figure is $570K. To qualify for this reduced cap number, the contract must be for no more than one year, and the bonus money cannot exceed $65K (this maximum bonus increases by $15K every three years).
In other words, let’s say a player with nine years of experience signs a one-year, minimum-salary contract with the Cowboys for the 2014 season. The deal also includes a signing bonus of $30K. While that player would earn a total salary of $885K (a base minimum of $855K plus the $30K bonus), the cap hit for Dallas would only be $600K — the $570K minimum, plus the $30K bonus. This rule ensures that teams won’t necessarily opt to sign young players over veterans in an effort to minimize cap charges.
While a player can sign a contract with a team and spend a full season with the franchise, that doesn’t necessarily earn him a credited season for minimum salary purposes. A player must be on a club’s 53-man roster for at least three weeks in order to earn a credited season. So if a rookie spends three games on a team’s 53-man roster, and then is cut, he’ll be considered to have one year of experience the following season, even if he didn’t appear in a single game. However, if a player spends two games on a team’s 53-man roster, then is placed on injured reserve, that’s not a credited season.
Players on injured reserve may also not earn their full minimum salaries. The contracts for many young players and veterans with injury histories include what is known as a split salary, so that if the player is placed on injured reserve, his salary is reduced to an IR minimum. Here’s the breakdown of what those minimum salary figures look like for the next several years:
While there are plenty of rules and guidelines surrounding minimum salary contracts, the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement doesn’t include a limit on what a player can earn a season. A team must fit its full roster under the salary cap, which is why we typically don’t see annual salaries larger than $20-25MM. But with no defined maximum salary in place, an NFL team could, in theory at least, pay a player for double or triple that amount, assuming that player was surrounded by a few dozen teammates on minimum salaries.
Note: This is a PFR Glossary entry. Our glossary posts will explain specific rules relating to free agency, trades, or other aspects of the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement. Information from OverTheCap.com was used in the creation of this post.