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Let’s have some fun with this: Building an NFL roster to fit under the salary cap

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Get ready to play GM.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, Jon Ledyard of Fanragsports.com (one of the handful of platforms he contributes content to) constructed an entertaining exercise. In a two-part piece, one for offense and the other for defense, he set out to assemble the best possible 53-man roster he could — while staying under the $167 million 2017 NFL salary cap.

Here were the rough guidelines he followed for his exercise:

  • He could choose from the entire pool of NFL players, except for true rookies.
  • His roster was to be built with only the 2017 season in mind.
  • His roster must be built with scheme fit and personnel deployment in mind.

Ledyard’s roster included 25 players on offense, the same amount on defense, and three specialists (K,P and LS). The Patriots were well represented, with at least one player from each phase of the game being selected: Tom Brady, Malcom Brown, Trey Flowers, and Joe Cardona.

When all was said and done, Ledyard ended up with a 2017 cap commitment of $166,900,144. His offense made up 47.8% of the cap with his defense accounting for 49.5%. After calculating the allocated cap percentage for each position group, these were his five priciest ranked by cap percentage per player:

  1. Quarterbacks (2): 4.4% per player
  2. Safeties (4): 2.7% per player
  3. Tackles (4): 2.6% per player
  4. Edge (5): 2.4% per player
  5. Two tied: Interior OL (6) and Linebackers (5): 1.9% per player

Ledyard’s exercise helps identify the remarkable level of young talent around the NFL. It also draws attention to the magnified economic value of an impact player who is still on his rookie deal. Of the 53 players on his roster, 39 are still playing on their rookie contract.

Above all, as Ledyard points out, summer content is about fun. So, in that spirit, let’s take it a step further.


To add a layer of complexity to the equation, a major tweak to the exercise is needed. Assembling a roster within the constraints of the cap with the sole purpose of winning in 2017 is a challenge, but the process becomes progressively more complicated — and realistic — when looking further down the road. In this adaptation of Ledyard’s exercise, we will keep the roster under the salary cap for 2017 and 2018.

Taking a look at the 2018 cap issues created by Ledyard’s roster gives us a glimpse into how much more complex the process becomes when keeping just one future season in mind.

After losing six players to unrestricted free agency, and two to restricted free agency, Ledyard’s 45 players would carry a whopping 2018 cap commitment of $259,727,750. That number rises to over $265 million after assigning two RFA tenders (adjusted for 8% increase over the 2017 tender amounts). One of those tenders would be of the second-round variety for cornerback Delvin Breaux. An original round tender would be placed on 2016 breakout tight end Cameron Brate.

Four roster spots would remain after the replacement of free agent kicker Matt Bryant and punter Patrick O’Donnell with $480k undrafted free agents. Presumably, Ledyard’s team would be picking 32nd in the 2018 draft, giving his team’s first four draft picks an estimated $3,831,012 collective cap charge.

After these transactions, his 53-man roster’s total 2018 commitment would total a staggering $276,674,762 — a serious problem considering the 2018 NFL salary cap is likely to be in the ball park of $180 million.

Had Ledyard initially required his exercise be subjected to an additional season of cap constraints, he undoubtedly would have taken measures to avoid this financial fiasco when choosing his personnel. But identifying the reasons why his roster ends up in such disarray after just one season provides the blueprint for assembling the best possible roster under the 2017 and 2018 salary caps.

  1. Six of his players will be playing on fifth-year options in 2018. The collective cap charge of these players jumps more than 62% from $22,955,678 in 2017 to $36,935,322 in 2018.
  2. Six of his players are on track to earn the Proven Performance Escalator (PPE) in 2018, boosting each player’s salary to the level of an original round RFA tender, which is projected to be roughly $1,940,760. Tyler Lockett, Trey Flowers, Grady Jarrett, J.J. Nelson, David Johnson, and Ty Montgomery all earning the PPE will cost an additional $7,249,560 in 2018.
  3. Second and third year salary jumps. The popular structure of many top-tier contracts utilizes a smaller first-year salary coupled with a prorated signing bonus to reduce a team’s cap exposure in year one. However, larger salaries typically come in years two and three of these deals. From 2017 to 2018 the collective cap charge of Tom Brady, David Bahktiari, Bobby Wager, Reshad Jones, Travis Frederick, and Desmond Trufant more than doubles from $40,354,138 to $84,314,200.

Before delving into this amended version of Ledyard’s exercise, here are the guidelines we’ll follow:

  • We’ll keep the “no true rookies” rule for 2017. However, in 2018, five roster spots must be left open for 2018 draft picks. The collective cap hit of those picks will be projected $4.38 million.
  • The 2018 salary cap will be set at $180 million, but each season must have leave enough breathing room to cover basic in-season expenditures like replacing players who go on IR, and maintaining a ten-man practice squad. We’ll set that “breathing room” amount at $6 million for 2017, and $6.5 million for 2018.
  • Again, scheme fit and personnel deployment needs to be kept in mind.

Here is how the exercise played out.*

  • 2017 Salary Cap Commitment: $135,714,497
  • $25,285,503 in space left over after $6 million in-season expenditure cushion. That space rolls to 2018.
  • 2018 Salary Cap Commitment: $196,936,250
  • After the $6.5 million cushion for in-season expenditures, the rolled over 2017 cap space, and the $4.38 million projected cap figure for the first five draft picks, we are left with $1,849,253 in space in 2018.

It all starts with the two best contract bargains in the NFL: Tom Brady and Dak Prescott. Brady’s deal makes him the 13th highest paid quarterback in terms of average money per year — quite the steal for the greatest quarterback of all time whose peers just voted as the league’s top player heading into 2017. Prescott, last season’s Rookie of the Year Award winner and an original ballot Pro Bowler, ranked third in the NFL in QBR in 2016. He’ll be saddled with his paltry rookie contract until the completion of the 2018 season. Only then will he finally be eligible to negotiate an extension.

The rest of the offense speaks for itself. The line is anchored by two more Cowboys: left tackle Tyron Smith, who remarkably doesn’t turn 27 until December, and guard Zach Martin. These talented offensive linemen, with help from Patriots fullback James Develin, clear the path for all-purpose super star running back David Johnson. Jordan Howard and Jay Ajayi compete for carries behind him, with Tevin Coleman occasionally spelling on passing downs. The entire running back unit consists of players on their rookie deals - a recurring throughout the entire exercise.

If Tom Brady is forced to pass the football, he’s got a few options. Odell Beckham Jr. and Michael Thomas start on the outside with his trusted confidant Julian Edelman in the slot. Looking for more of a prescience in the red zone? A lethal twin-towered combination of Rob Gronkowski and Tyler Eifert should do the trick.

On the defensive side of the ball there might not be a more cost-effective veteran contract than the deal Whitney Mercilus is currently playing on. He’s joined on the edge by young, versatile talents Danielle Hunter, Frank Clark, Markus Golden, and Trey Flowers — all on rookie deals.

You’ll find arguably the game’s best defender, Aaron Donald, paired on the interior of the defensive with Leonard Williams. Behind them on the depth chart is Kansas City’s talented second-year man Chris Jones, Pittsburgh’s Stehpon Tuitt, and the Patriot’s Malcom Brown.

Dont’a Hightower, whose palatable contract exemplifies the Patriots’ proficiency in inking talented homegrown veterans, wears the green dot for this defense. However, given the coverage capabilities of his comrades behind him on the depth chart, he won’t be asked to play on third down.

Malcolm Butler gives this team one year of service before leaving in free agency in 2018. He’ll kick into the slot with the talented tandem of Marcus Peters and Jalen Ramsey on the outside. Depth will be provided by the Chargers’ duo of Hayward and Verrett, as well as Delvin Breaux, who receives a second-round RFA tender following the 2017 season.

Kicker Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein gets the job done for a solid value, while Rigoberto Sanchez simply makes the roster because he possesses the coolest name among the minimum salaried punters who are currently on a 90-man roster.

*Aside from Patriots players, all cap figures were sourced from overthecap.com.


Give this a try — it’s a lot of fun. How would you build your team? What would you change?

Let me know by following me on Twitter - @BPhillips_PP