Patrick Mahomes to Stefon Diggs: The Best NFL Team Money Can Buy
As cutdown day approaches, a popular form of NFL fanfic is to try to assemble the perfect 53-man roster—the ideal collection of players and talent, squeezed in under the salary cap, that would guarantee you a title, or come close, at any rate. It's ridiculous, it's goofy, it's utterly unproductive, and it's tons of fun, something I have been doing off and on for years because that's the sort of nerd stuff you do when you obsessively follow a sport.
The Shield itself even got into the action this year, with Anthony Holzman-Escareno producing an impressive list of talent over at NFL.com. The Best Team Money Can Buy, they boast, with a roster featuring Lavonte David sitting on the bench, Shaq Barrett as a rotational pass-rusher and somehow managing to get both Patrick Mahomes and Myles Garrett on the same team even though they were both first-round picks in 2017 and have never hit the open market. The NFL's team must have been tanking for draft picks in 2016. The roster's great fun, but doesn't make a lot of sense going backwards.
We mock because we love. Last week on Twitter, I did a similar exercise and came up with a similarly loaded roster. Nick Bosa and Alex Mack warming the bench; George Kittle, Darren Waller, and Rob Gronkowski fighting for limited tight end snaps; and so on and so forth. I even included a draft history to explain how this roster could possibly have been put together. It would have taken a nigh-omnipotent scouting department to hit on every draft pick for the last four years, but in theory, it was doable. Of course, the flaw here is that while that ideal roster fits snugly under the 2021 salary cap, it balloons to $344.7 million in 2022, with bloodletting aplenty coming as soon as the confetti settles from the Super Bowl LVI parade. The new TV deals will help, but they won't help that much.
So today we're trying to hit the sweet spot. We're looking to assemble the perfect roster, not just for today, but for yesterday and tomorrow as well. The best team that could have been assembled over the past few drafts and fits not only under the 2021 cap, but 2022 and beyond. A feasible version of the unfeasible team.
Our team is limited to one pick from each round of the 2018-2021 drafts as well as one first-rounder from 2017 thanks to the fifth-year extension and one undrafted player from each of the last four seasons. That gives us 33 players on comparatively cheap contracts; the remaining 20 slots can be any veteran we fancy. We are allowed to poach players who never hit free agency in real life, but we're stopping ourselves from racking up tons of cheap deals on players who haven't even had the theoretical opportunity to switch teams yet.
This year, our team is based around one fact: the most valuable thing you can have in the NFL is a top quarterback on a cheap deal. We're squeezing the last year out of Patrick Mahomes' rookie contract, knowing all the while that his contract extension kicks in next year. Our plan, then, is to surround Mahomes with a core of quality talent that is both young and cheap, and then fill most of the rest of the roster with veterans on the last years of large deals. Those vets will have to be replaced by lower-quality players in 2022 and beyond, but this team is going all in to produce a veritable All-Pro team this year while still being lethal even under the restriction of the largest quarterback contract the world has ever seen.
There are a number of ways you can address the quarterback position. Mike Tanier put together his All-Value team earlier this month and jumped on Tom Brady for his starting lineup. Brady is more expensive in 2021 but cheaper next season, and would allow us to use that 2017 fifth-year pick on a Myles Garrett or a T.J. Watt, getting a top edge rusher at a reduced price.
We could also take Lamar Jackson. The 2019 MVP is still on his rookie deal and costs the Ravens a ridiculous $3.0 million against the cap this season.
But in the end, Patrick Mahomes is the best passer in the league, period. The whole point of scrimping and saving and finding value at other positions is to be able to splurge on superstars to put you over the top—something the Houston Texans front office should probably be told. And, again, Mahomes is still technically on his rookie deal, costing just $7.4 million against the cap this year. In a world where Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan, and Jimmy Garoppolo each costs over $26.0 million, this is essentially stealing.
When Mahomes' deal balloons to $35.8 million in 2022, our team will have to make due with backups making close to the veteran's minimum. That's a problem for 2022, however; our backups this year can be a little more active. One of the few situations where you ever might consider taking Mahomes off the field would be at the goal line, where you probably don't want to risk your franchise on too many sneaks. Enter Cam Newton ($5.4 million). A healthy Newton is a weapon unmatched elsewhere in the NFL, and he looks quite healthy so far this year. We'll experiment with him as our Jacoby Brissett-esque goal-line quarterback, luxury-edition. And if Newton's myriad injuries spark up again, and Mahomes misses time (as he has each of the last two years), we have Teddy Bridgewater ($4.4 million) as an emergency passer, someone who can keep the ship afloat while our MVPs heal up.
Total 2021 Cost: $17.3 million, or less than Carson Wentz.
Don't draft running backs, the strawman analyst says. We'll tweak that just a bit for our exercise: don't sign running backs to second contracts. The oracles in our front office can be counted on to find cheap running backs on a regular basis, so our backfield will feature an ever-rotating cast of young players who probably deserve to be paid a bit more. We don't need to spend a first-round pick on a running back when we have our 2020 UDFA James Robinson ($0.8 million) in the backfield. Robinson's our change-of-pace thumper to go along with the more elusive Antonio Gibson ($1.1 million). For 15% as much as Derrick Henry will cost, we get two of the top 25 backs in rushing DYAR from a year ago, and I suspect they'll have some room to run in this offense.
Of course, what our modern offense really wants out of running backs is receiving prowess, so we'll add Nyheim Hines ($2.4 million) and Myles Gaskin ($0.9 million), who finished second and fourth in receiving DYAR in 2020. Hines will double as our primary returner, a mini-Darren Sproles for the modern age.
Total 2021 Cost: $5.1 million, or 70% less than Melvin Gordon.
The past few drafts have seen an embarrassment of riches at the wide receiver position. Just from the 2019 draft alone, we had to pass on A.J. Brown, Diontae Johnson, Hunter Renfrow, Deebo Samuel, and Mecole Hardman thanks to the one-player-per-round rule. With perfect foresight, you have to be a pretty special receiver to earn a veteran contract with this group of talent.
Stefon Diggs is a pretty special receiver, and a special receiver who only counts $6.4 million against the cap this season due to how Buffalo restructured his contract in last year's trade. Diggs' contract goes up in future years, but he still has just the ninth-biggest cap hit among receivers in 2022 and 2023. There are cheaper long-term options available—Tanier again points out the Tylers Boyd and Lockett, and JuJu Smith-Schuster even manages to squeeze under Diggs' 2021 cap hit, somehow—but there's no one out there who's both cheaper and better. We'll take last year's plus-minus leader as the alpha dog in our receiving corps.
Diggs will be supported by the 2019 NFL draft, which may end up challenging 1996 for the best class of pass-catchers the league has ever seen. Second-rounder DK Metcalf ($1.3 million) and third-rounder Terry McLaurin ($1.1 million) are our first-choice players for our three-wide sets, with either Diggs or McLaurin moving inside to the slot. Backing them up are fifth-round pick Darius Slayton ($0.9 million) and sixth-round pick Scott Miller ($0.9 million), as well as the baby of the group in 2020 fifth-round pick Darnell Mooney ($0.9 million).
We don't really have a pure slot receiver in this group, though Diggs, McLaurin, and Mooney all saw between 45% and 60% of their targets in the slot a year ago. What we do have are six receivers who can all turn upfield at any point in time; five of them had an average depth of target of at least 10.0 yards, and McLaurin was somewhat hampered by having Alex Smith attempting to throw him the ball. Our corps is built for speed; our rookie players all ran a sub-4.4s 40-yard dash, with Diggs being the slowpoke at 4.46. It's already a nightmare trying to stop Mahomes from hooking up with Tyreek Hill; now he has an entire track team at his disposal on intermediate and deep routes. And that just opens things up underneath for our backs and tight ends.
Total 2021 Cost: $11.4 million, or less than Mike Williams.
The cheapest of the top three tight ends in 2021 is George Kittle, as his extension doesn't really kick in until 2022. At some point, though, you have to prioritize which extensions to fit under the cap, so Kittle doesn't make the cut on our team today. Instead, Darren Waller ($6.4 million) is our lead tight end, as we "settle" for a player who was first and third in receiving DYAR over the past two seasons. I believe we shall survive. He'll be joined by Rob Gronkowski ($3.0 million) in our two-tight end sets. Gronk's no longer the same player he once was, but he is still a very solid contributor in the passing game and an eager blocker. Jared Cook ($4.5 million) is a receiver in tight end's clothing, more so than even Waller or Gronk, but hey, we're going with a theme here and sticking with it.
Of course, none of Waller, Gronk, or Cook especially cover themselves with glory as blockers. I really wanted Robert Tonyan on the team, but taking a fourth receiving threat over an in-line blocker is an excessive luxury—besides, when is Tonyan getting on the field with this group? MyCole Pruitt ($1.0 million) has spent the last three years as a solid run-blocking tight end in Tennessee; you're not going to find better for cheaper and I ain't spending more than a million on an in-line blocker! I already splurged on my three pass-catchers; fiscal responsibility has to come in at some point, one would assume.
Total 2021 Cost: $14.9 million.
At left tackle, Trent Williams ($8.2 million) is in the argument for best tackle in the league even at age 33; he's one of the few players we're accepting a long-term deal on because protecting our $450 million quarterback seems like an important thing to do. Williams won't be able to play forever, however, and so our team spent our last two first-round picks at the position to be set for the future. Tristan Wirfs ($3.7 million) holds down the right side like he did in Tampa Bay as a rookie, meaning we don't have to change Penei Sewell ($4.4 million) from the left to the right as a rookie; we can afford to sit our first-round pick as he adapts to NFL speed. Charles Leno ($4.0 million) is our veteran swing should anything happen; Williams is having his knee drained so you can never be too careful.
We're going with more youth at guard, where our three players have a combined four years of experience. The Bills have to be kicking themselves for letting Wyatt Teller ($2.2 million) loose; he has found an All-Pro form since moving to right guard in Cleveland. Michael Onwenu ($0.8 million) was good enough as a rookie last year that our own Ben Muth argued that he should have been rookie of the year. Onwenu, who played well at right tackle and both guard positions, will be our left guard in 2021. Behind them is sixth-round rookie Trey Smith ($0.7 million), who is already pushing for the starting right guard job in Kansas City. We don't need him to start here, but it's a nice level of talent to have in your sixth-round pick. Those are the kinds of hits the Chiefs will need to remain competitive under Mahomes' large contract in real life, so we'll just ape that here. Our three guards cost less than the Jets are paying Dan Feeney alone.
I still don't know why the Raiders let Rodney Hudson ($2.9 million) go; they were originally going to release him for nothing before they realized that the Cardinals would give them a third-round pick for an aging player who is still one of the top 10 pivots in the game. Add that to the ever-growing pile of things that confuse me about how Las Vegas does business. Our backup, Austin Blythe ($1.0 million) just underwent sports hernia surgery, which is less than ideal, but he'll be ready to go in September, and possibly as early as Week 1. I strongly considered splurging for Ryan Jensen and his $10.0-million contract here, but decided that that money could better be spent elsewhere; instead, we get two solid options for less than the Bengals are paying Trey Hopkins.
Total 2021 Cost: $27.8 million
Chandler Jones ($20.2 million) wants a new contract. He won't be getting one from this team; his deal expires after this season just in time for Mahomes' extension to hit the stratosphere, but when a player of Jones' caliber is complaining about being underpaid, they're probably a decent fit for a salary cap team like this one. Jones gets the nod over players such as Joey Bosa or Khalil Mack, both of whom have smaller cap hits in 2021, specifically because he isn't under contract for the future. When we said we were going all in with veterans on expiring contracts to take advantage of Mahomes' last cheap year, Jones is exactly the sort of player we were talking about. We'll take one last season of double-digit sacks from a healthy Jones, shake his hand, hand him his gold watch, and wave goodbye to him in 2022.
His long-term replacement as our top pass-rusher is Nick Bosa ($9.3 million), our speedier option to Jones' more power-focused game. I will admit that counting on Jones coming back from a torn biceps and Bosa coming back from a torn ACL is a little worrisome, but they look great in camp and I'm struggling to imagine opposing offensive lines neutralizing both of them. Still, better safe than sorry, which is why we also have Brandon Graham ($8.0 million), coming off of his first Pro Bowl season, as part of our pass-rush rotation. Putting all three on the field on third downs and letting them pin their ears back should generate just a wee bit of pressure, one would hope.
Because we're splurging so much at the top end, we're filling out our edge rushers with 2021 rookies. Both Ronnie Perkins ($0.9 million) and Shaka Toney ($0.7 million) are undersized speed guys who are going to be limited to pass-rush specialist roles if they make it in the pros. As rookies on this squad, they're going to be playing a lot of special teams.
Total 2021 Cost: $39.0 million
While we couldn't quite clear the decks enough to bring Aaron Donald onto the roster thanks to his escalating contract in future seasons, we have put together quite the rotation on the inside of the line. Michael Pierce ($5.0 million) returns after opting out of 2020 as our gummer-up in chief; he had a run stop rate of 71% last time he played and will plug up the middle just fine on rushing downs. Calais Campbell ($13.0 million) may have seen his best days come and go as he battled a calf injury last season, but he's not that far removed from the player who had double-digit sacks two years in a row as an interior lineman in 2017 and 2018. Rotating more frequently will help keep the 35-year-old Campbell fresh, so we're taking on Ndamukong Suh ($3.0 million) and accepting his 2022 void year as part of the cost of doing business.
Deeper in the rotation, Sebastian Joseph-Day ($2.2 million) doesn't get a ton of praise in Los Angeles as a space-eating interior lineman, but he did a great job forcing opponents to bounce outside in Brandon Staley's defense last year. He'll be first up when Pierce needs a breather. Lawrence Guy ($1.7 million) is the only lineman to have at least 35 run stops in each of the past four seasons; he won't get the volume here but you can't beat that consistency. We round things out with our 2021 UDFA, Marvin Wilson ($0.7 million), who has been showing off in preseason and has a real chance to make Cleveland's roster. He's worth a flyer, at the very least.
Total 2021 Cost: $25.6 million
If you're planning on making your own team to beat this one, here's a place you might want to start looking. Commonly Accepted Analytical Wisdom states that you don't pay off-ball linebackers; you spend the money on edge rushers and quarterbacks and cornerbacks and you make do with cheaper options in the middle. The running backs of the defense, in other words.
Well, pish tosh. My Cover-2-based defense is sticking in nickel nearly 100% of the time, Buffalo-style, and they're doing it with the two best off-ball linebackers in the game. Fred Warner ($3.6 million) just got a huge extension that sent the Twitterverse all a-flutter, but his coverage skills are vital to making San Francisco's defense actually work. NFL Next Gen Stats has him among one of the top 10 defenders in pass coverage—not top linebackers, but top defenders, period. Our stats have him in the top 20 in run tackles, quarterback hurries, and targets in coverage. Is paying 8% of the cap to a linebacker, like Warner will earn in 2023 and 2024, too much in a vacuum? Yes, yes it is. But part of the reason to generate value elsewhere is to make sure you can keep the players who have crucial skills that can't be easily replaced, hence the beefy extension.
You could make the argument that Warner isn't even the best linebacker on this team, as he's lining up next to long-term Football Outsiders hero Lavonte David ($3.4 million), who has now finished in the top five defenders in total defeats eight times in the past nine seasons. David will play closer to the line, Warner will drop back in coverage, and the middle of the field will be walled off. We won't be able to keep them both on the roster forever, but we can squeeze them in for 2021.
To offset some of the costs of Warner and David, we'll go with rookies for our other two linebacker slots. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah ($1.2 million) and Jabril Cox ($0.9 million) are both coverage guys, players who fit somewhere between safety and linebacker. If you're going to draft off-ball linebackers, they had better be able to cover.
Total 2021 Cost: $9.0 million, or less than Jaylon Smith.
If this defense has a weakness, it's a lack of experience at cornerback. It's certainly not a bad group, but compared to some of the depth at other positions, it's comparatively lacking.
A lack of experience doesn't hurt Jaire Alexander ($3.8 million). He's the top young cornerback in the league and the "young" qualifier may be unnecessary. He was among the top three corners in both success rate and yards allowed per target, all while sticking to top receivers like glue. He'll be joined on the boundaries by J.C. Jackson ($3.4 million), who was second in the league last year with nine interceptions, albeit with a less-than-stellar 8.4 yards allowed per target.
C.J. Gardner-Johnson ($1.0 million) is a safety/corner tweener who played a lot of slot corner for New Orleans last year and has an uncanny ability to get opposing players to take swings at him—hey, it's a skill! He'll be joined in the slot by L'Jarius Sneed ($0.9 million), who led the Chiefs with a 5.1 yards allowed per target mark when healthy. We're blurring the safety/corner lines to give our secondary maximum flexibility. Joining them will be our final 2021 draft pick, Shaun Wade, who had a heck of a preseason debut against the Saints. Wade and Gardner-Johnson will also play a lot of special teams, something to take into consideration when building a roster like this. What we lack in experience we make up for in thriftiness; all five players cost about 50% less than the Bengals are paying Trae Waynes alone.
Harrison Smith ($10.2 million) has seen his coverage ability drop in recent years, but he's still a game-breaking player in the box; he's our starting strong safety for now. "For now" is a heck of a qualifier, though, with Kamren Curl ($0.8 million) as a more-than-capable understudy. Curl was in the top 10 league-wide in run stop rate and yards per run tackle as a rookie last season. Outside of the box, we have got a pair of second-rounders playing free safety roles. Jessie Bates ($2.9 million) led all safeties with 15 passes defended a year ago. He was the only safety with more defenses than Gardner-Johnson, and he did it without spending most of his time at nickel corner. He's joined by Antoine Winfield ($1.7 million) for when we want more run-stopping or pass-rushing from our safety duo. All four combined make less than Washington is paying Landon Collins in 2021.
Total 2021 Cost: $25.5 million
Jason Sanders ($3.4 million) set a new Dolphins franchise record by making 92.3% of his field goals a year ago, and set a new career high in kickoff value as well. Rookie Jack Fox ($0.8 million) counts as our 2019 UDFA, in case you were wondering how we got him and James Robinson on the same team. If forced to choose, we would have taken Robinson, but a Pro Bowl punter for less than $1.0 million is a solid investment. Morgan Cox ($1.0 million) was the All-Pro long snapper last season, and still was let go by Baltimore in the offseason, as such is the life of a long snapper.
Total 2021 Cost: $5.2 million
Your final total for 2021 is a svelte $180,648,936, or nearly $1.9 million under this year's salary cap. That's more than Tampa Bay can claim, and I'd argue that we have the better roster from top to bottom. As for 2022, we clock in with $203,057,229 currently on the books, giving us $5.1 million under the currently projected salary cap, or more than nine teams currently have. Mission accomplished.
Now, admittedly, we only have 35 players actually under contract for 2022, which is somewhat less than ideal. It's not a ridiculous amount, though—the Texans currently only have 35 players on the roster for 2022, and their $15.2 million of projected cap space isn't that much larger than ours in the grand scheme of things. We also do have some potential cost-cutting moves up our sleeves. Cutting Stefon Diggs would free up $8.8 million in space; Lavonte David would give us $7.5 million, Darren Waller $6.8 million, and Michael Pierce $6.5 million. Saying goodbye to Diggs or David is easier with DK Metcalf and Fred Warner on the roster.
For completeness' sake, here's the entire 53-man roster. Players with an asterisk are still under contract for 2022, the core of the rebuild once the veterans have come and gone.
|2021's Best Team Money Can Buy|
|Pos||Player||Team||Cap Hit||Pos||Player||Team||Cap Hit|
|QB||Patrick Mahomes*||KC||$7.4m||ER||Chandler Jones||ARI||$20.2m|
|QB||Cam Newton||NE||$5.4m||ER||Nick Bosa*||SF||$9.3m|
|QB||Teddy Bridgewater||DEN||$4.4m||ER||Brandon Graham*||PHI||$8.0m|
|RB||James Robinson*||JAX||$0.8m||ER||Ronnie Perkins*||NE||$0.9m|
|RB||Antonio Gibson*||WAS||$1.1m||ER||Shaka Toney*||WAS||$0.7m|
|RB||Nyheim Hines||IND||$2.4m||DL||Michael Pierce*||MIN||$5.0m|
|RB||Myles Gaskin*||MIA||$0.9m||DL||Calais Campbell||BAL||$13.0m|
|WR||Stefon Diggs*||BUF||$6.4m||DL||Ndamukong Suh||TB||$3.0m|
|WR||DK Metcalf*||SEA||$1.3m||DL||Sebastian Joseph-Day||LAR||$2.2m|
|WR||Terry McLaurin*||WAS||$1.1m||DL||Lawrence Guy*||NE||$1.7m|
|WR||Darius Slayton*||NYG||$0.9m||DL||Marvin Wilson*||CLE||$0.7m|
|WR||Darnell Mooney*||CHI||$0.9m||LB||Fred Warner*||SF||$3.6m|
|WR||Scott Miller*||TB||$0.9m||LB||Lavonte David*||TB||$3.4m|
|TE||Darren Waller*||LV||$6.4m||LB||Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah*||CLE||$1.2m|
|TE||Rob Gronkowski||TB||$3.0m||LB||Jabril Cox*||DAL||$1.7m|
|TE||Jared Cook||LAC||$4.5m||CB||Jaire Alexander*||GB||$3.8m|
|TE||MyCole Pruitt||SF||$1.0m||CB||J.C. Jackson||NE||$3.4m|
|OT||Trent Williams*||SF||$8.2m||CB||C.J. Gardner-Johnson*||NO||$1.0m|
|OT||Tristan Wirfs*||TB||$3.7m||CB||L'Jarius Sneed*||KC||$0.9m|
|OT||Charles Leno||WAS||$4.0m||CB||Shaun Wade*||BAL||$0.7m|
|OT||Penei Sewell*||DET||$4.4m||S||Jessie Bates||CIN||$2.9m|
|OG||Wyatt Teller||CLE||$2.2m||S||Harrison Smith||MIN||$10.2m|
|OG||Michael Onwenu*||NE||$0.8m||S||Antoine Winfield*||TB||$1.7m|
|OG||Trey Smith*||KC||$0.7m||S||Kamren Curl*||WAS||$0.8m|
|C||Rodney Hudson*||ARI||$2.9m||K||Jason Sanders*||MIA||$3.4m|
|C||Austin Blythe||KC||$1.0m||P||Jack Fox||DET||$0.8m|