Analysis

The best NFL team money can buy! Building the ultimate 53-man roster under the 2021 salary cap

Using the salary cap and players' cap numbers for the 2021 season, NFL Media Researcher Anthony Holzman-Escareno attempts to produce 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.

The Rules

  • The team consists of 53 roster spots, observing the NFL's in-season standard.
  • The salary cap is set at $182.5 million, this season's non-adjusted maximum for NFL teams.
  • Roster spots for players on rookie contracts are capped at 24 (with no more than four players drafted from each of 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 did not select any 2021 rookies.
  • 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.

Overview: By the Numbers

  • Total salary cap: $182,500,000
  • Salary cap used: $182,487,427
  • Salary cap space: $12,573
  • Offense: $71,112,120 (39.0%)
  • Defense: $108,752,454 (59.6%)
  • Special Teams: $2,622,853 (1.4%)
  • Most expensive player: Aaron Donald, DT, Rams ($14,392,000)
  • Least expensive player (excluding specialists): James Robinson, RB, Jaguars ($781,666)
  • Most expensive position group: Interior Defensive Line ($29,639,909)
  • Least expensive position group (excluding specialists): Running Back ($8,682,073)

The Starting Lineup

Table inside Article
OFFENSE PLAYER DEFENSE PLAYER
QB Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs IDL Aaron Donald, Rams
RB Alvin Kamara, Saints IDL Chris Jones, Chiefs
WR Justin Jefferson, Vikings EDGE Myles Garrett, Browns
WR DK Metcalf, Seahawks EDGE Chase Young, Washington
TE Travis Kelce, Chiefs LB Darius Leonard, Colts
TE George Kittle, 49ers LB Fred Warner, 49ers
LT Trent Williams, 49ers CB Jalen Ramsey, Rams
LG Joe Thuney, Chiefs CB Tre'Davious White, Bills
C Rodney Hudson, Cardinals CB Jaire Alexander, Packers
RG Wyatt Teller, Browns S Justin Simmons, Broncos
RT Orlando Brown Jr., Chiefs S Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers

The Full Roster

  • R -- Denotes a player on his rookie contract.
  • All cap figures are via Over The Cap.

QUARTERBACK (3 players): $10,831,285 total salary (5.9% of cap)

Patrick Mahomes
Kansas City Chiefs · Cap number: $7,433,381
Jameis Winston
New Orleans Saints · Cap number: $2,500,000
Gardner Minshew
Jacksonville Jaguars · Cap number: $897,904 (R - Round 6)

In last year's edition of this exercise, I started this section with the following sentence: The best team money can buy has a quarterback on a rookie contract. This year? Patrick Mahomes remains QB1 despite his historic extension. It just so happens that the decline in the salary cap also forced many teams to restructure contracts to lower 2021 cap figures. Mahomes is cheaper than Ryan Fitzpatrick and Joe Burrow. And honestly, that's just the icing on the cake; Mahomes would be this team's QB1 no matter what. He's that valuable, regardless of the price tag. Still just 25 years old, Mahomes has already won a Super Bowl and MVP award, while averaging the most passing yards and touchdowns per game in NFL history. The quarterback room from the 2020 version of this file actually hasn't changed at all in 2021. Winston led the NFL with 5,109 passing yards and ranked second with 33 passing touchdowns in his last season as a starter (2019), though he also threw a league-high 30 interceptions. This roster could do much worse at QB2 than Winston, who just got one year of tutelage under future Hall of Famer Drew Brees. Minshew got the QB3 nod for the second straight season. A quarterback with starting experience on a sixth-round rookie contract is a valuable commodity.


Others considered: Lamar Jackson (Ravens), Josh Allen (Bills), Justin Herbert (Chargers).


Toughest decision: Deciding whether to use one of my four first-round contracts to fill the QB2 spot with Jackson, the unanimous MVP in 2019. At the end of the day, I saved the first-rounder for another premium position (wide receiver), hoping Mahomes doesn't miss significant time.

RUNNING BACK (4): $8,682,073 (4.8%)

Alvin Kamara
New Orleans Saints · Cap number: $5,000,000
Jonathan Taylor
Indianapolis Colts · Cap number: $1,779,353 (R - Round 2)
Antonio Gibson
Washington Football Team · Cap number: $1,121,054 (R - Round 3)
James Robinson
Jacksonville Jaguars · Cap number: $781,666 (R - Undrafted)

Points decide winners and losers in football; the NFL's touchdown leader in 2020, Kamara, scores them. Only Pro Football Hall of Famers Terrell Davis (61) and LaDainian Tomlinson (60) scored more total touchdowns in their first four seasons than Kamara's 59. He's also the only player with 500-plus rushing and receiving yards in each of those first four campaigns. Furthermore, Kamara is fresh off tying the single-game record with six rushing touchdowns against the Vikings last Christmas. Taylor trailed just Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook in rushing yards during his NFL debut in 2020, averaging 123.5 ground yards per game and scoring eight touchdowns over his final six contests. Gibson is a former college wide receiver who excelled in his transition to running back in 2020; he finished with 1,042 scrimmage yards and 11 scrimmage touchdowns during his rookie campaign with Washington. Robinson, an undrafted rookie last season, recorded 1,414 scrimmage yards in Year 1, which ranked seventh among running backs. Taylor, Gibson and Robinson each had at least 35 receptions a year ago, so there is confidence that any of the three would fare just fine if pressed into duty due to injuries.


Others considered: Nick Chubb (Browns), Chris Carson (Seahawks), Aaron Jones (Packers), Myles Gaskin (Dolphins).


Toughest decision: Going lighter on RB1 options. Nick Chubb would have added more power to this roster, but the decision to go very light on running back was made early and with conviction.

WIDE RECEIVER (6): $10,125,557 (5.5%)

Justin Jefferson
Minnesota Vikings · Cap number: $2,982,456 (R - Round 1)
DK Metcalf
Seattle Seahawks · Cap number: $1,250,741 (R - Round 2)
A.J. Brown
Tennessee Titans · Cap number: $1,541,555 (R - Round 2)
Terry McLaurin
Washington Football Team · Cap number: $1,100,805 (R - Round 3)
JuJu Smith-Schuster
Pittsburgh Steelers · Cap number: $2,400,000
Allen Lazard
Green Bay Packers · Cap number: ($850,000; R - Undrafted)

I invested a lot of draft capital in the wide receiver position, starting with Jefferson, who just set the rookie record for receiving yards (1,400). Davante Adams was the only wide receiver to average more yards per route (3.1) than Jefferson (2.8) last season, according to Next Gen Stats. The Ole Miss throwback duo of Metcalf and Brown is a lethal one, especially at a total cost of $2.8 million and two second-round picks. Metcalf is one of the most physically imposing pass catchers in the NFL. Only he, Adams and Travis Kelce finished 2020 with at least 1,300 receiving yards and 10 receiving touchdowns. Brown is another force who is a problem with the ball in his hands. Of the 49 receivers who fielded 100-plus targets in 2020, Brown topped the board in yards after catch (6.2) and yards after contact per reception (2.8), according to Pro Football Focus. The speedy McLaurin has over 2,000 receiving yards in two seasons with a less-than-subpar list of quarterbacks in Washington. Smith-Schuster had a down year in 2020, but he still recorded 76 receptions from the slot, trailing only Cole Beasley in this category. It was the $2.4 million, non-rookie contract that sold me on JuJu. Lazard is a 6-foot-5 receiver who played 176 special teams snaps over the last two seasons. He had 254 receiving yards and two touchdowns over the first three games of the 2020 season before a core injury forced him to injured reserve for six games.


Others considered: Davante Adams (Packers), Tyreek Hill (Chiefs), DeAndre Hopkins (Cardinals), Michael Thomas (Saints), Robert Woods (Rams), Kenny Golladay (Giants), Michael Gallup (Cowboys).


Toughest decision: Leaving off a true, elite WR1 like Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill or DeAndre Hopkins.

TIGHT END (4): $16,950,000 (9.3%)

Travis Kelce
Kansas City Chiefs · Cap number: $7,650,000
George Kittle
San Francisco 49ers · Cap number: $5,450,000
Rob Gronkowski
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · Cap number: $3,000,000
Garrett Griffin
New Orleans Saints · Cap number: $850,000

Stacking Kelce and Kittle makes this offense almost impossible to defend. In 2018, Kittle set an NFL record with 1,377 receiving yards at tight end. Last season, Kelce eclipsed that mark with 1,416 receiving yards in just 15 games. The Chiefs star outpaced every wide receiver outside of Stefon Diggs (1,535) in the category. Kittle missed eight games in 2020, but he still averaged 79.3 receiving yards per, good for second among tight ends behind Kelce (94.4). Kittle can provide elite receiving and run-after-catch ability, while also being a devastating run blocker. Gronkowski is a shell of his former self, but he can still contribute as a receiver (see: two touchdowns in Super Bowl LV) and as a blocker. Plus, a locker room with Kelce, Kittle and Gronk would be a happy one. Sometimes, the cap makes decisions for us. Griffin made it over teammate Adam Trautman because I needed a little extra cap space elsewhere on the roster. Trautman was PFF's highest-graded run-blocking tight end by a wide margin (5.9 points) in 2020, while Griffin ranked ninth (in 58 run-blocking snaps).


Others considered: Darren Waller (Raiders), Mark Andrews (Ravens), Dallas Goedert (Eagles), Mike Gesicki (Dolphins), Jonnu Smith (Patriots), Adam Trautman (Saints).


Toughest decision: Doubling up on the superstar tight ends, rather than picking one and using the leftover dough at a different position. Having the Kelce-Kittle duo essentially makes up for the lack of an elite WR1.

OFFENSIVE LINE (8): $24,523,205 (13.4%)

LT
Trent Williams
San Francisco 49ers · Cap number: $8,187,647
LG
Joe Thuney
Kansas City Chiefs · Cap number: $4,500,000
C
Rodney Hudson
Arizona Cardinals · Cap number: $2,860,000
RG
Wyatt Teller
Cleveland Browns · Cap number: $2,183,000 (R - Round 5)
RT
Orlando Brown
Kansas City Chiefs · Cap number: $3,384,000 (R - Round 3)
OT
Morgan Moses
Free agent · Cap number: $850,000 (Veteran Salary Benefit)
OL
Mike Onwenu
New England Patriots · Cap number: $830,617 (Rookie - Round 6)
C
David Andrews
New England Patriots · Cap number: $1,727,941

Williams just became the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history, but he comes with a very manageable Year 1 cap hit. Since 2012, the only season he missed the Pro Bowl was 2019, the year he did not play. In his first campaign with the 49ers, Williams was Pro Football Focus' highest-graded offensive tackle. Now a Pro Bowler at both tackle positions, Brown goes back to his undesired RT position on this roster. Getting Thuney, the NFL's highest-paid guard and another Chiefs offseason acquisition, for $4.5 million made filling the LG spot an easy proposition. Hudson has allowed just two sacks on 2,955 pass protections snaps since 2016 (per PFF), while Aaron Rodgers (94.5) and Travis Kelce (93.5) were the only offensive players with a higher PFF grade than Teller (92.9) in 2020. Washington releasing Moses allowed me to roster him with the veteran salary benefit, an incredible bargain for a starting-caliber guy to play swing tackle. Onwenu started games at right tackle, right guard and left guard as a rookie. Keeping only eight offensive linemen (rather than nine) made this kind of versatility even more valuable. Andrews is an alluring backup center for this team, with 69 career starts and a cap hit under $2 million.


Others considered: Terron Armstead (Saints), Ronnie Stanley (Ravens), Quenton Nelson (Colts), Corey Linsley (Chargers), Elgton Jenkins (Packers), Jason Kelce (Eagles), Frank Ragnow (Lions), Braden Smith (Colts), Tristan Wirfs (Buccaneers).


Toughest decision: Which perennial Pro Bowler to roll with at left tackle: Terron Armstead (who turns 30 in July) or Trent Williams (who turns 33 in July). Ended up going with the elder statesman.

INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINE (5): $29,639,909 (16.2%)

Aaron Donald
Los Angeles Rams · Cap number: $14,392,000
Chris Jones
Kansas City Chiefs · Cap number: $8,541,666
Bilal Nichols
Chicago Bears · Cap number: $2,257,870 (R - Round 5)
Foley Fatukasi
New York Jets · Cap number: $2,226,564 (R - Round 6)
Sebastian Joseph-Day
Los Angeles Rams · Cap number: $2,221,809 (R - Round 6)

Donald had a $25 million cap hit last season. A thrift-store bargain at $14 million for 2021, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year is the most expensive player on this roster for the second straight season. He's the best defensive player in the NFL today -- and may end up as the best of all time. He leads the NFL in sacks (85.5), quarterback hits (201) and tackles for loss (131) since entering the NFL in 2014. Jones is another spectacular interior pass rusher, ranking behind only Donald at the position in sacks since 2018. Nichols had five sacks and 13 quarterback hits in 16 starts last season. Fatukasi is on the roster merely for his ability against the run, as Donald was the only interior defensive lineman with a higher PFF run grade than Fatukasi in 2020. Joseph-Day provides depth behind Fatukasi at run-stuffing defensive lineman.


Others considered: Kenny Clark (Packers), Dalvin Tomlinson (Vikings), David Onyemata (Saints), Ed Oliver (Bills), J.J. Watt (Cardinals), Vita Vea (Buccaneers), Shelby Harris (Broncos), Jeffery Simmons (Titans).


Toughest decision: Leaving J.J. Watt off the roster. Despite the injury concerns, Watt's versatility is highly coveted.

EDGE RUSHER (6): $27,187,743 (14.9%)

Myles Garrett
Cleveland Browns · Cap number: $9,351,520
Chase Young
Washington Football Team · Cap number: $7,855,363 (R - Round 1)
Shaquil Barrett
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · Cap number: $5,000,000
Markus Golden
Arizona Cardinals · Cap number: $1,985,294
Kerry Hyder
Seattle Seahawks · Cap number: $1,950,000
Maxx Crosby
Las Vegas Raiders · Cap number: $1,045,566 (R - Round 4)

Garrett has averaged more sacks per game than any player in NFL history not named Reggie White (minimum 50 games). On a veteran contract with a cap hit under $10 million, he provides elite talent at a bargain value. Young was far more disruptive than his rookie-leading 7.5 sacks would suggest. He and Garrett give this roster two of the most talented and physically gifted edge rushers in the NFL. Barrett leads the NFL with 31.5 sacks, including playoffs, since joining the Buccaneers in 2019. His eight pressures in Super Bowl LV were key to the Buccaneers victory. Golden is a plus pass rusher whose 47 quarterback hits since 2019 are the ninth-most in the NFL. Hyder had a career-high 8.5 sacks in 2020, while Crosby adds depth and has 17.0 sacks and 30 tackles for loss in two NFL campaigns.


Others considered: Khalil Mack (Bears), T.J. Watt (Steelers), Nick Bosa (49ers).


Toughest decision: Leaving Watts off the roster became a distressing motif of this season's exercise. The NFL's sack leader in 2020, T.J. Watt had a spot on this roster for the better part of its construction. The thought of Watt and Garrett hunting quarterbacks together was quite enticing, but ultimately, I couldn't fit in T.J.'s $10.0 million fifth-year option.

LINEBACKER (5): $14,368,416 (7.9%)

Darius Leonard
Indianapolis Colts · Cap number: $4,280,783 (R - Round 2)
Fred Warner
San Francisco 49ers · Cap number: $3,636,547 (R - Round 3)
Lavonte David
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · Cap number: $3,360,000
Foye Oluokun
Atlanta Falcons · Cap number: $2,219,657 (R - Round 6)
Dre Greenlaw
San Francisco 49ers · Cap number: $930,429 (R - Round 5)

Leonard's speed and length are a problem against the pass and the run. He's the only player in NFL history with 15-plus sacks and seven-plus interceptions in his first three NFL seasons. Two Pro Bowls and two first-team All-Pro nods in three seasons speak for themselves. Warner is an absolute steal for a third-round pick. An elite coverage linebacker, the Niners standout finally got his rightful due with Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods in 2020. He led all linebackers in overall and coverage grades by Pro Football Focus in 2020. David provides veteran leadership and top-notch playmaking ability. He's the only player with 20-plus sacks and 20-plus takeaways since entering the NFL in 2012. Oluokun had a breakout 2020 campaign, setting career-highs in tackles (117), sacks (three), interceptions (two) and forced fumbles (four), though he's a special teamer on this roster. Greenlaw is a depth player who has plus coverage skills and can also contribute on special teams.


Others considered: Devin White (Buccaneers), Jeremy Chinn (Panthers), Demario Davis (Saints), Zach Cunningham (Texans), Tremaine Edmunds (Bills).


Toughest decision: Leaving Jeremy Chinn off of the roster, which came down to not using two of my second-round contracts on standup linebackers. I know the Panthers plan on playing Chinn in more of a traditional safety role this season, but he showed just how dynamic he can be on the second level as a rookie standout.

CORNERBACK (5): $24,638,905 (13.5%)

Jalen Ramsey
Los Angeles Rams · Cap number: $9,700,000
Tre'Davious White
Buffalo Bills · Cap number: $6,782,000
Jaire Alexander
Green Bay Packers · Cap number: $3,834,325 (R - Round 1)
J.C. Jackson
New England Patriots · Cap number: $3,384,000
L'Jarius Sneed
Kansas City Chiefs · Cap number: $938,580 (R - Round 4)

Ramsey is the best cornerback in the NFL, in my humble opinion, and he is the type of cornerback who can play a jersey number rather than a scheme if needed. Ramsey allowed the fewest receiving yards (309) among 62 corners with 60-plus targets in 2020, according to Pro Football Focus. This despite facing each team's best receiver more often than not. White is one of the best players at the position despite seeing slight regression after a 2019 first-team All-Pro season in which he tied for the league lead in picks (six). Alexander is a lockdown man-coverage corner, and he'll become a household name across the country very soon (if he isn't one already); only Ramsey allowed fewer yards among 62 corners with 60-plus targets in 2020 (per PFF). Jackson had nice interceptions last season, behind only NFL leader Xavien Howard (10). Sneed had three picks and two sacks in just nine games in 2020. For under $1 million and a fourth-round pick, Sneed was a value add for the roster.


Others considered: Marlon Humphrey (Ravens), Marshon Lattimore (Saints), Kenny Moore (Colts), Shaquill Griffin (Jaguars), Darious Williams (Rams), Ahkello Witherspoon (Seahawks), Carlton Davis (Buccaneers).


Toughest decision: Rostering five cornerbacks rather than six. Someone like Kenny Moore would have been a welcome addition.

SAFETY (4): $12,917,481 (7.1%)

Justin Simmons
Denver Broncos · Cap number: $5,750,000
Minkah Fitzpatrick
Pittsburgh Steelers · Cap number: $2,722,878 (R - Round 1)
Jessie Bates
Cincinnati Bengals · Cap number: $2,852,603 (R - Round 2)
Anthony Harris
Philadelphia Eagles · Cap number: $1,592,000

Simmons never comes off the field; he's played every defensive snap (3,067) for the Broncos since the start of the 2018 season, which is the longest active streak in the NFL, according to Next Gen Stats. He's the only player who had 90-plus tackles and five-plus interceptions in 2020. His development forced the Broncos to make him the NFL's highest-paid safety, though a manageable Year 1 cap hit made him a pick here. Fitzpatrick has 11 interceptions and 29 passes defensed in three pro seasons. He's the best single-high safety in the NFL and has been a first-team All-Pro selection in each of the last two campaigns. Bates cost a second-round pick, but putting these three on the field in big-nickel situations would be a problem for opposing offenses. Bates was PFF's highest-graded safety in 2020, and he's the only NFL player with 100-plus tackles and three-plus interceptions in each of the last three seasons. Harris had a down 2020, but he was playing on the franchise tag for a reason.


Others considered: Jamal Adams (Seahawks), John Johnson (Browns), Kyle Dugger (Patriots), Antoine Winfield Jr. (Buccaneers).


Toughest decision: Dropping first and second-round contracts on the safety position. The second-rounder spent on Bates could have easily gone to Nick Chubb.

SPECIAL TEAMERS (3): $2,622,853 (1.4%)

K
Younghoe Koo
Atlanta Falcons · Cap number: $920,000
P
Jake Bailey
New England Patriots · Cap number: $922,520 (R - Round 5)
LS
Ross Matiscik
Jacksonville Jaguars · Cap number: $780,333 (R - Undrafted)

Last season, I largely ignored the special teamers, only choosing the Chargers' Ty Long due to his handling punting and kicking duties for the team in 2019. With Long not kicking a field goal in 2020, we gave the specialists their traditional three spots on the roster, though I capped each at $1 million. Koo went 8-for-8 on field goals of 50-plus yards in 2020, the most such field goals made by any player in 2020. Bailey was a Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro last season. Matiscik ... ummmm ... Matiscik snaps footballs at the NFL level.

Follow Anthony Holzman-Escareno on Twitter.

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