Breakdowns

Building the Ultimate 2021 NFL Roster (Under the Cap, Of Course)

By Peter Engler, Ben Elsner and Robert Simpson

Inspired by NFL.com’s “The best NFL team money can buy,” we have decided to fill a 53-man roster with the best accumulation of talent in the league while still remaining under the NFL’s $182.5 million salary cap. Think that’s too easy? We’re adjusting for bargain-bin rookie contracts by using the following set of rules:

  1. Only 24 players on rookie contracts can be selected, with four players from each of Rounds 1-3 and another 12 combined from Rounds 4-7. Players on their fifth-year options and former UDFAs do not apply.
  2. 2021 rookies are ineligible (apologies to Kyle Pitts and Carlos Basham).
  3. One current free agent was allowed, using the veterans minimum salary.

Quarterbacks

Cap Hit:           $8.331M, (24th in the NFL)

Starter:             Patrick Mahomes, KC, $7.433M

Backup:            Gardner Minshew, JAC, $0.898M

It’s neigh-impossible to skip the league’s most transcendent player, especially now that he’s off his rookie deal and will be taking up only slightly more of the cap than Case Keenum. Mahomes does have some injury concerns, which warranted consideration of a more highly regarded backup QB, but ultimately the former Jacksonville sixth-round pick was too good a value to pass up. Minshew may not be known as a bomber, but he’s actually sported the 13th-best passer rating on targets of 20-plus yards since entering the NFL in 2019, only two spots behind Mahomes (per PFF). We would expect Mahomes to stay healthy behind the powerhouse offensive line we’ll discuss later, but Minshew is more than capable of filling in for a key fourth-down conversion or two.

Running Backs/Fullbacks

Cap Hit:           $6.090M, (28th in the NFL)

Starter:             Aaron Jones, GB, $4.465M

Backups:          Jamaal Williams, DET, $1.625M

                         James Robinson, JAC, $0.782M

                         Alec Ingold, LVR, $0.853M

Jamaal Williams may have used the 2021 offseason to escape Aaron Jones’ shadow, but he finds himself right back in that situation here. Jones himself is a perfect pick for this team, as the phenomenon has excelled in the pass-first Packers offense at an incredibly efficient rate, finding himself fifth in the all-time YPA rankings for RBs over their first four years. Williams is a tough runner with receiving ability, catching 25-plus passes each season and managing to get past the LOS on 95.1% of his 2020 carries, 12th-best in the NFL per PFF. For the third-string, we’ll bring in James Robinson to join Minshew as Jaguar castoffs. As only the sixth undrafted rusher to ever put up 1,000 yards as a rookie, Robinson had the third-most yards after contact of all RBs and still shows a lot of potential. Finally, FB Alec Ingold may not be the most familiar name, but had the second-most receptions of all fullbacks last season and provides the formational versatility to lead block or sneak out of the backfield.

Wide Receivers

Cap Hit:            $23.941M (16th in the NFL)

Starters:            DeAndre Hopkins, ARI, $12.500M

                          A.J. Brown, TEN, $1.542M

                          D.K. Metcalf, SEA, $1.250M

Backups:          Kenny Golladay, NYG, $4.473M

                         Terry McLaurin, WAS, $1.101M

                         Russell Gage, ATL, $2.222M

                         Deonte Harris, NO, $0.853M

After two position groups that were relatively cheaper, this room is incredibly star-filled. With nine combined Pro Bowl appearances, this group threatens downfield with D.K. Metcalf and Kenny Golladay in order to open up intermediate-level targets for some of the hardest-to-tackle receivers in the game. DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Brown, Terry McLaurin and Russell Gage each forced double-digit missed tackles in 2020, a number only 18 receivers reached (per PFF). Although the All-Pro returner Deonte Harris may not get to see the field much on offense, he too forced a missed tackle on almost half of his 20 receptions. We do use a trio of our first premier draft picks with this group, with former second-rounders Brown and Metcalf as well as third-rounder McLaurin, but it’s hard to argue with the makeup of this unit. With Mahomes ready to launch the ball, our sure-handed threats will tear apart zone coverages and can take any reception to the house.

Tight Ends

Cap Hit:            $7.257M (28th in the NFL)

Starter:              George Kittle, SF, $7.257M

Backups:           Robert Tonyan, GB, $1.505M

                          Cameron Brate, TB, $1.810M

                          Donald Parham, LAC, $0.780M

Who else can benefit from the defense-stretching talents of the receiving corps? Before missing large parts of last season, George Kittle blew away all tight ends in 2019 by forcing 21 missed tackles, five more than second-place Travis Kelce (per PFF). As a more-than-capable blocker, Kittle sets the tone for a well-rounded group that would outmatch any LB in space as another receiving threat. Outside of Kittle and potentially the very-raw Donald Parham, this group may struggle to take on a DE in pass protection, but they are all serviceable enough for a strong chip block before spacing the field. Robert Tonyan came on especially strong last season with 11 TDs while Super Bowl champion Cameron Brate would fill a very similar role for another loaded offense. Despite the under-the-radar nature of this group, each of the top three has shown the ability to fill a role in a standout offense and make plays when called upon.

Offensive Line

Cap Hit:            $26.140M (29th in the NFL)

Starters:            LT Jedrick Wills, CLE, $4.478M

                          LG Quenton Nelson, IND, $7.771M

                          C Rodney Hudson, ARI, $2.860M

                          RG Wyatt Teller, CLE, $2.183M

                          RT Tristan Wirfs, TB, $3.688M

Backups:           Kevin Dotson, PIT, $0.945M

                          Mike Onwenu, NE, $0.831M

                          Orlando Brown, KC, $3.384M

Don’t let the extremely low cap hit fool you into thinking we’ve skimped on the protection, because extremely high amounts of draft capital was invested in this unit. Three of our four allotted first-round picks reside within the starting unit, while four later-round picks fill in the cracks. In fact, only Rodney Hudson is on a veteran’s contract of this group, and the longtime Raider agreed to a reduced cap hit this offseason after a trade to Arizona. The first-round rookies include a pair of tackles from the incredibly strong 2020 draft class in Jedrick Wills and Tristan Wirfs, and they are joined by an all-time guard prospect in Quenton Nelson. With elite guard Wyatt Teller rounding out the starting unit, this group is set to keep Mahomes upright and healthy as the receivers get downfield. A trio of extremely capable linemen with high-level starting experience in Kevin Dotson, Mike Onwenu and Orlando Brown can fill in for any injuries. Look for this group to lead the offense.

Defensive Line

Cap Hit:            $51.145M (2nd in the NFL)

Starters:            SDE Myles Garrett, CLE, $9.352M

                           DT Aaron Donald, LAR, $14.392M

                           DT Chris Jones, KC, $8.541M

                           WDE Nick Bosa, SF, $9.326M

Backups:            DT Ndamukong Suh, TB, $3.000M

                           DE Denico Autry, TEN, $3.512M

                           DE Maxx Crosby, LVR, $1.046M

                           DT Danny Shelton, NYG, $0.988M

                           DE Aldon Smith, SEA, $0.988M

Our most expensive position group only trails the Philadelphia Eagles for DL spending, but we’ve decided to vigorously pursue top-end talent in order to control opposing offenses with a versatile 4-3. Aaron Donald and Myles Garrett are potentially the two most dominant defensive linemen right now, while Chris Jones and Nick Bosa offer high-upside pass rushing. Bosa is the riskiest pick of the entire exercise, requiring both our final first-round pick and a heavy cap charge for a player coming off a torn ACL, but he recorded the seventh-best pressure rate among EDGEs as a 2019 rookie (per PFF) and will be able to dominate on stunts. In reserve, we have a pair of veteran run-stuffers in Ndamukong Suh and Danny Shelton, while Denico Autry and Maxx Crosby can provide a spark off the bench against exhausted OLs. Finally, Aldon Smith is only cheap due to his off-field concerns, but still showed flashes of dominance last season and won’t be relied upon. Although it may be a bit top-heavy, this defensive line is built to capitalize against pass-first offenses and win the shootouts that our offense will ignite.

Linebackers

Cap Hit:            $17.568M (21st in the NFL)

Starters:            Darius Leonard, IND, $4.280M

                          Fred Warner, SF, $3.636M

                          Lavonte David, TB, $3.360M

Backups:           Jayon Brown, TEN, $3.452M 

                          Denzel Perryman, CAR, $1.990M

                          Robert Spillane, PIT, $0.850M

In the modern NFL, nickel has overtaken base as the most-used defensive personnel groupings. However, we anticipate a primary strategy of opponents being able to “take the air out of the ball.” That is to say, they’re going to run the ball to wear down our defense and keep our offense off the field. To counter that, we again went fairly top-heavy with a trio of tackling machines that averaged a combined 24.5 tackles per game in 2020. Darius Leonard, Fred Warner and Lavonte David are superb at stopping the run and dropping into coverage – exactly what we need from them. Both Warner and Leonard are Day 2 selections on their rookie deals, but they have far outperformed that value and their selection is more than justified here. On the second line, Denzel Perryman was outstanding for the Chargers in 2020 and Jayon Brown ranked fourth among all LBs with 8 PDs, the same as Bobby Wagner. The final member, former UDFA Robert Spillane, was a surprise for the Steelers last season in a defensive role but is a more-than-capable special teamer who can serviceably fill in when called upon. Our linebackers may not have the pass-rush ability of other groups around the league, but that’s acceptable with the ridiculous talent on the defensive line. Instead, we’ve accumulated several veterans who can coordinate the defense, plug holes against the run, and drop into coverage.

Defensive Backs

Cap Hit:            $38.856M (8th in the NFL)

Starters:            CB Jalen Ramsey, LAR, $9.700M

                          SS Budda Baker, ARI, $7.775M

                          FS Justin Simmons, DEN, $5.750M

                          CB Marshon Lattimore, NO, $2.841M

Backups:          CB Richard Sherman, Free Agent, $1.075M (Vet’s Minimum)

                           CB J.C. Jackson, NE, $3.384M

                          DB Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, NO, $1.046M

                          SS Khari Willis, IND, $1.042M

                          SS Jeremy Chinn, CAR, $1.191M

                          FS Julian Blackmon, IND, $1.052M

With offenses getting more and more diverse, our defensive backs need to be highly scheme-versatile in order to keep quarterbacks guessing until our pass rush gets home. With the NFL’s top CB in Jalen Ramsey locking down his side, we are free to play mind games with a rotating cast of the most capable coverage defenders. Free safeties Justin Simmons and Julian Blackmon are both extremely comfortable in single-high to watch over the defense, allowing strong safeties Budda Baker and Jeremy Chinn to rove around in underneath zones and destroy pass concepts. CB Marshon Lattimore starts opposite Ramsey and rotates with Richard Sherman and J.C. Jackson to form a versatile trio that can press at the LOS, play Off Man, or drop into deeper zones. Rounding out the group is Khari Willis and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, filling a core special teams role but again bringing 43 combined starts in their short careers. Good luck identifying the coverage and threading the needle through the underneath defenders before our defensive line eviscerates the pocket.

Special Teams

Cap Hit:            $2.622M (32nd in the NFL)

Starters:            K Younghoe Koo, ATL, $0.920M

                          P Jake Bailey, NE, $0.922M

                          LS Jacob Bobenmoyer, DEN, $0.780M

There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel here. Younghoe Koo is 9-for-9 on FGs of 50-plus yards in his career and led the NFL in points last season, while Jake Bailey was twice the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week and was named to the All-Pro team. Former FCS All-American Jacob Bobenmoyer slides in as the final member of the team for his 2020 starting experience and his reported “above-average snapping velocity,” averaging 0.68 seconds to the punter’s hands and recording the fourth-most tackles of any long snappers last year (using his collegiate LB experience). Expect Bobenmoyer to lead from the front for this star-studded team that manages to stay under the cap.

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