Agent's Take: 2019's ultimate 53-man roster features Ezekiel Elliott after massive extension with Cowboys
Check out all 53 players on our ultimate 53-man roster, taking into account salary cap and draft restrictions
Creating the ultimate 53-man roster is a pretty simple endeavor without any parameters. It starts getting tricky when operating under a salary cap. Roster construction becomes more complicated with other restrictions designed to prevent a squad from resembling last season's All-Pro team, but the constraints bring more realism to selection process.
The ground rules are as follows.
1. The salary cap for the roster is $200.3 million, although the actual NFL salary cap is $188.2 million for this year. The number being used is the league's average adjusted salary cap according to NFLPA data. Each NFL team's working salary cap varies largely because unused cap room can be carried over from one year to the next. For example, the Browns have league's highest adjusted salary cap at just under $246.7 million largely thanks to carrying over nearly $57 million of cap room. The Chargers have the lowest at $187.643 million, which is slightly below the league-wide number. Situations like this typically occur when incentives earned during the previous season that weren't counting on the cap get accounted for without sufficient cap room carrying over from the prior year to make up the difference.
2. The NFL Draft is an essential element of roster building for NFL teams. It is for this exercise as well. One player from each round of 2019 draft must be on the roster. The number requirement drops by one player for each year of the preceding three drafts (2016-18). The limit of one player per round remains. Thus, only four 2016 draft picks are required. There's one other draft pick constraint: only one 2015 first-round pick whose fifth year option was exercised is allowed regardless of whether he signed a contract extension. Selecting one isn't a necessity.
3. The backups at each position are limited to players that aren't established starters so young veterans cracking the lineup for the first time are eligible. Second-year players that didn't start at least half of their team's games or play a minimum of 50 percent of the snaps on their side of the ball qualify as reserves. Players competing for starting jobs or where there's a "by committee approach" at a position, usually running back, are also acceptable. A backfield containing Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley is prohibited since both are workhorse or every-down running backs.
4. There's one big allowance being made defensively: Three starting cornerbacks are acceptable without sacrificing a starter in a traditional base defense since five or more defensive backs are now used over 60% of the time in the NFL. The result is 12 defensive starters.
5. Choosing a player that was given a franchise or transition designation in 2019 is optional. However, only one player receiving a 2019 designation can be selected.
Choosing an elite quarterback was the top priority since the NFL is a passer-driven league. A potential franchise quarterback on a rookie contract is the most valuable commodity in the NFL because of the roster flexibility provided by the low cap numbers. Selecting one was essential.
An emphasis was also placed on the offensive and defensive lines. The old football adage of "it starts in the trenches" was a guiding principle in assembling the roster.
Long range planning wasn't taken into account so worrying about future salary cap obligations, the amount of cap room that could be carried over, expiring contracts and drafting players that might develop into starters down the road wasn't necessary. Different choices would have been made if these aspects had been considerations.
The initial version of the team was done without paying attention to cost. Close to $220 million of cap space was used. Several roster adjustments were necessary in order to comply with the constraints. Here's the team I assembled with some of my thoughts behind the selections. The 2019 cap number for each player is in parentheses.
Mahomes took the NFL by storm in his first season as a starter after essentially being redshirted as a rookie in 2017. The 2018 NFL MVP arguably had the best season ever for a second year quarterback. Mahomes became the only quarterback besides Peyton Manning to throw for at least 50 touchdowns and 5,000 yards in the same season.
RB: Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys ($6,345,528)
Having a cost-effective quarterback allows for a luxury item in the backfield. Otherwise, an inexpensive lead ball carrier on a rookie contract would have been chosen. Elliott won his second rushing title during his three NFL seasons in 2018 with 1,434 yards on the ground. He became more a threat in the passing game last season with a career best and team high 77 receptions. Elliott was also second in the NFL with 2,001 yards from scrimmage (combined rushing and receiving yards) despite sitting out the regular season finale since the game didn't have any playoff implications for Dallas.
Hopkins has the best hands in the business. He didn't drop any of the 115 catchable passes thrown to him in 2018, according to Pro Football Focus. Hopkins' 115 catches, 1,572 receiving yards and 11 touchdown receptions were third, second and fifth respectively in the NFL last season.
Thomas is as about as productive as they come. The 2016 second-round pick holds the NFL record for most catches (321) during the first three seasons of an NFL career. Thomas' 321 receptions are also the most in the NFL since he made his debut. His 3,787 receiving yards are fifth in the NFL during this span. Thomas led the league with 125 receptions in 2018, which is the fifth best single season catch total in NFL history.
Smith-Schuster earned team MVP honors in 2018 for a breakout season in which he had 111 catches for 1,426 yards with seven touchdowns. He'll operate out of the slot. Smith-Schuster spent 61.5 percent of his time there last season, according to PFF.
A case can be made that Ertz is the NFL's best tight end since Rob Gronkowski retired. Ertz set a single season receptions record for tight ends in 2018 with 116 catches.
Keeping the quarterback upright in the pocket is of the utmost importance. That's Bakhtiari's forte. The league's best blind-side protector has earned All-Pro honors for three straight seasons (2016 through 2018).
LG: Joel Bitonio, Browns ($7,007,520)
Bitonio gave up a one sack last season. It was the only time he allowed Browns' quarterbacks to be hit in 2018. Bitonio's versatility is a bonus in case of injury. He was slated to move to left tackle replacing future first ballot Hall of Famer Joe Thomas, who retired after the 2017 season, but was kept at his natural NFL position instead.
C: Jason Kelce, Eagles ($2,451,520)
The 2017 and 2018 first team All-Pro didn't give up a sack last season. Kelce's run blocking is almost on par with his pass protection.
The Patriots were wise to sign Mason to a five-year, $45 million extension (worth a maximum of $50 million) last preseason instead of letting him play out his rookie deal. Mason probably would have been the most coveted interior offensive lineman in this year's free agency with an expiring contract given the explosion in offensive guard salaries over the last couple of years. It's conceivable Mason could have become the fourth unrestricted free agent guard in as many years to set the market by eclipsing the six-year, $84 million extension ($14 million per year average) containing $40 million in guarantees Zack Martin received from the Cowboys last offseason.
RT: Mitchell Schwartz, Chiefs ($6.43 million)
Schwartz was one of the biggest Pro Bowl snubs last season because a distinction of the tackle positions isn't made in the selection process. Since the Associated Press differentiates, Schwartz earned first team All-Pro honors.
DE: J.J Watt, Texans ($14,636,035)
Watt easily met the crossroads he was facing entering last season after injuries limited him to eight total games in 2016 and 2017. He returned to his old form. Watt was second in the league with 16 sacks and named first team All-Pro. The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year will line up everywhere on the defensive line. He'll take his fair share of snaps inside rushing the passer on obvious passing downs.
The reigning two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year is unquestionably the most disruptive force from the interior of a defensive line. Donald set an NFL record for a defensive tackle with 20.5 sacks in 2018. He can make history by becoming the first player to win the award in three straight seasons.
Harrison flies somewhat under the radar because he isn't a pass rushing defensive lineman. His ability to control the line of scrimmage as the NFL's premier run stuffing interior defensive lineman is invaluable.
The 2016 NFL Defensive Player of Year made an immediate impact after the Bears gave up their next two first round picks to get him from the Raiders on Labor Day weekend last year and gave him a blockbuster contract in the process. Mack became the league's highest paid non-quarterback at $23.5 million per year. His dominance set the tone for the Bears capturing the NFC North in 2018.
SLB: Leighton Vander Esch, Cowboys ($2,699,963)
Vander Esch is actually the Cowboys' weakside linebacker. The 2018 first round pick worked at all three linebacker positions during his first NFL training camp and received a start on the strongside in Week 4's contest against Lions last season before settling in at weakside linebacker when long time starter Sean Lee got hurt. Lee never got his job back. Vander Esch was making plays all over the field and earned All-Rookie honors.
Kuechly and the Seahawks' Bobby Wagner are the gold standard for inside linebackers. The nod goes to Kuechly with Wagner having the NFL's highest 2019 cap number for an inside linebacker at $15,856,110.
2018's NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year had a league leading 163 tackles last season. Leonard also had seven sacks, which is an impressive total for an off-ball linebacker.
CB: Stephen Gilmore, Patriots ($9,178,118)
Gilmore is one of New England's rare high priced free agent signings. He is living up to the five-year, $65 million contract containing $40 million of guarantees he received in 2017. Gilmore took his game to another level last season. He was arguably the NFL's best cornerback while earning first team All-Pro honors.
CB: Byron Jones, Cowboys ($6,278,285)
The 2015 first round pick thrived last season in moving to cornerback full-time from free safety. He earned his first Pro Bowl berth. Opposing quarterbacks completed 53.6 percent of passes (37 of 69 attempts) when targeting Jones for an 85.5 passer rating, according to PFF metrics.
FS: Eddie Jackson, Bears ($818,267)
Jackson is arguably the NFL's best ball hawk at safety. The 2017 fourth round pick was second among NFL safeties last season with six interceptions. Jackson returned two for touchdowns, which tied for the league's most.
Collins was a Pro Bowl starter for a third consecutive year despite his season being cut short after 12 games because of a shoulder injury. His 428 tackles are best among safeties since he entered the NFL in 2015.
Tannehill provides plenty of experience as Mahomes' backup. He was acquired from the Dolphins as an insurance policy in case Titans starting quarterback Marcus Mariota continues to be bitten by the injury bug. Tannehill has started all 88 games he's played in his seven NFL seasons. A third quarterback is being kept because Hill is a jack of all trades. In addition to being a standout on special teams for the Saints, Hill has lined up at running back, wide receiver and tight end as well as taken snaps under center in Wildcat formations.
Saints head coach Sean Payton deciding to keep Kamara on a "pitch count" despite Mark Ingram's departure to the Ravens in free agency keeps him eligible to be a reserve since he isn't going to be a workhorse running back. The 2017 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year is the third down back. Kamara will get the bulk of the carries in relief of Elliott, and there could be situations when both are on the field together. Ekeler was a nice complement to Melvin Gordon, who is holding out, last season with 554 rushing yards (5.2 yards per carry) and 39 receptions. Edwards, a 2018 undrafted free agent, came out of nowhere during the second half of last season. He rushed for 654 yards in the final seven games. Only Saquon Barkley (721) and Derrick Henry (701) had more rushing yards during that span. Cox, a 2019 seventh round pick, is the lone fullback.
Metcalf is a physical freak of nature who excites Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. The 2019 second round pick ran the 40 yard dash at the combine in 4.33 seconds while measuring 6-foot-3 and weighing 228 pounds. Coutee's hamstring problems last season derailed a promising rookie campaign. He was most effective as a slot receiver when healthy. Grant started demonstrating last season he was more than just a kick returner.
Ertz's backups have specialized roles. Andrews is a pass catcher while Toilolo functions primarily as a blocker.
Experience was a big consideration with the offensive line depth. Kelly is the swing tackle. He did a good job filling in for Jack Conklin last year at right tackle. He'll replace left tackle Taylor Lewan for the first four games this season while the latter serves a suspension for violating the NFL's performance enhancing substances policy. Reiter, a waiver wire pick up last preseason during roster cutdowns, earned a two-year, $4.55 million extension (worth up to $5.55 million through incentives and salary escalators) because of his work starting four games last season when Mitch Morse was recovering from a concussion. The Lions felt Dahl had enough value as a reserve who can play all three interior line spots he was recently given a two-year, $3.6 million extension.
Allen, the seventh overall pick in this year's NFL Draft, is a preseason favorite to win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. If the preseason is any indication, Winovich may be the Patriots' answer to Trey Flowers taking a big money contract ($18 million per year) from the Lions in free agency. Winovich had 2.5 sacks in the preseason.
Jernigan was a starter for Philadelphia's Super Bowl LII winning team. He's now a rotational player with the Eagles signing Malik Jackson after back problems limited him to three games last season. The Seahawks view Ford, an undrafted free agent in 2018, as a potential breakout candidate this season.
Dion Hamilton split time with Zach Brown at inside linebacker late last season. His play made Brown expendable during the offseason. Calitro, who started five games in 2018 because of injuries, was a surprise cut by the Seahawks after the roster cutdown since he had a strong preseason. 2018 seventh round pick Leon Jacobs used his tremendous athleticism to crack Jacksonville's starting lineup at strong side linebacker as a rookie but he couldn't keep the job. He's getting another chance this season. Wilson won Cleveland's annual award for the top rookie in training camp. His contributions will come on special teams.
King is really the 12th starter. He'll handle the slot, where he excelled last season, in multiple wide receiver sets. King's return ability probably won't be needed much although he was named AFC Special Teams Player of Week in addition to AFC Defensive Player of the Week in 2018. Verrett was a Pro Bowl caliber cornerback when last healthy, but he only played five games during the last three seasons because of a partial torn ACL in his left knee and a ruptured Achilles tendon. Although Jackson played well in the extensive playing time he earned last season as a 2018 undrafted free agent, it may not initially carry over to this season because of New England's cornerback depth. The Giants think Love, a 2019 fourth round pick, is capable of playing both cornerback and safety.
Fejedelem was the AFC's first special teams alternate for last season's Pro Bowl. He flashed potential in the limited playing time he received on defense in 2018. Johnson stood out during the preseason but is unlikely to see much action in Buffalo this season other special teams barring injury.
Tucker is the most accurate kicker in NFL history connecting on 237 of 263 field goal attempts for a 90.1 percent conversion rate (minimum of 100 made). He also has the best extra point percentage (99.2) since attempts were moved back to the 15-yard line in 2015, going 131 out of 132. Dickson, a 2018 fifth round pick, was named first team All-Pro as a rookie. His 42.5 yard net punting average was sixth best in the NFL. Krieter was named to the Pro Bowl in 2018 because of a season of 146 snaps without a botched attempt. Grant handles return duties. The 2016 sixth round pick averaged 29.7 yards on kick returns and 16.3 yards per punt return last season. Grant returned one of each for a touchdown in 2018.
Tale of the tape
Total salary cap room used (53 players): $192,638,808
Remaining salary cap room: $7,361,102
Offense (25 players): $89,745,283
Defense (25 players): $96,547,409
Specialists (3 players): $6,346,116
Positional salary breakdown
(Salary cap percentage in parentheses)
QB $7,021,428 (3.51%)
RB $9,150,592 (4.57%)
WR $24,249,027 (12.11%)
TE $7,878,025 (3.93%)
OL $41,446,211 (20.69%)
DE $31,415,388 (15.68%)
DT $23,577,591 (11.77%)
LB $16,668,639 (8.32%)
CB $18,954,506 (9.46%)
S $5,931,285 (2.96%)
All of the cap room isn't being used, as a cushion has been left for a full practice squad of 10 players (approximately $1.36 million) and to sign players when the inevitable injuries happen during the season.
There is a bigger allocation of cap resources to defense, which should be expected with a low cost starting quarterback. Nearly 50 percent of the available cap space is devoted to the offensive and defensive lines, which is consistent with the starting in the trenches philosophy.
Not surprisingly, the reigning Super Bowl champion Patriots lead the way with four players. The Chiefs, Cowboys, Eagles, Ravens, Seahawks, Saints and Texans, who all made the playoffs in 2018, have three players each. So do the Jaguars, who went to AFC Championship Game during the 2017 season. None of the players chosen were on that team. Five clubs (Buccaneers, Cardinals, Falcons, Jets and Raiders) didn't have a player selected.
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