Top 51 Rule & Salary Cap Space Explained

At the start of the new league year in March until the start of the first league week of the regular season, the NFL teams operate under the “Top 51” rule for salary cap calculations.  During the offseason and training camp, NFL teams can maintain a roster of up to 90 active players.  Due to the Top 51 rule the teams do not need to account for all 90 players to fit under the team’s adjusted salary cap.  So which contracts are used for this calculation?  Simply put…the Top 51 contracts based on value; along with other items.  Rank the salary cap charges for each player in descending order, add up the highest 51 ranked charges.

The team must also account for any pro-rated signing bonus money for players outside of the Top 51 rank.  For the Texans, this means the team must account for pro-rated signing bonus money for 20 additional players.  The team must also account for any players on Injured Reserve, injury settlements and grievances, and of course “dead money” incurred as a result of player transactions.

Now we will break down the salary cap space table (as of today) line by line to better explain, the table can be found here.

Contracts:  89

The team currently has 89 players under contract.  There are exemptions available for a player to not count against the 90 player maximum.

NFL Salary Cap:  $143,280,000

This is the un-adjusted amount set by the NFL for each team for salary cap space.

Team Carryover:  $966,613

This is the amount of salary cap space the team carried over from the 2014 league year.  The team has the option to carry over all or nothing remaining from the previous season.  The St. Louis Rams was the only team which elected not to carry over money from 2014.

Team Adjustment:  $1,217,533

The year end adjustment is basically an accounting function for each team.  The adjustment can be positive or negative amount.  There are numerous factors that go into the equation for the team adjustment.  For the Texans most of the adjustment came in the form of a refund for Andre Johnson’s $1,000,000 workout bonus that he did not earn during the 2014 season.

Effective Cap:  $145,464,146

This represents the Texans adjusted salary cap space to work with during the 2015 league year.  This is the set NFL salary cap + carryover + adjustment.

Top 51 Rule Spending:  $126,328,072

This amount reflects the sum of the Top 51 salary cap charges and pro-rated signing bonus money outside of the Top 51.

Injured Reserve:  $0

This would be the sum of salary cap charges for players designated to the injured reserve list.

Dead Money:  $11,633,856

Dead money is the un-accounted for money left in a contract, generally remaining pro-rated signing bonus money.  For my calculations I also include injury settlement money in this section as well.

Estimated Cap Space:  $7,502,2108

This is the final number, the estimated salary cap space remaining for the team to utilize for the remainder of the league year.  Calculated:  Effective Cap – (Top 51 Rule + Injured Reserve + Dead Money)


One thing to remember when the Top 51 rule is in effect is the difference between player cap charges when a transaction is made.  On May 21st the team released Tyson Clabo, who carried a $1,300,000 salary cap charge.  Upon the player release there was $100,000 in dead money remaining in the contract; thus creating a $1,200,000 savings towards the cap.  Clabo was in the Top 51.  When you remove his contract, the #52 ranked contract then moves up into the Top 51.  For the Texans this was a player with a $510,000 salary, which now is accounted for in the Top 51 spending.  In reality, the release of Clabo created a net savings of $710,000…not $1,200,000.

If you have any questions please post them below in the comment section so that I can answer them.  Or you can always email me


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