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How would you build an NFL expansion team?

My attempt at building the perfect 64-man roster.

How would you build the NFL’s 33rd team if you were given the opportunity to poach two players off every roster in the league? It’s a question Nathan Cooper recently asked over at Sports Info Solutions, and one I’ve given a lot of thought as I worked to create my submission.

There were three guidelines:

  1. All players who entered the league in 2021, drafted or undrafted, are automatically protected and are not counted toward protection limits.
  2. Players who already have season-ending injuries (e.g. Cam Akers) are automatically protected and are not counted toward protection limits.
  3. Aside from those players, 12 total players can be protected.
  • 6 must be from the offensive side of the ball, which includes Kicker.
  • Only 1 QB can be protected.
  • 6 must be from the defensive side of the ball, which includes Punter.

There are no positional restrictions for defense.

What follows is my best attempt at providing Mexico City with a playoff contender in the Azteca’s first season of existence. To keep me honest I added each player’s team and the salary cap number SIS provided.

Specialist - 3 - $4,407,540

The rules of the expansion draft allowed me to build one of the best trios in the NFL for just $200 thousand more than Brandon McManus will count against the Broncos’ cap in 2022.

NFL: OCT 03 Rams at Seahawks
The 24-year old Dickson averaged 49.6 yards a punt in 2020, third best in the NFL.
Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Defensive back - 12 - $44,624,824

It surprised me how many secondary players were available in the draft and I did my best to take advantage. With Jackson III on the first year of his $40.5 million contract, I was able to load up on promising young corners, which puts the onus on Coach Austin and his staff to maximize his personnel. With McKinney, Sutton, Burgess, and Wallace’s versatility combined, I’d expect a liberal use of dime personnel.

Cap considerations were a big reason I chose the Pats’ Josh Uche over Stephon Gilmore, who’s a 30-year-old corner with a cap number in Jones’ ballpark. They also influenced my decision to go with the Saints’ 2020 first round pick Cesar Ruiz over Marcus Williams.

New York Jets v New England Patriots
Maye was one of the lone bright spots on the 2-14 Jets in 2020.
Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

Linebacker - 5 - $7,727,674

I prioritized prospects over proven talent in the linebacker corps. and placed an emphasis on the ability to survive passing downs. Brown’s been one of the better coverage backers in the league for awhile now and Davis-Gaither gives us a special teamer who can hopefully develop behind him. The battle between Gay, Okereke, and Harrison should be a highlight of training camp.

Kansas City Chiefs v Buffalo Bills
Gay’s an explosive hitter with sideline to sideline athleticism.
Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

Edge - 6 - $10,968,370

This was one of the more difficult spots to fill in the expansion draft as most teams made a point to protect their established pass rushers. Reed and Uche give me two versatile pass rushers who can also play in space, while Gary’s an upside grab in hopes that he’ll take the next step in year three.

Without a true top tier rusher, the rush will be a bit dependent on designer rushers. The Azteca are also bit lighter than I would have liked, which could be an issue against bully ball teams like the 49ers and Ravens.

Denver Broncos Vs. New England Patriots At Gillette Stadium
After a promising start to his career, Reed gets his chance to be “the guy.”
Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Defensive Line - 7 - $14,358,029

  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers DL Vita Vea - $4,716,803
  • Seattle Seahawks DL Poona Ford - $2,670,000
  • Los Angeles Rams NT - Sebastian Joseph-Day - $2,221,810
  • Atlanta Falcons DL Marlon Davidson - $1,570,994
  • Baltimore Ravens DL Justin Madubuike - $1,103,025
  • San Francisco 49ers DL Maurice Hurst - $1,045,000
  • Denver Broncos DL McTelvin Agim - $1,030,397

Vea, Ford, and Joseph-Day should make the base 3-4 a bear to run on, and they’re backed up by four promising pass rushers. There’s enough talent along the interior that Austin should have the horses to overload a protection scheme with three big bodies on the same side, which can help to create favorable one-on-ones for the edge rushers. We can also present a nasty five- and six-man surface, which should help against teams that use a lot of 21 and 12 personnel.

Denver Broncos v Atlanta Falcons
Agim gives the defensive line an embarrassment of riches.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Wide Receivers - 8 - $21,139,349

  • Minnesota Vikings WR/SWR Adam Thielen - $5,941,165
  • Las Vegas Raiders WR/SWR John Brown - $3,510,000
  • Detroit Lions WR Tyrell Williams - $3,000,000
  • Dallas Cowboys WR Michael Gallup - $2,665,495
  • Detroit Lions WR Breshad Perriman - $2,426,400
  • Kansas City Chiefs WR/RET Mecole Hardman - $1,362,287
  • Pittsburgh Steelers WR Diontae Johnson - $1,167,535
  • Las Vegas Raiders WR Bryan Edwards - $1,066,467

With long-term questions about the quarterback room, I sought to eliminate variables and make the ongoing search for a franchise guy as easy as possible. Fortunately, the NFL is overrun with talented receivers at the moment so it wasn’t hard to build a receiving corps. that left me optimistic.

It didn’t hurt when Jerry Jones left Gallup unprotected, as he’s one of the more underrated pass catchers in the NFL. Williams, Perriman, and Hardman’s long speed will need to be accounted for. Johnson should look better away from Ben Roethlisberger, and Edwards has the potential to develop into a YAC machine. Add in Thielen and Brown’s inside/outside versatility and Coach Bieniemy should be able to create a ton of matchup issues for opposing coordinators.

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles
Gallup’s currently one of the best tertiary weapons in the NFL.
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Offensive Line - 9 - $43,950,179

  • Cleveland Browns RT Jack Conklin - $13,000,000
  • Cleveland Browns RG Joel Bitonio - $10,000,000
  • Tennessee Titans OC Ben Jones - $7,250,000
  • New England Patriots LT Isaiah Wynn - $3,640,606
  • Philadelphia Eagles OG Isaac Seumalo - $3,008,000
  • New Orleans Saints OC/OG Cesar Ruiz - $2,881,638
  • Buffalo Bills OL Cody Ford - $2,047,492
  • Arizona Cardinals OT Josh Jones - $1,099,851
  • New York Giants OT Matt Peart - $1,022,592

There were plenty of options for filling out the line and I took full advantage by stealing Wynn from the Pats. I also didn’t hesitate to import the right side of Cleveland’s line as it’s among the best in football. Jones is a bit pricey, but gives me a veteran pivot for 2021 and a hedge against Ruiz’s development.

Wynn and Conklin’s injury histories meant it was vital to snag a few developmental prospects for depth, and if you remember my tackle breakdown before the 2020 draft, I was quite high on Jones and Peart. The lone question hanging over this group is who will start at left guard. Camp will feature an open competition between Ruiz, Seumalo, and Ford.

Houston Texans v Cleveland Browns
Whoever starts at QB should sleep easy with Conklin protecting him.
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Tight Ends / Fullbacks - 5 - $8,243,334

  • San Francisco 49ers FB - Kyle Juszczyk - $2,275,000
  • Carolina Panthers TE Dan Arnold - $2,192,500
  • Cincinnati Bengals TE Drew Sample - $1,501,717
  • Houston Texans TE Pharaoh Brown - $1,494,117
  • Los Angeles Chargers TE Donald Parham - $780,000

I went against my base urge with this group and chose affordable role players over expensive names like the Pats’ Jonnu Smith. I also thought about Albert Okwuegbunam for a long time, but couldn’t pass up Malik Reed and McTelvin Agim. We’re left without many household names beyond Juszczyk, but Parham’s 2020 was intriguing and at 6’8”, he could be a real problem in the redzone. Sample gives us a reliable inline blocker.

San Francisco 49ers v Arizona Cardinals
Juszczyk gives us a versatile fullback who can win at the point of attack or split out and present problems in space.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Running backs - 5 - $8,291,822

  • Houston Texans RB Phillip Lindsay - $3,073,529
  • Indianapolis Colts RB Nyheim Hines - $2,364,139
  • Minnesota Vikings RB Alexander Mattison - $1,055,543
  • Dallas Cowboys RB Tony Pollard - $1,016,945
  • Jackson Jaguars RB James Robinson - $781,666

There were a few big name backs available, but I preferred the Broncos I picked to Melvin Gordon and didn’t want to pass up on Conklin or Bitonio for Kareem Hunt. The decisions may not make casual fans as pleased with year one, but given a little health luck, the backfield should be fine.

Hines is the satellite back who should be an issue for linebackers on passing downs. Lindsay’s an explosive slalom runner with better vision than he gets credit for, while Mattison and Robinson give me a little more size for grinding in short yardage. Robinson is stuck in the shadows behind Ezekiel Elliot, but quietly put on one of the more efficient performances in football a season ago.

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs
Lindsay gives us a homerun threat who can punish light boxes.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Quarterbacks - 4 - $11,212,142

  • Chicago Bears QB Andy Dalton - $5,000,000
  • New Orleans Saints QB Jameis Winston - $2,500,000
  • Green Bay Packers QB Jordan Love - $2,814,421
  • Jacksonville Jaguars QB Gardner Minshew - $897,721

The pickings were relatively slim at quarterback and given the importance of the position I thought it best to load up for an open competition in camp. Dalton’s a capable QB2 even if he shouldn’t be starting long, while Winston gives us a high variance starting option. Minshew and Love provide some hope at potential, and given the Packer’s first round pedigree, he could serve as potential trade bait before week one.

Jacksonville Jaguars Training Camp
The mustachioed face of the Azteca?
Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

Final thoughts

As you would expect, some teams had more appealing pieces than others. To my surprise, I had little trouble snagging enough starting caliber players to feel pretty confident about my prospects if the team had to play a 17-game+ schedule in 2021.

The hardest part about the exercise was juggling acquisition vs. maintaining a healthy budget. Cooper asked for submissions to try to remain under the $182.5 million cap despite a 64-man roster, which made for a few tough decisions. Given a little more clarity on the cap rules, I would have tried harder to squeeze Marcus Williams into my DB room.

Looking ahead for the roster, I’d expect quarterback, edge, and linebacker to warrant plenty of consideration during the 2022 offseason. I’m not optimistic about the ‘22 QB crop, however, so we may have to ride out the storm with Love, Minshew, and Watson.