Creating the ultimate 53-man roster is an easy task without any parameters, but it’s a different exercise when operating under a salary cap. Roster construction becomes more complicated with other restrictions designed to prevent a squad from resembling last season’s All-Pro team. The constraints bring more realism to selection process. The ground rules are as follows.

Parameters

1. The salary cap for the roster is $210.85 million although the actual NFL salary cap is $198.2 million for this year. The number being used is the league’s average adjusted salary cap according to NFLPA data. Each NFL team’s working salary cap varies largely because unused cap room can be carried over from one year to the next. For example, the Colts have league’s highest adjusted salary cap at just over $240.575 million largely thanks to carrying over little more than $41.55 million of cap room. The Cardinals have the lowest at $197.204 million, which is about $1 million below the league wide number. Situations like this typically occur when incentives earned during the previous season that weren’t counting on the cap get accounted for without sufficient cap room carrying over from the prior year to make up the difference. 

2. The NFL draft is an essential element of roster building for NFL teams. It is here also. One player from each round of 2020 draft must be on the roster. The number requirement drops by one player for each year of the preceding three drafts (2017-2019). The limit of one player per round remains. Thus, only four 2017 draft picks are required. There’s one other draft pick constraint. Only one 2016 first round pick whose fifth year option was exercised is allowed regardless of whether he signed a contract extension. Selecting one isn’t a necessity.

3. The backups at each position are limited to players that aren’t established starters so young veterans cracking the lineup for the first time are eligible. Second year players that started at least half of their team’s games or played a minimum of 50 percent of the snaps on their side of the ball don’t qualify as reserves unless their playtime was because of injury. Players competing for starting jobs or where there’s a “by committee approach” at a position, usually running back, are also acceptable. A backfield containing Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey is prohibited since both are workhorse or every down running backs. 

4. There’s one big allowance being made defensively. Three starting cornerbacks are acceptable without sacrificing a starter in a traditional base defense since five or more defensive backs are now used over 60% percent of the time in the NFL. The result is twelve defensive starters. 

5. Choosing a player that was given a franchise or transition designation in 2020 is optional. However, only one player receiving a 2020 designation can be selected.

Roster building philosophy

Selecting an elite quarterback was the top priority since the NFL is a passer driven league. A salary cap friendly potential franchise quarterback is the most valuable commodity in the NFL. This is because of the roster flexibility provided by the low cap number. Choosing one was a necessity. 

An emphasis was also placed on the offensive and defensive lines. The old football adage of “it starts in the trenches” was a guiding principle in assembling the roster.

Long range planning wasn’t taken into account so worrying about future salary cap obligations, the amount of cap room that could be carried over, expiring contracts and drafting players that might develop into starters down the road wasn’t necessary. Different choices would have been made if having to contend with a $175 million salary cap floor for 2021. 

The constraints prevented the selection of reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. He has the NFL’s biggest cap number for a cornerback at $24,421,773. Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones was also too cost prohibitive with a $20,416,668 cap number. Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner remains the gold standard for off-ball linebackers. His $14,756,580 cap number isn’t cost effective either. 

Here’s the team I assembled with some of my thoughts behind the selections. The 2020 cap number for each player is in parentheses.

Offensive starters

QB: Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs ($5,354,058)

Mahomes is the youngest player to ever win both NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP. He is the only quarterback besides Peyton Manning to ever throw for at least 50 touchdowns and 5,000 or more yards in the same season, which he accomplished in 2018 as a first year starter. Mahomes becoming the NFL’s highest paid player was expected. Landing the most lucrative contract in American team sports history at $450 million over 10 years (worth up to $500 million with incentives) took practically everybody by surprise. Mahomes’ 2020 salary cap number remained practically the same after signing his blockbuster contract extension.

RB: Derrick Henry, Titans ($6,005,405)

Having a cost effective quarterback allows for a luxury item in the backfield. Otherwise, an inexpensive lead ball carrier on a rookie contract would have been chosen. Henry led the NFL in rushing (1,540 yards) and tied for the league’s most rushing touchdowns with 16 last season. He really made his mark in the playoffs during the Titans’ run to the AFC Championship Game by becoming the first player to ever have two games of at least 180 rushing yards in the same postseason. Henry is a traditional ball carrier who doesn’t add much in the passing game so a running back with receiving skills is a necessary to complement him.

WR: DeAndre Hopkins, Cardinals ($7,006,580)

Hopkins has the best hands in the business. He rarely drops passes. Over the last five years, Hopkins has the NFL’s second most receptions (504), receiving yards (6,590) and touchdown catches (46). He’ll alternate with Michael Thomas in working out of the slot.

WR: Michael Thomas, Saints ($7,000,940)

Thomas had one of the greatest receiving seasons in league history last year. He set the NFL single season reception record with 149 catches for 1,725 yards. Thomas also holds the record for most catches (473) during the first four seasons of an NFL career. 

WR: Mike Evans, Buccaneers ($8,394,080)

Evans is one of the NFL’s most dangerous deep threats. His 17.5 yards per catch (minimum of 64 receptions) are second in the NFL over the last two years. Evans and Hall of Famer Randy Moss are the only players to ever reach 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first six seasons. 

TE: George Kittle, 49ers ($5,815,094)

Kittle dramatically re-set a stagnant tight end market recently with a five-year extension averaging $15 million per year. The 2017 fifth round pick set the single season receiving yards record by a tight end in 2018 with 1,377 yards. Kittle is the NFL’s most complete tight end because of his blocking ability.

LT: Tyron Smith, Cowboys ($6,432,285)

Nagging injuries have kept Smith from playing all 16 games since 2015. Nonetheless, he still earned Pro Bowl honors for a seventh straight season in 2019. 

LG: Quenton Nelson, Colts ($6,610,798)

In just two NFL seasons, Nelson has emerged to challenge Zack Martin as the league’s best offensive guard. The two-time first team All-Pro is equally adept at pass protection and run blocking.

C: Rodney Hudson, Raiders ($5.237 Million)

Hudson has been the model of consistency for the Raiders since joining the team in 2015 free agency. He is widely considered as the NFL’s best pass blocking center.

RG: Zack Martin, Cowboys ($7,007,520)

Martin has been dominant since entering the NFL in 2014. He’s been named first team All-Pro or All-NFL in each of his six professional seasons. 

RT: Mitchell Schwartz, Chiefs ($10.82 Million)

Schwartz continued to be a Pro Bowl snub last season because a distinction of the tackle positions isn’t made in the selection process. Since the Associated Press differentiates, Schwartz earned All-Pro honors for the fourth straight time.

Defensive starters

DE: Nick Bosa, 49ers ($7,722,944)

Bosa was named 2019’s NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. His 80 quarterback pressures (combined sacks, quarterback hurries and quarterback hits) according to Pro Football Focus were tied for sixth most in the NFL last season. Bosa added four sacks in three games during San Francisco’s playoff run that ended with a loss to the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV.

DT: Aaron Donald, Rams ($25,006,580)

The two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year is unquestionably the most disruptive force from the interior of a defensive line. His 12.5 sacks in 2019 were the second best single season total of his career. Donald set an NFL record for a defensive tackle with 20.5 sacks during the 2018 season. 

DT: Cameron Heyward, Steelers ($9,309,710)

Heyward is a run stuffer with pass rush ability. His 60 quarterback pressures were third among NFL interior defensive lineman according to PFF. 

DE: Cameron Jordan, Saints ($9.097 Million)

Jordan had a career high 15.5 sacks in 2019. His ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks earned a third straight Pro Bowl berth. 

SLB: Demario Davis, Saints ($5.8 Million)

Davis shifts over from his customary middle linebacker spot. He has played his best football since joining the Saints in 2018. Davis was named first team All-Pro by the Associated Press last season. 

MLB: Fred Warner, 49ers ($1,104,067)

Warner’s cost effectiveness was too good to pass up. The 2018 third round pick’s four year rookie deal averages just under $1 million per year. Warner was named November’s NFC Defensive Player of the Month last season after 33 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles in three games.

WLB: Darius Leonard, Colts ($1,982,315)

2018’s NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year didn’t succumb to a sophomore slump. He earned All-Pro honors for a second straight season. His 284 tackles are third most in the NFL over the last two seasons. Leonard also had 12 sacks, which is an impressive total for an off-ball linebacker, and seven interceptions during that span. 

CB: Jalen Ramsey, Rams ($6,209,580)

Ramsey is considered as a shutdown cornerback. He just became the first $20 million per year defensive back in NFL history. 

CB: Darius Slay, Eagles ($4,307,650)

Slay was acquired from the Lions in a March trade to address a glaring weakness in Philadelphia’s secondary. He is one of two cornerbacks to be named to the Pro Bowl (original ballot) in each of the last three years. Ramsey is the other one. 

FS: Kevin Byard, Titans ($4,786,110)

Byard is one of the NFL’s best ball hawks at safety. His 17 interceptions since the beginning of the 2017 season are tops in the NFL.

SS: Budda Baker, Cardinals ($3,783,593)

Baker is the Swiss Army knife of the secondary because of his versatility. He has lined up practically everywhere for the Cardinals. After beginning his career as a special team standout, Baker has developed into a Pro Bowl safety in just three short years. The Cardinals recently rewarded Baker’s success by making him the league’s highest paid safety at $14.75 million per year.

Specialists

K: Justin Tucker, Ravens ($5,105,640)
P: Michael Dickson, Seahawks ($829,118)
LS: Morgan Cox, Ravens ($1,248,460)
KR: Mecole Hardman, Chiefs ($908,191)
PR: Hardman

Tucker is the most accurate kicker in NFL history connecting on 266 of 293 field goal attempts for a 90.8 percent conversion rate (minimum of 100 made). He also has only missed three extra points since attempts were moved back to the 15 yard line in 2015. Dickson, a 2018 fifth round pick, was named first team All-Pro as a rookie. Cox was selected to the Pro Bowl for the third time in his career last season. Hardman handles return duties. The 2019 second  round pick earned All-Pro honors after averaging 26.1 yards on kick returns and 9.3 yards per punt return last season.

Reserves

QB Andy Dalton, Cowboys ($3,005,640)

Dalton provides plenty of experience as Mahomes’ backup. He has started all 133 games he’s played in nine NFL seasons. The Bengals were 70-61-2 in those games.

RB Kareem Hunt, Browns ($4,063,465)
RB Jonathan Taylor, Colts ($1,427,262)
RB Gus Edwards, Ravens ($757,285)
RB Anthony Sherman, Chiefs ($895,020)

Hunt is the third down back. He will get the bulk of the carries in relief of Henry. Hunt won the NFL rushing title in 2017 with 1,327 yards while a member of the Chiefs as a rookie. He is in process of rebuilding his career after a physical altercation with a woman led to his release by Chiefs in 2018 and an eight game suspension last season under the league’s Personal Conduct Policy. Taylor was taken in the second round this year to split time with Marlon Mack, who tore an Achilles in the season opener. Edwards, a 2018 undrafted free agent, is a power running back in Baltimore’s run heavy offense. He has gained over 700 yards on the ground in each of the last two seasons. Sherman is the lone fullback.

WR Dede Westbrook, Jaguars ($2,308,621)
WR Nelson Agholor, Raiders ($895,960)
WR Mecole Hardman, Chiefs ($908,191)

Westbrook has fallen out of favor in Jacksonville with new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden partially because of training camp injuries. He led the Jaguars with 66 receptions in 2018. Agohlor is determined to redeem himself after an injury plagued 2019 season with the Eagles. He started 62 of 72 games he played during five seasons in Philadelphia. Hardman is a speedster who averaged 20.7 yards per catch last season as a rookie.

TE Eric Ebron, Steelers ($3,508.460)
TE Will Dissly, Seahawks ($919,147)

Ebron was brought to Pittsburgh to pair with Vance McDonald because of his receiving skills. He’s also a red zone threat. Ebron tied for the NFL’s second most receiving touchdowns in 2018 with 13. Dissly was taken in 2018’s fourth round primarily because of his blocking ability. He seemed poised to have a breakout year before tearing an Achilles six games into last season. 

OL Mike Remmers, Chiefs ($$895,020)
OL Stefen Wisniewski, Steelers ($1,245,960)
OL Solomon Kindley, Dolphins ($810,463
OL Danny Pinter, Colts ($700,954)

The offensive line depth is a mix of experience and youth. Remmers is the swing tackle. He has been a starter for the last five seasons. Wisniewski, who can play any interior line position, is a good insurance policy. The Chiefs found that out last season. He got in the lineup because of injuries and remained in the postseason during Kansas City’s championship run. Kindley, a 2020 fourth round pick, is Miami’s right guard. Pinter, a 2020 fifth round pick, is making the transition from right tackle to the interior. 

DE Chase Young, Washington Football Team ($6,287,935)
DE Ifeadi Odenigbo, Vikings ($818,610)

Young, the second overall pick in this year’s NFL draft, is a preseason favorite to win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Odenigbo had seven sacks in spot duty last season. 

DT Mike Daniels, Bengals ($1.275 Million)
DT Dre’Mont Jones, Broncos ($959,520)

Daniels was brought to Cincinnati to provide experienced defensive line depth as he’ll do here. Jones was Week 16’s AFC Defensive Player of the Week last season after getting 2.5 sacks against the Lions in one of the only times he received extensive playing time. 

LB Shaun Dion Hamilton, Washington Football Team ($794,832)
LB Dre Greenlaw, 49ers ($762,949)
LB Logan Wilson, Benglas ($902,978)
LB Kaden Elliss, Saints ($700,731)

Dion Hamilton is capitalizing on Ron Rivera taking over as head coach to receive more playing time. The 49ers didn’t miss a beat last season with Greenlaw filling in for Kwon Alexander on the strong side while he recovered from a torn pectoral muscle. A.J. Klein’s departure in free agency and Kiko Alonso rehabbing a torn right ACL suffered in last season’s playoffs have opened to door for Elliss to get on the field. It’s probably just a matter of time before 2020 third round pick Logan Wilson cracks the starting lineup in Cincinnati. 

CB Casey Hayward, Chargers ($10,754,230)
CB J.C. Jackson, Patriots ($761,794)
CB Darious Williams, Rams ($756,580)
CB Chris Jackson, Titans ($632,540)

Hayward is really the 12th starter. He has developed into a top flight cornerback since signing with the Chargers in 2016. Hayward will handle the slot in multiple wide receiver sets. That’s where he initially made his mark after being drafted by the Packers in 2012. New England is extremely deep at cornerback with Jackson joining Jonathan Jones and Jason McCourty to play along Gilmore. Jackson tied for fourth in the NFL with five interceptions last season. Williams capably filling in for Troy Hill last season while his thumb healed has earned him more playing time. Jackson was a pleasant surprise for the Titans during training camp.

S Julian Love-Giants ($894,295)
S Jordan Fuller-Rams ($655,377)

Love, a 2019 fourth round pick, is capable of playing both cornerback and safety. Fuller impressed in his NFL debut against the Cowboys 

Tale of the tape

Total salary cap room used (53 Players): $204,975,146
Remaining salary cap room: $5,874,854
Offense (25 Players): $91,725,208
Defense (25 Players): $106,066,720
Specialists (3 Players): $7,183,218

Positional salary breakdown

(Salary cap percentage in parentheses)

QB: $8,359,698 (3.96%)
RB: $13,148,437 (6.24%)
WR: $20,214,372 (9.59%)
TE: $10,242,701 (4.86%)
OL: $39.76 Million (18.86%)
DE: $23,926,489 (11.35%)
DT: $36,550,810 (17.33%)
LB: $12,047,872 (5.71%)
CB: $23,422,374 (11.11%)
S: $10,119,175 (4.8%)

Final thoughts

All of the cap room isn’t being used. A cushion has been left for a full practice squad of 16 players (approximately $2.65 million) and to sign players when the inevitable injuries happen during the season. 

There is a bigger allocation of cap resources to defense, which should be expected with a low cost starting quarterback. 47.5 percent of the available cap space is devoted to the offensive and defensive lines, which is consistent with the starting in the trenches philosophy. 

Not surprisingly, the reigning Super Bowl champion Chiefs lead the way with five players. The Colts, 49ers, Rams and Saints have four players each. Eight clubs (Bears, Bills, Eagles, Falcons, Jets, Lions, Packers and Panthers) didn’t have a player selected.

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