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The Best Team Money Can Buy Under The 2018 NFL Salary Cap


To win in the NFL, teams need to have a franchise quarterback, good drafts, and a winning culture. The franchise quarterback is the most important and can offset other issues with the team, which is why we’re seeing them get paid such a large percentage of the salary cap. While good drafts are very important, they can sometimes put a franchise in a tough position if they are unable to re-sign all of their guys because of the salary cap. And a winning culture makes it a lot easier to insert new guys with a next-man-up mentality.

 

The NFL salary cap in 2018 is $177.2 million, which is allocated to 53 guys on the roster. Hitting on draft picks gives teams huge salary cap relief during the players’ rookie deals, which makes it easier to build a team. For this exercise, I am putting together what I believe is the best roster possible under the $177.2 salary cap number for 2018.

 

There is an obvious emphasis on young players on their rookie deals because they are cheaper, but there are a few positions with a premium placed on them. A roster this talented would be almost unfair, and it’s very unrealistic, but it shows what great draft picks that cost around $1-3 million can do for a team.

 

This is what I came up with for my ideal 2018 roster under the $177.2 salary cap. [The full rosters with starting lineups and without explanation can be seen toward the bottom of this article.]

 

Offense

 

Quarterback: Tom Brady ($22 million)

Even when thinking long-term, Tom Brady is the person I would choose over anyone in the NFL. He was number one on my list of the top franchise players to build around from February, so the fact that he isn’t paid as a top-ten quarterback makes this an easy decision. Young signal-callers like Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, and Marcus Mariota are among the strong options on rookie deals, but Brady is clearly worth the money.

 

Quarterback: Cody Kessler ($800,000)

After playing well as a rookie in 2016, Cody Kessler didn’t seem to get a fair opportunity to be the Browns’ starter last season. Now, he’s in Jacksonville and is one of the better backups in the league’s behind Blake Bortles. $800,000 is a steal.

 

Quarterback: Dak Prescott ($700,000)

It’s pretty crazy the Cowboys’ franchise quarterback is getting paid just over $700,000. Dak Prescott makes it easier for the Cowboys to put pieces around him, but he’ll get a big payday soon enough. The only issue is he might not be happy being the backup for this hypothetical team.

 

Running back: David Johnson ($2.1 million)

Speaking of getting a new contract, David Johnson is entering the last year of his rookie deal, so this will be the last time he plays on a huge discount like this. DJ can do it all as a running back, and he’s an ideal player to pair with Brady for balance on offense. I believe Johnson might be the best running back in the NFL, so he’s a relatively easy choice at $2.1 million.

 

Running back: Christian McCaffrey ($3.9 million)

Alvin Kamara and Le’Veon Bell (though he costs a lot on the second year of the franchise tag) are among the best receivers out of the backfield in the NFL, but Christian McCaffrey probably tops the list. McCaffrey is nearly impossible for linebackers and most safeties to cover, and he can play in the slot and out wide if necessary.

 

Running back: Derrick Henry ($1.5 million)

I am still not sure how Derrick Henry was only a second-round pick back in 2016, but the former Heisman Trophy winner for Alabama is a steal at his current salary. He’s a great option in short-yardage situations, and his speed allows him to make big home-run plays despite his massive size. Johnson, McCaffrey, and Henry in the backfield is a super three-headed monster.

 

Wide receiver: Nelson Agholor ($3.0 million)

Especially with a future Hall of Fame quarterback, it’s not necessary to spend a lot of money on wide receiver. Aside from Marcus Mariota, Nelson Agholor was my favorite player in the 2015 NFL Draft. It took him some time to gain confidence in the NFL, but Agholor was one of the biggest keys in the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory last season. He’s an all-around receiver with elite acceleration and can play inside or outside.

 

Wide receiver: Stefon Diggs ($2 million)

It was surprising Stefon Diggs lasted until the fifth round in 2015, but the Vikings are certainly happy they were able to get him. Diggs has struggled with some injuries and hasn’t hit 1,000 yards in a season, but he clearly has that type of ability. Diggs can also play both inside and outside, and he is one of the best receivers in the NFL at jump-ball situations despite being only six-foot.

 

Wide receiver: Michael Thomas ($1.4 million)

Like Agholor and Diggs, Michael Thomas can play in the slot and out wide. With Drew Brees throwing him the ball, Thomas has had 196 receptions and 2,382 yards in the first two years of his NFL career. At six-foot-three, Thomas is a big target that can create mismatches against smaller corners. Thomas is one of the NFL’s biggest salary bargains at $1.4 million.

 

Wide receiver: JuJu Smith-Schuster ($1.0 million)

JuJu Smith-Schuster burst onto the scene as a rookie for the Steelers last season, as he caught 58 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s not the tallest receiver out there at six-foot-one, but he’s a well-built target with plenty of speed. The former USC receiver can also return kicks, which is a bonus.

 

Wide receiver: Anthony Miller ($1.0 million)

Rookie receiver Anthony Miller was highly productive at Memphis, going for lines of 95/1,434/14 and 96/1,462/18 his last two college seasons. I thought he could have been a first-round pick in the draft, and he should immediately be a good option to at least rotate in on offense in 2018. Like all these receivers, Miller has the versatility to play inside and outside.

 

Wide receiver: Kenny Golladay ($800,000)

Last season, Lions receiver Kenny Golladay was the star of the preseason as a rookie. Golladay then battled some hamstring issues throughout the year, but he still had 28 receptions for 477 yards and three touchdowns—and his 17.0 yards per reception was among the best in the NFL. Golladay would at the very least be a situational deep threat for this squad.

 

Tight end: Rob Gronkowski ($10.9 million)

Not a lot of the salary cap was allocated to the wide receivers, but it’s worth spending for perhaps the best tight end in NFL history. Rob Gronkowski is probably underpaid at $10.9 million, as he’s a total beast that does it all at tight end. Yes, I know the Patriots won the Super Bowl without him in the lineup a couple of seasons ago, but there’s no denying how great Gronk is.

 

Tight end: O.J. Howard ($2.5 million)

He’s relatively expensive for a second-year player at the position, but there was some thought to having O.J. Howard as this team’s top tight end and using some of the Gronkowski money at another spot. The former Alabama tight end is an athletic freak, and he’s a weapon both as a receiver and a run blocker. Two tight end sets with Gronkowski and Howard would both help the running game and stretch the field for the passing game.

 

Tight end: Jake Butt ($600,000)

Jake Butt hasn’t played a snap in the NFL because of his knee injury suffered in his final game at Michigan at the end of the 2016 season. However, that makes him a steal at his current salary. Butt is 100% right now, so there’s no reason to think he won’t be a solid contributor in the NFL moving forward.

 

Left tackle: Trent Williams ($13.9 million)

I want guys that aren’t going to get into trouble, but some of the players need a bit of an edge to them. Taylor Lewan, who also fits under that description, was under strong consideration for left tackle, but Trent Williams rarely lets pass rushers get to his quarterback. He might be the best left tackle in the league.

 

Left guard: Quinton Spain ($1.9 million)

Quinton Spain is one of the best pass blockers at left guard in the NFL, so I’d feel confident about protecting Brady’s blindside with Williams and Spain on the left side. Spain has proven people wrong since going undrafted in 2015, which is hard not to root for and appreciate.

 

Center: Jason Kelce ($7.2 million)

It’s crazy to think the Eagles were apparently considering trading Jason Kelce the last couple of years, but they are certainly happy they didn’t. Kelce isn’t a huge guy so there are times he can get overpowered, but it’s difficult to find another center that can get out and block downfield like he can.

 

Right guard: Brandon Scherff ($6.8 million)

Brandon Scherff’s move from left tackle in college to guard for the Redskins has worked out beautifully, as he has quickly become one of the best offensive linemen in football. Scherff is a tough player that would help set the tone on the right side of the line. His $6.8 salary is ideal compared to other top guards like Zack Martin’s salary of around $2.5 million more.

 

Right tackle: Jack Conklin ($4.3 million)

Jack Conklin was named First Team All-Pro as a rookie right tackle in 2016, which is a testament to how good of a player he is. Conklin has ideal size and athleticism for a tackle, and he could swing to the left side if needed. The beginning of the 2018 season is in danger after he tore his ACL in the postseason against New England, but this imaginary team has great depth.

 

Offensive line: Isaiah Wynn ($2.1 million)

Reserve offensive linemen need versatility, and Isaiah Wynn gives that. The rookie from Georgia played both guard and left tackle in college, and the Patriots are cross-training him to start his NFL career. Some people knock Wynn because of his height, but the bottom line is he’s good.

 

Offensive line: James Daniels ($1.7 million)

The Bears plan to start James Daniel’s career at guard, but he played center during his final season at Missouri; so, in this scenario he is an ideal backup that can play both guard and center. Daniels is a very athletic big guy that should fit in this unit.

 

Offensive line: Connor Williams ($1.0 million)

These backup offensive linemen are all rookies, but they are all talented players that should be able to contribute right away in the NFL. Connor Williams could have been a first-round pick in this year’s draft, but the Cowboys grabbed him in the second round. Despite playing tackle in college, Dallas sees him as a guard, so he is another player with needed versatility.

 

Offensive line: Orlando Brown Jr. ($700,000)

If there was no pre-draft athletic testing, Orlando Brown Jr. would’ve probably been an easy first-round choice in the draft. Brown also seems like a good person that’s going to work to get better. His best fit is probably at right tackle, but he might be able to move around like these other guys.

 

 

Defense

 

Defensive end: Aaron Donald ($6.9 million)

Aaron Donald is due a huge pay raise at some point, but it might not happen this season after the Rams acquired so many high-profile players, so I think it’s fair to have him on this roster at the $6.9 million he’s set to play for in 2018. This will be a 3-4 defense, but Donald showed he can do an excellent job in that type of scheme under Wade Phillips last season.

 

Nose tackle: Vita Vea ($2.7 million)

The anchor up front for this 3-4 defense was one of the most difficult positions to choose. Because he’s on a rookie salary, Vita Vea feels like the best option. Vea clearly has the size for the position, and he can fill gaps to stop the run; but his athleticism and ability to rush the passer means he can stay on the field for all three downs.

 

Defensive end: Joey Bosa ($7.1 million)

Joey Bosa has 23.0 sacks through two NFL seasons, as he’s basically entered the league as a premiere pass rusher—which was expected by many people. Also, Bosa puts in a lot of effort on the field and is a willing run defender. Bosa was the highest draft pick (No. 3 overall in 2016) on the roster, but he’s worth the relatively high $7.1 million for a young player.

 

Defensive line: Taven Bryan ($1.8 million)

The Jaguars selected Florida defensive lineman Taven Bryan in this year’s draft to work into the very deep rotation they have on defense, so we’re doing the same here. Bryan is a good fit in this 3-4 as someone that will get in the backfield to stop the run and get to the quarterback.

 

Defensive line: A’Shawn Robinson ($1.4 million)

A’Shawn Robinson should be able to play across the defensive line for this hypothetical 3-4 defense. After getting a couple sacks as a rookie, Robinson only had 0.5 sacks last season but made more plays overall (including an interception). Despite being a big guy, Robinson has 13 pass breakups over his first two NFL seasons, which is a valuable and underrated asset on the line.

 

Defensive line: Javon Hargrave ($900,000)

The Steelers play Javon Hargrave at nose tackle, which would be his best spot in this defense, but he can also play the two defensive end spots if necessary. Pittsburgh was top-13 in run defense the last two seasons, including some really outstanding stretches of stopping the run during that time, and Hargrave is a big part of it.

 

Defensive line: Maurice Hurst ($600,000)

Unfortunately, former Michigan defensive tackle Maurice Hurst dropped far in the draft because of a heart condition. However, he has obvious first-round talent and should have a productive NFL career. Hurst might be a better fit in a 4-3 defense, but he’s a good player that should make an impact in any scheme.

 

Outside linebacker: T.J. Watt ($2.1 million)

I wanted to get both Watt brothers on this team, but J.J.’s cap hit of $14.5 million was tough when fellow studs Aaron Donald and Joey Bosa are making half that. Like his older brother, T.J. Watt appears to be a steal after the Steelers grabbed him with the 30th pick in last year’s draft. Watt had seven sacks as a rookie, and his athleticism allows him to smoothly drop in coverage as a 3-4 outside linebacker.

 

Outside linebacker: Leonard Floyd ($4.3 million)

A knee injury cut Leonard Floyd’s second NFL season short last year, but the ninth overall pick in 2016 has made big plays through two NFL seasons. Floyd is arguably even more athletic than T.J. Watt, and offenses would have a lot to think about with a couple of edge players that can get to the passer or drop back in coverage on any given play.

 

Outside linebacker: Bud Dupree ($2.9 million)

Bud Dupree has been consistent through three years with the Steelers, and he still has the potential to develop into a double-digit sack guy. For this team, he would rotate in as a fresh pass rusher that just needs to worry about sacking the quarterback, which might be a role he excels at.

 

Outside linebacker: Carl Lawson ($700,000)

Pass rushers get paid a lot of money, and I thought I’d want to spend more on rotating fresh guys in, but Carl Lawson and his very team-friendly cap hit helps save money for other positions. As a rookie last season, Lawson was basically a situational pass rusher in Cincinnati’s 4-3 defense last season, but he racked up 8.5 sacks. Here, he would be able to come in and get after the quarterback in passing situations.

 

Outside linebacker: Shaquem Griffin ($600,000)

Shaquem Griffin isn’t a traditional 3-4 pass rusher, but he’s my choice as a fifth outside linebacker that would work as a “Swiss Army Knife” on defense and special teams. He could potentially play some inside linebacker, safety, and nickel. You know Griffin is going to put in the effort every day, and at the very least he should become a core special teams player that makes a difference on the third unit.

 

Inside linebacker: Jordan Hicks ($2.1 million)

Injuries have been the only issue through Jordan Hicks’ three NFL seasons, as he’s been a huge difference-maker at linebacker when he’s been on the field. Hicks can play inside or middle linebacker in any scheme, and this 3-4 defense is a fine fit for him. Hicks also has great football character and could be a leader of the defense.

 

Inside linebacker: Deion Jones ($1.2 million)

With a cap hit of just $1.2 million, Falcons star linebacker Deion Jones is an easy selection for this team. Like Hicks, Jones is an all-around linebacker that stops the run, plays great in coverage, and gets after the quarterback. An athletic duo of Hicks and Jones at inside linebacker would be scary for opposing offenses.

 

Inside linebacker: Jaylon Smith ($1.7 million)

Even in a very strong draft at the top, Jaylon Smith was considered by many as the top player overall in the 2016 NFL Draft. Unfortunately, the devastating knee injury—with nerve damage—suffered in his final college game at Notre Dame put his career in doubt. But he’s made a ton of progress since that injury and showed major flashes when he hit the field for the Cowboys last season. As a backup linebacker with imaginary money, there’s no hesitation putting Smith on this roster.

 

Inside linebacker: Tyler Matakevich ($800,000)

Tyler Matakevich made a lot of plays during his college career at Temple, but he fell in the 2016 NFL Draft because he didn’t test well athletically. In addition to being depth at inside linebacker, Matakevich would be a big-time contributor on special teams for this roster.

 

Cornerback: Xavier Rhodes ($13.4 million)

With the way teams throw the ball around today, corners are obviously among the most important positions in the NFL. Xavier Rhodes is the top corner in the league in my opinion, which his play against elite receivers has displayed. He plays press coverage better than anyone, which is what this imaginary defense would do a lot of. Also, Rhodes is one of the best tackling corners in the league, so he’s an all-around great player worth the $13.4 million cap hit.

 

Cornerback: Adoree’ Jackson ($2.6 million)

Adoree’ Jackson is listed as second for corners because he has the second-highest salary of the group, but he would start at nickel for this team. Jackson is one of the fastest and most athletic corners in the NFL, but he also has good skills and technique as a cover man. The second-year player can return punts and kicks, too.

 

Cornerback: Tre’Davious White ($2.3 million)

Considering he’s already arguably a top three corner and has only a $2.3 million cap hit, Tre’Davious White was one of the easiest choices for this roster. White would start opposite Xavier Rhodes, and the pair would make things very difficult for opposing quarterbacks. As he showed as a rookie last season, White can make game-changing and game-winning plays.

 

Cornerback: Eric Rowe ($1.1 million)

This position would be a corner/safety hybrid, as I’m only going with one true backup safety for this team. Eric Rowe has done a great job at corner for New England over the past two seasons, and he would compete with Adoree’ Jackson to start in the slot. At the very least, Rowe provided great depth and versatility, and he could play in dime packages. $1.1 million is a bargain for his versatility.

 

Cornerback: Shaquill Griffin ($800,000)

As is the case with basically all positions, a lot of these guys I would be very happy with as starters. Shaquill Griffin falls right into that category. He did a great job of holding his own as a rookie for the Seahawks last season, and his cap hit of around $800,000 is too good to pass up for superb cornerback depth. Griffin might be the primary backup to Rhodes and White on the outside.

 

Cornerback: Trevor Williams ($600,000)

Despite going undrafted in 2016, former Penn State cornerback Trevor Williams has emerged as a very good player for the Chargers over the past two seasons. Williams can play inside and outside cornerback spots, and he’s a pretty easy choice at a $600,000 cap hit.

 

Cornerback: Desmond King ($600,000)

It’s stunning that former Iowa cornerback Desmond King lasted until the fifth-round of last year’s draft. But it has been displayed by some great draft choices over the years: cornerbacks can be found in the later rounds of drafts. Like Rowe, Desmond King has the versatility to play both corner and safety. He can also return punts and kicks, and he had four sacks as a rookie last season. The only concern is how to get King and all these other talented players on the field.

 

Safety: Harrison Smith ($10 million)

In my opinion, Harrison Smith is the best all-around safety in the NFL. Smith can rush the passer, play deep in zone coverage, hold his own in man coverage, make sure tackles, and lay huge hits that make receivers think twice. The All-Pro helps set the tone for the secondary.

 

Safety: HaHa Clinton-Dix ($6.0 million)

Not many players can play the center of the field as well as HaHa Clinton-Dix, who quarterbacks are wise not to test much. The 25-year-old safety hasn’t missed a game in any of his four NFL seasons, so he can be counted on to stay on the field. Clinton-Dix is an ideal complement to Smith on the backend, and both guys have all-around games.

 

Safety: Kevin Byard ($1.0 million)

Kevin Byard tied the league lead with eight interceptions and was deservedly named First Team All-Pro last season. The second-year safety has a knack for being in a position to make a play for his team, and he has the right attitude to keep getting better. He could rotate in with Smith and Clinton-Dix and allow the defense to get creative with different packages.

 

 

Special Teams

 

Kicker: Justin Tucker ($5.1 million)

There are a lot of good kickers in the NFL, but I think Justin Tucker is worth the $5.1 million cap hit. When he hits the field, you can be confident the kick is going through the uprights. And he might have the strongest leg in the league.

 

Punter: Ryan Allen ($2.0 million)

I’ll defer to Bill Belichick here, as he tried to use left-footed punters to get a different spin on the ball than returners are typically used to. Ryan Allen isn’t just left-footed, as the two-time Ray Guy Award winner from Louisiana Tech is one of the league’s best.

 

Long snapper: Joe Cardona ($700,000)

Joe Cardona is in the United States Navy, but he’s also a good long snapper that shows the type of effort you would expect from a military member.

 

 

Starting Lineups

 

Offense ($75.5 M)

QB: Tom Brady ($22.0 M)

RB: David Johnson ($2.1 M)

WR: Nelson Agholor ($3.0 M)

WR: Stefon Diggs ($2.0 M)

WR: Michael Thomas ($1.4 M)

TE: Rob Gronkowski ($10.9 M)

LT: Trent Williams ($13.9 M)

LG: Quinton Spain ($1.9 M)

C: Jason Kelce ($7.2 M)

RG: Brandon Scherff ($6.8 M)

RT: Jack Conklin ($4.3 M)

 

Defense ($58.0 M)

RE: Aaron Donald ($6.9 M)

LE: Joey Bosa ($7.1 M)

ROLB: T.J. Watt ($2.1 M)

ILB: Jordan Hicks ($2.1 M)

ILB: Deion Jones ($1.2 M)

LOLB: Leonard Floyd ($4.3 M)

CB: Xavier Rhodes ($13.4 M)

S: HaHa Clinton-Dix ($6.0 M)

S: Harrison Smith ($10.0 M)

CB: Tre’Davious White ($2.3 M)

NB: Adoree’ Jackson ($2.6 M)

 

Special Teams ($7.8 M)

K: Justin Tucker ($5.1 M)

P: Ryan Allen ($2.0 M)

LS: Joe Cardona ($.7 M)

 

 

Offensive Reserves ($17.9 M)

QB: Cody Kessler ($.8 M)

QB: Dak Prescott ($.7 M)

RB: Christian McCaffrey ($3.9 M)

RB: Derrick Henry ($1.5 M)

WR: JuJu Smith-Schuster ($1.0 M)

WR: Anthony Miller ($1.0 M)

WR: Kenny Golladay ($.8 M)

TE: O.J. Howard ($2.5 M)

TE: Jake Butt ($.6 M)

OL: Isaiah Wynn ($2.1 M)

OL: James Daniels ($1.3 M)

OL: Connor Williams ($1.0 M)

OL: Orlando Brown Jr. ($.7 M)

 

Defensive Reserves ($18 M)

DL: Vita Vea ($2.7 M)

DL: Taven Bryan ($1.8 M)

DL: A’Shawn Robinson ($1.4 M)

DL: Javon Hargrave ($.9 M)

DL: Maurice Hurst ($.6 M)

OLB: Bud Dupree ($2.9 M)

OLB: Carl Lawson ($.7 M)

OLB: Shaquem Griffin ($.6 M)

ILB: Jaylon Smith ($1.7 M)

ILB: Tyler Matakevich ($.6 M)

CB: Shaquill Griffin ($.8 M)

CB: Trevor Williams ($.6 M)

CB/S: Eric Rowe ($1.1 M)

CB/S: Desmond King ($.6 M)

S: Kevin Byard ($1.0 M)

 

 

Summary

Going into this, I expected to allocate more money to defense than to offense. Because Brady is a great quarterback that can elevate those around him, I knew I wouldn’t spend a lot on wide receivers unless it was Julio Jones or Antonio Brown. But $34.1 million was spent on the starting offensive linemen to protect the quarterback.

 

It was tempting to make room for All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson to group with Xavier Rhodes and Tre’Davious White on defense. But ultimately, I thought it was wiser to save that money and get perhaps the league’s best tight end (Rob Gronkowski), left tackle (Trent Williams), and safety (Harrison Smith) on the roster.

 

I like the depth on offense better than the depth on defense, but the starting defense might be better overall than the starting offense despite spending nearly $18 million less on it. Running back, wide receiver, and defensive back are probably the deepest positions relative to salaries.

 

Again, this is totally unrealistic, but I believe this is the best team money can buy under the NFL salary cap in 2018.

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