This assignment would have been much harder to do before 2011, when a first-round quarterback could sign a rookie contract for nearly $80 million. Now, the way those first-time deals work, good teams have been able to build very deep and strong rosters around their young stars, a la the Seahawks, Bengals and Raiders, taking advantage of the low-cost play callers on their rosters.
Our goal here is to build the best team possible with a $167 million budget, which is the NFL salary cap for the 2017 season. We saw this idea from Jon Ledyard of Fanragsports.com and the guys at Pats Pulpit, and we thought we’d take a spin at it, too. Both followed the same rules: no true rookies allowed, the focus for the roster has to be winning right now - although in the Patriots blog’s case, the squad was assembled for the 2018 season as well, and the roster must be built with scheme fit and personnel deployment in mind. I will stick to those guidelines, too.
A player’s cap hit for the 2017 season will be considered their salary. The first players listed are the starters.
My motto: defense wins championships.
Dak Prescott (Cowboys) $635,848
Trevor Siemian (Broncos) $628,195
Yes, there are many better quarterbacks than Prescott in the NFL, and I realize that is the most important position in football. But the Cowboys signal caller had a tremendous rookie season and he looks like a future star. Saving money here will allow us to spend on a strong offensive line and a fearsome pass rush. If a defense is good enough, even guys like Eli Manning or Joe Flacco can win a Super Bowl, go figure. Investing in protection for our quarterback will avoid a repeat of Andrew Luck’s past two years.
Siemian is good enough to be a fringe starter and should be more than qualified to hold the fort in case Prescott goes down. AJ McCarron was considered, but he’s almost $100k more expensive, and as Mike Brown can tell you, every dollar counts.
- Running backs
David Johnson (Cardinals) $799,843
Theo Riddick (Lions) $2,400,000
Jordan Howard (Bears) $602,005
Knile Davis (Steelers) $615,000
John Kuhn (Saints) $695,000
You see how easy it is? There are so many great players still in their rookie contracts that you can actually spare some money in a true third-down specialist in Riddick. Johnson is near the best already after a monster sophomore season, and my plan is to give him the best offensive line in recent history. Howard can be the horseback if Johnson misses any time and this team wouldn’t miss a beat. Davis provides special teams playmaking ability.
Kuhn at fullback provides the playoff experience any contender needs, and he’s still serviceable enough after a recording career-high 16 catches last season with New Orleans.
- Wide receivers
Michael Thomas (Saints) $1,163,403
Brandin Cooks (Patriots) $1,563,198
Jarvis Landry (Dolphins) $1,105,654
Stefon Diggs (Vikings) $671,928
Tyler Lockett (Seahawks) $891,687
Everybody loves A.J. Green, Julio Jones and even Dez Bryant, but these rookie deals are just too hard to pass on and those three players are paid top money, as they deserve. Thomas is already a true number one, and Cooks is a perfect complement on the other side. Landry can work exclusively out of the slot and be also included in a ton of gimmick plays - you see, I’m considering hiring a pretty imaginative offensive coordinator. Diggs as your fourth wide receiver is just ridiculous, and Lockett is a weapon on special teams and also a fantastic deep threat.
- Tight ends
Rob Gronkowski (Patriots) $6,750,000
Martellus Bennett (Packers) $3,850,000
Cameron Brate (Buccaneers) $690,000
All the money we didn’t spend on a top wide receiver pays off now. Gronk is the best ever at the position and he’s also a tremendous blocker, which will fit well with the offense we’re assembling. Bennett is highly underrated and he’s also a funny dude to have around in your locker room, plus those two worked pretty well together last season in New England. Brate is a very nice option to have off the bench and also another tall target for Prescott in the end zone.
- Offensive tackles
Tyron Smith (Cowboys) $8,820,000
Mitchell Schwartz (Chiefs) $6,900,000
Donovan Smith (Buccaneers) $1,655,144
Ryan Schraeder (Falcons) $2,300,000
I was tempted to go with Jason Peters at left tackle, but Smith saves us some dollars and he’s pretty great, too. Donovan Smith played much better in the second half of the season and he’s only two seasons into his NFL career, so he can improve a lot this summer and become a force in 2017. I went with Schwartz at right instead of Ricky Wagner but it was close. Schraeder had a nice year with the Falcons and he’s got experience under an innovative offensive coordinator like Kyle Shanahan. Except Donovan Smith, each offers playoff experience and have the perfect combination of youth and seasoning.
- Interior linemen
Marshal Yanda (Ravens) $9,125,220
Matt Paradis (Broncos) $615,000
Kyle Long (Bears) $8,000,000
Zack Martin (Cowboys) $2,853,391
Cody Whitehair (Bears) $960,129
Shaq Mason (Patriots) $725,881
I don’t think you have to be David Johnson to run behind this interior linemen. All of these guys can excel at pass protection and run blocking, and Whitehair and Mason offer a lot of versatility. With a young quarterback and young runners, I went looking for experienced guys inside, and considering the increasing pressure opposing defenses are putting on guards and centers nowadays, this is money well spent.
- Edge rushers
Khalil Mack (Raiders) $5,942,682
Michael Bennett (Seahawks) $11,268,750
Danielle Hunter (Vikings) $792,805
Trent Murphy (Redskins) $1,423,163
Trey Flowers (Patriots) $754,733
You can never have enough pass rushers, NEVER. Mack can play both with his hands in the dirt or from the two-point stance, and Bennett is the ultimate weapon for a 4-3 defense. The Seahawks defensive end might never have the numbers of some of the other guys in the unit, but he can do it all and at a great level. His intensity will also make sure this team never lacks an edge.
- Defensive tackles
J.J. Watt (Texans) $14,500,000
Aaron Donald (Rams) $3,225,250
Brandon Williams (Ravens) $6,000,000
Timmy Jernigan (Eagles) $1,017,284
Watt is the best defensive player in the league, and his contract is affordable and moreso for our team after saving so much money at the quarterback position. Donald is an amazing bargain and boosts the inside pass rush greatly. Combined with a beast at nose tackle like Williams, he would be much more terrifying. Jernigan at that price is impossible to pass on, and he’s already switching to a 4-3 scheme in Philadelphia.
Dont’a Hightower (Patriots) $5,335,931
Vontaze Burfict (Bengals) $4,725,000
Ryan Shazier (Steelers) $3,025,022
C.J. Mosley (Ravens) $2,796,183
Jordan Hicks (Eagles) $796,183
Hightower is the Michael Bennett of linebackers, a man able to do it all and the perfect quarterback of the defense. If he goes down, you have Mosley to back him up. Burfict is a very smart football player and a tackling machine with great instincts for the passing game. Shazier can man the strong side and or be the LEO linebacker.
Jalen Ramsey (Jaguars) $5,307,045
Marcus Peters (Chiefs) $2,613,861
Malcolm Butler (Patriots) $3,910,000
Jason Verrett (Chargers) $2,510,137
Bashaud Breeland (Redskins) $1,918,500
Xavien Howard (Dolphins) $1,392,736
Ramsey, Peters and Verrett are the next big thing at the cornerback position in the NFL and they’re all still playing on their rookie deals. If the opponents somehow avoid getting destroyed by our front four, then they would still have to beat this very talented and versatile secondary. Butler brings championship experience to the unit and Howard’s amazing speed and potential at the back end.
Eric Berry (Chiefs) $5,000,000
Landon Collins (Giants) $1,669,243
HaHa Clinton-Dix (Packers) $2,653,159
Keith Tandy (Buccaneers) $840,000
Berry brings the whole package: leadership, athleticism, playmaking. If Hightower is the quarterback of our defense, Berry is the center fielder. I really like Tandy’s versatility and Clinton-Dix can man either position in the unit.
Justin Tucker (Ravens) $4,300,000
The best kicker in the game will take advantage of a powerful defense and a strong running game, and if all of that fails, which is highly unlikely, he will score a ton of 60-yard field goals.
Johnny Hekker (Rams) $2,373,773
I don’t think he’d ever have to play a snap for this team, but if he does he’ll probably have the opposing offense starting at their 2-yard or 3-yard line, being generous.
- Long snapper and special teamer
Jake McQuaide (Rams) $875,000
Matthew Slater (Patriots) $1,700,000
If Hekker isn’t playing, at least he can keep his now-Rams buddy and talk about their varied hobbies on the bench.
Slater is a six-time Pro Bowler and we could afford him, plus he can share some of Bill Belichick’s knowledge for kick coverage or something.
- Total cap liabilities: $163,682,966
- Team cap space: $3,317,034
- Offense: $65,016,526
- Defense: $89,417,667
- Special teams: $9,248,773
Source for all contract data: Spotrac
How do you think we did?