Building the best NFL team money can buy under the 2020 salary cap

Using the salary cap and players' cap numbers for the 2020 season, NFL Media Researcher Anthony Holzman-Escareno attempts to piece together the best team money can buy this fall. Have a comment or question about the squad he's put together? @FrontOfficeNFL is the place to reach him.

Some important notes about this exercise:

  • The team consists of 53 roster spots.
  • A salary cap of $198.2 million (the cap for NFL teams this season) was used.
  • Roster spots for players on rookie contracts are capped at 24 (with no more than four players drafted from each round for Rounds 1-3 and 12 total from Rounds 4-7), with some exceptions: I was allowed to "trade down" for a player (i.e. use a second-round slot on a third-round player). Plus, this limit does not apply to undrafted rookie contracts, and players on fifth-year options also do not count toward the rookie contract limit.
  • I was allowed to select one player who received the franchise or transition tag in 2020. If I didn't select such a player, I could use a spot to keep one more non-first-round pick on a rookie contract.
  • I was allowed to sign one free agent to a minimum salary contract using the veteran salary benefit.

BY THE NUMBERS

  • Total salary cap: $198,200,000
  • Salary cap used: $197,810,753
  • Salary cap space: $389,247
  • Most expensive player: DT Aaron Donald, Rams ($25 million)
  • Least expensive player: K/P Ty Long, Chargers ($695,000)
  • Most expensive position group: Interior defensive line ($40.4 million)
  • Least expensive position group (excluding specialists): Tight end ($5.5 million)

STARTERS

Table inside Article
OFFENSE PLAYER DEFENSE PLAYER
QB Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs DT Aaron Donald, Rams
RB Alvin Kamara, Saints DT Kenny Clark, Packers
WR Michael Thomas, Saints EDGE Cameron Jordan, Saints
WR Chris Godwin, Buccaneers EDGE Danielle Hunter, Vikings
WR A.J. Brown, Titans LB Darius Leonard, Colts
TE George Kittle, 49ers LB Fred Warner, 49ers
LT Terron Armstead, Saints CB Jalen Ramsey, Rams
LG Andrus Peat, Saints CB Tre'Davious White, Bills
C Rodney Hudson, Raiders S Jamal Adams, Jets
RG Graham Glasgow, Broncos S Eddie Jackson, Bears
RT La'el Collins, Cowboys S Derwin James, Chargers

FULL ROSTER

* - denotes player is a starter on this team

R - denotes a player on his rookie contract

All cap figures are via Over The Cap.

OFFENSE

QUARTERBACK (3 players): $8,899,347 total salary (4.5% of cap)

  • *Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs ($5,316,443; R - Round 1)
  • Jameis Winston, Saints ($2,860,000)
  • Gardner Minshew, Jaguars ($722,904; R - Round 6)

The best team money can buy has a quarterback on a rookie contract. Any world that allows for Patrick Mahomes to be had for $5.3 million is a kind one. The Super Bowl LIV MVP was the first and easiest decision on the roster (trust that this was not an easy task overall). Yes, Jameis Winston threw for a league-high 5,109 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2019. The problem lies in his league-leading 30 interceptions. However, the lone member of the 30-30 club as a backup for $2.86 million? The price made those 30 picks seems a little more tolerable when I put this roster together. Rolling into game day with Minshew Mania and his starting experience as an inactive QB3 is comforting enough.

Others considered: Lamar Jackson, Ravens (R - Round 1), Jarrett Stidham, Patriots (R - Round 4), Cam Newton, free agent (veteran salary benefit option)

Toughest decision: Passing on using a second first-round slot at the position by leaving Lamar Jackson out.

RUNNING BACK (4): $7,462,480 (3.8%)

  • *Alvin Kamara, Saints ($2,376,193; R - Round 3)
  • Aaron Jones, Packers ($2,182,002; R - Round 5)
  • Chris Carson, Seahawks ($2,149,285; R - Round 7)
  • Phillip Lindsay, Broncos ($755,000; R - undrafted)

Loading up on running backs who are playing on rookie contracts is the ideal roster-building strategy. None of the NFL's highest-paid running backs (Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott, Le'Veon Bell) were even a consideration here. For a third-round rookie-deal slot, the team gets arguably the NFL's most talented running back, Alvin Kamara, who made 81 catches in each of his first three seasons. He could also serve as the team's return specialist. Aaron Jones is another three-down playmaker who tied for the NFL lead with 19 scrimmage touchdowns last season. Chris Carson and Phillip Lindsay offer contrasting skill sets, but each had more than 1,200 yards from scrimmage in 2019. Getting all four for a cap hit of less than $7.5 million is just good business.

Others considered: Nick Chubb, Browns (R - Round 2); Miles Sanders, Eagles (R - Round 2); Marlon Mack, Colts (R - Round 4)

Toughest decision: Keeping Chubb off the roster.

WIDE RECEIVER (6): $15,548,334 (7.8%)

  • *Michael Thomas, Saints ($7,000,000)
  • *Chris Godwin, Buccaneers ($2,331,041; R - Round 3)
  • Kenny Golladay, Lions ($2,312,706; R - Round 3)
  • Courtland Sutton, Broncos ($1,865,981; R - Round 2)
  • *A.J. Brown, Titans ($1,284,629; R - Round 2)
  • Hunter Renfrow, Raiders ($753,987; R - Round 5)

Adding Michael Thomas to this roster for $7 million? That's the definition of highway robbery. The NFL's single-season receptions king came at a discount for the Saints in 2019 and will again in 2020. The talent among former second- and third-round picks on rookie contracts at wide receiver was ludicrous, and four such players found themselves a place on this roster. Chris Godwin trailed only Thomas in receiving yards per games in 2019 and should soon be among the highest-paid receivers in the league. A.J. Brown, coming off a fantastic rookie season, can do it all at the position. Both measuring 6-foot-4, Kenny Golladay and Courtland Sutton are big-bodied, athletic, emerging receivers who offer big-play ability. Hunter Renfrow offers cheap depth and upside in the slot.

Shoutout to my fellow NFL Media researcher Chris McNeill for the talk on wide receivers. Follow him at @chrisrmcneill.

Others considered: DK Metcalf, Seahawks (R - Round 2); Deebo Samuel, 49ers (R - Round 2); Terry McLaurin, Redskins (R - Round 3); Mecole Hardman, Chiefs (R - Round 2); Tyreek Hill, Chiefs; DeAndre Hopkins, Cardinals; Robert Woods, Rams

Toughest decision: Choosing from the receivers who are playing on second- and third-round rookie contracts.

TIGHT END (4): $5,473,366 (2.8%)

  • *George Kittle, 49ers ($2,207,574; R - Round 5)
  • Dallas Goedert, Eagles ($1,533,895; R - Round 2)
  • Chris Herndon, Jets ($917,381; R - Round 4)
  • Jaylen Samuels, Steelers ($814,516; R - Round 5)

The pairing of George Kittle with Dallas Goedert gives the roster the best tight end duo in the NFL. Each offers receiving prowess and blocking capacity. However, using a second-round slot on Goedert was one of the tougher decisions in this exercise, especially considering some of the playmakers drafted in Round 2 that were left on the table (Nick Chubb, DK Metcalf, Mecole Hardman, etc.). Chris Herndon, who missed 15 games in 2019 due to injury, offers a low-cost, high-upside receiving option. Jaylen Samuels earns his keep on special teams but also brings depth to both the tight end and running back position. 

Others considered: Mark Andrews, Ravens (R - Round 3); Darren Waller, Raiders; Austin Hooper, Browns

Toughest decision: Selecting Goedert over Mark Andrews.

OFFENSIVE LINE (9): $33,253,430 (16.8%)

  • *Terron Armstead, Saints ($8,356,250)
  • *Graham Glasgow, Broncos ($5,968,750)
  • *Rodney Hudson, Raiders ($5,237,000)
  • *La'el Collins, Cowboys ($4,950,000)
  • *Andrus Peat, Saints ($3,600,000)
  • Cedric Ogbuehi, Seahawks ($2,237,500)
  • Joe Looney, Cowboys ($1,187,500)
  • Orlando Brown, Ravens ($966,430; R - Round 3)
  • Andrew Wylie, Chiefs ($750,000)

Terron Armstead and Andrus Peat are tremendous values for the Saints (and this team) in 2020. Armstead will be a high-level protector of Mahomes' blindside, while Peat starts at left guard but also bring experience at tackle. Initially, my plan was to include the Eagles' Brandon Brooks as the team's right guard since he might be the NFL's best interior player. However, I turned to Glasgow, who earned a big payday from the Broncos this offseason, after Brooks suffered a torn Achilles tendon earlier this month. La'el Collins has quietly ascended toward the top of the right tackle rankings and also has experience playing guard. At center, there isn't a better pass protector than Rodney Hudson, and he comes with a relatively affordable cap hit (17th-highest among centers). Versatility was a highly sought-after trait along this offensive line, especially among the reserve players. Orlando Brown is a hulking presence for under $1 million, while Joe Looney can play all three interior positions for a similar price. Andrew Wylie, who went undrafted, provides quality depth without costing a rookie slot. Cedric Ogbuehi was the final selection to the team. He offered the best depth among the veteran contracts that allowed me to remain under the salary cap. 

Others considered: Quenton Nelson, Colts (R - Round 1); Ryan Ramcyzk, Saints (R - Round 1); Braden Smith, Colts (R - Round 2); Taylor Moton, Panthers (R - Round 2); Tyrell Crosby, Lions (R - Round 5); Chase Roullier, Redskins (R - Round 6); Jason Kelce, Eagles; Ronnie Stanley, Ravens

Toughest decision: Passing on Ravens OT Ronnie Stanley's $12.866 million fifth-year option.

DEFENSE

INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINE (4): $40,390,000 (20.4%)

  • *Aaron Donald, Rams ($25,000,000)
  • *Kenny Clark, Packers ($7,690,000)
  • Gerald McCoy, Cowboys ($4,250,000)
  • Javon Hargrave, Eagles ($3,450,000)

Aaron Donald is the best football player on the planet, and this team would be incomplete without him. He's the most expensive player on the team, and if we were employing an auction-draft format for this exercise, I would have freed up more resources to acquire him, if necessary. His dominance and durability allowed me to go a lighter in terms of depth at this position. Kenny Clark is a dominant interior force playing the run and rushing the passer. Signing up Gerald McCoy for less than $5 million to be Donald's sidekick made too much sense. He's recorded five or more sacks in eight straight seasons. Javon Hargrave is a bully -- one with pass-rush skill -- inside.

Others considered: Chris Jones, Chiefs; J.J. Watt, Texans; Calais Campbell, Ravens; Michael Pierce, Vikings; David Onyemata, Saints; Danny Shelton, Lions

Toughest decision: Passing on both Jones and Watt, despite his injury history.

EDGE RUSHER (6): $32,005,566 (16.1%)

  • *Cameron Jordan, Saints ($9,097,000)
  • *Danielle Hunter, Vikings ($9,000,000)
  • Brandon Graham, Eagles ($6,288,000)
  • Arik Armstead, 49ers ($6,000,000)
  • Maxx Crosby, Raiders ($870,566; R - Round 4)
  • Jadeveon Clowney, free agent ($750,000; veteran salary benefit)

Cameron Jordan is a menace as a pass rusher and in the run game. He can easily slide inside next to Aaron Donald on obvious passing downs. Danielle Hunter is an elite, young pass rusher who set the record for most sacks before turning 25 years old. Obviously, a perennial All-Pro like Khalil Mack ($26.6 million cap hit) or Von Miller ($25.6 million) would have been a welcome addition to the roster. However, it would have been almost irresponsible to select one of them instead of bringing in Jordan, Hunter and Brandon Graham for a lower combined cap hit ($24.4 million). Arik Armstead has a relatively low first-year cap hit in his new deal with San Francisco and can play multiple spots along the line. Jadeveon Clowney on a veteran minimum contract is too good to be true, but he's still a free agent as of this writing, so we're going to pretend he's ring-chasing on an unrealistic prove-it deal. Maxx Crosby is a nice throw-in as a fourth-round pick in 2019 who finished with 10 sacks as a rookie.

Others considered: Myles Garrett, Browns (R - Round 1); Nick Bosa, 49ers (R - Round 1); T.J. Watt, Steelers (R - Round 1); Robert Quinn, Bears

Toughest decision: Passing on Garrett, who would have occupied a first-round slot. A lack of comparable values (such as Jordan and Hunter) at other positions forced my hand. 

LINEBACKER (6): $10,222,492 (5.2%)

  • Jayon Brown, Titans ($2,200,891; R - Round 5)
  • Matt Milano, Bills ($2,198,379; R - Round 5)
  • Elandon Roberts, Dolphins ($2,000,000)
  • *Darius Leonard, Colts ($1,976,675; R - Round 2)
  • *Fred Warner, 49ers (1,096,547; R - Round 3, franchise tag replacement) 
  • Alexander Johnson, Broncos ($750,000)

This group may be one of the team's most modest units, but All-Pro Darius Leonard is no cornerstone to scoff at. Coverage linebackers are valuable commodities in today's wide-open NFL. Fred Warner's progression into one of the NFL's best in that area gives the roster a boost. He also happens to be the extra non-first-round pick used in lieu of selecting a player who had received the franchise tag. Jayon Brown and Matt Milano's coverage ability, low cost and special teams experience earned them spots on this roster, despite their limitations against the run. To make up for it, I added Alexander Johnson, who was PFF's highest-graded linebacker against the run in 2019 (min. 30 snaps). Elandon Roberts offers both linebacker depth and the versatility to play fullback (on the rare occasion the position is utilized).

Others considered: Jaylon Smith, Cowboys; Lavonte David, Buccaneers; Deion Jones, Falcons; Kwon Alexander, 49ers; Jamie Collins, Lions

Toughest decision: Trimming as much salary at the position as possible while still fielding a respectable unit. 

CORNERBACK (6): $27,420,218 (13.8%)

  • *Jalen Ramsey, Rams ($13,703,000)
  • Darius Slay, Eagles ($4,300,000)
  • Anthony Brown, Cowboys ($3,250,000)
  • *Tre'Davious White, Bills ($3,210,884; R - Round 1)
  • Desmond King, Chargers ($2,203,000; R - Round 5)
  • J.C. Jackson, Patriots ($753,334; R - undrafted)

Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore certainly would be an attractive candidate for any team, but he comes with a cap hit of $18.7 million. For my money, Jalen Ramsey is the best cornerback in the NFL and he saves $5 million in cap space. Tre'Davious White is finally garnering the respect he deserves coming off his first All-Pro selection in 2019. He's a top-five player at the position with a cap hit outside of the top 50. Eagles GM Howie Roseman did the roster a huge solid by making Darius Slay the NFL's highest-paid cornerback (in average salary per year) while carrying a highly affordable cap hit of $4.3 million in 2020. This team has three corners who can follow a team's No. 1 receiver (Ramsey, White, Slay). Desmond King is a Swiss Army Knife in the slot. He excels both in coverage and as a blitzer. Anthony Brown provides quality depth, and J.C. Jackson is really a something-for-nothing situation. He led all corners in passer rating when targeted in 2019 (37), per PFF, and is playing on an undrafted-free-agent contract. 

Others considered: Denzel Ward, Browns (R - Round 1); Jaire Alexander, Packers (R - Round 1), Marlon Humphrey, Ravens (R - Round 1), Chris Harris Jr., Chargers; Nickell Robey-Coleman, Eagles; Jimmy Smith, Ravens

Toughest decision: Choosing not to double-dip on first-round corners with Ward, Alexander or Humphrey.

SAFETY (4): $16,440,510 (8.3%)

  • *Jamal Adams, Jets ($7,172,348; R - Round 1)
  • *Eddie Jackson, Bears ($3,716,452)
  • *Derwin James, Chargers ($3,378,805; R - Round 1)
  • Xavier Woods, Cowboys ($2,172,905; R - Round 6)

Eddie Jackson's contract extension made him the NFL's highest-paid safety (in average salary per year) in January. It also came with a $3.7 million cap hit this season. That's like finding a Bentley on clearance! Jamal Adams and Derwin James are interchangeable chess pieces that can play all over the field. Two of the NFL's most versatile defenders, each is comfortable playing over the top, in the slot and in the box. With Jackson, Adams and James, using a three-safety base defense is a real possibility. Xavier Woods is a plus coverage safety who can contribute on special teams, as well.

Others considered: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers (R - Round 1); Marcus Williams, Saints (R - Round 2), John Johnson, Rams (R - Round 3)

Toughest decision: Choosing two of these three players: Jamal Adams, Derwin James and Minkah Fitzpatrick.

SPECIAL TEAMS

KICKER/PUNTER (1): $695,000 (0.3%)

  • Ty Long, Chargers ($695,000)

To say specialists are not very, well, special on this roster would be an understatement. They are extremely important to actual NFL rosters. This roster is planning on not having to make many punts or field-goal tries. Ty Long gets the nod here because he punted 48 times and made nine extra points and seven field goals (including a 51-yarder) last season. A tight end or linebacker on this roster will have to learn how to long-snap, although going for two points after every touchdown is a serious consideration.

Toughest decision: Deciding to go with only one specialist.

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