Using the salary cap and players’ cap numbers for the 2022 season, NFL Media Senior Researcher Anthony Holzman-Escareno attempts to produce the best team money can buy this fall — just like he did last year at this time. Have a comment or question about the squad he’s put together? @FrontOfficeNFL is the place to reach him.
QUARTERBACK (3 players): $13,977,841 total salary (6.7% of cap)
After working through situations with Josh Allen and Justin Herbert in this spot, then pairing each with Tom Brady, the obvious became apparent. The greatest team money can buy in 2022 needed the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Not only does Brady have more Super Bowl rings than any player, head coach or franchise, but he also led the NFL in passing yards (5,316) and touchdowns (43) last season as the youngest 44-year-old you’ve ever seen. And since joining the Buccaneers in 2020, Brady leads the NFL in deep pass completions (20-plus air yards) with 57.
In another meager attempt to put Brady’s career into perspective, consider this breakdown of Brady’s career (including playoffs). From 2000 to 2007, Brady had more wins (100), pass touchdowns (223) and Super Bowls titles (three) than Hall of Famer Kurt Warner did in his entire career (67 wins, 208 pass TDs, one Super Bowl). Then take Brady’s 2008 to 2015 seasons: He accumulated more pass touchdowns (261), Super Bowls (one) and NFL MVPs (one) than Hall of Famer Jim Kelly (237 pass TD, zero Super Bowls, zero MVPs). Follow that up with Brady’s last six seasons, from 2016 to 2021: Hall of Famer Troy Aikman finished his illustrious career with 165 pass TDs, three Super Bowls and no MVP awards, which each trailed or tied Brady (226 pass TDs, three Super Bowls, one MVP). That’s three Hall of Fame careers in one!
Although five first-round quarterbacks (seven total) were selected before him, Davis Mills trailed only Mac Jones in passing yards and passing touchdowns among rookies in 2021. His 68.8 completion percentage and 228.5 pass yards per game as a starter paced all first-year quarterbacks. Mills is the only rookie in NFL history to have three games with a passer rating of at least 125.0 (min. 25 pass attempts in each game). The third-round pick also improved with time, throwing 14 touchdowns and five interceptions in his final 10 games of the season after tossing just two scores and five picks in his first three career games. He won two of his final four starts with a Texans team lacking in talent.
Former Temple star P.J. Walker is 2-0 as a starter in his career, brings an extra dimension with his legs and carries a cap hit a sliver under $900,000. There’s risk in not investing in another veteran option at quarterback behind Brady. However, we know Brady isn’t coming off that field. I am also confident in this: If Matt Cassel could navigate the 2008 Patriots to an 11-5 record, Mills or Walker can take this roster to the promised land.
Toughest decision: Leaving Patrick Mahomes, the best QB in the NFL, off of the team due to his $35.8 million cap hit. Passing on Josh Allen and his $16.4 million cap hit might have been the more head-scratching move. The roster had a Justin Herbert-Brady stack at one point before settling on the seven-time world champion to head the depth chart alone.
RUNNING BACK (4): $5,248,050 (2.5%)
Fresh off capturing a rushing triple crown and becoming the youngest player (22) with 2,000-plus scrimmage yards and 20-plus touchdowns in NFL history, Jonathan Taylor and his second-round rookie contract were easy to slot in as RB1. Through his first two seasons, Taylor has 32 scrimmage touchdowns, putting him on pace to set the NFL record for a player’s first three seasons. The four names currently atop that list each have a bronze bust in Canton, Ohio: Barry Sanders (47), Eric Dickerson (46), Gale Sayers (46) and Earl Campbell (45). My favorite Taylor statistic from the 2021 season? He had more rushing yards after contact (1,272) than any other player had total rushing yards (Nick Chubb finished second with 1,259), per Pro Football Focus.
Antonio Gibson put together a fine second season with the Commanders, amassing 1,331 scrimmage yards and 10 touchdowns on 300 touches. Gibson joined Taylor, Najee Harris and Joe Mixon as the only players to eclipse the 300-touch threshold in 2021. A wide receiver at Memphis, Gibson’s price and added value in the passing game is once again perfect for this roster.
Elijah Mitchell, a sixth-round pick in 2021, averaged the fifth-most rushing yards per game (87.5) last season, trailing only fantasy football household names like Derrick Henry, Jonathan Taylor, Nick Chubb and Dalvin Cook. Mitchell also proved he could create on his own, finishing fifth in rushing yards after contact (765) in 2021. A starting running back from the Kyle Shanahan offense on a rookie contract? Yes, please.
James Robinson tore his Achilles in Week 15 and might not be ready to start the season, but the luxury of a productive, proven player on an undrafted deal was too good to overlook. His 2,403 scrimmage yards are the 11th-most in the NFL over the last two seasons.
A good rule of thumb for building rosters: Find running backs on rookie contracts. This team will not roster a fullback.
Others considered: Alvin Kamara (Saints), Aaron Jones (Packers), Nick Chubb (Browns), Cordarrelle Patterson (Falcons), Tony Pollard (Cowboys), D’Andre Swift (Lions), Javonte Williams (Broncos), Damien Harris (Patriots), Michael Carter (Jets), Darrel Williams (Cardinals).
Toughest decision: Leaving off Alvin Kamara, who was the lead back on this team last season, with Taylor as his backup. The move saved almost $4 million in cap space, leaving the least expensive group from this roster a year ago $3.6 million cheaper in 2022.
WIDE RECEIVER (6): $22,639,014 (10.9%)
Davante Adams does so many things well. The NFL’s triple crown leader in receiving since 2018 is like Allen Iverson off the line of scrimmage, a pristine route runner and secure pass-catcher. He’s the only active wide receiver who has five career seasons with double-digit touchdown grabs. In fact, only five players have more, and they’ve each been fitted for gold threads: Randy Moss (nine), Jerry Rice (nine), Terrell Owens (eight), Marvin Harrison (eight) and Cris Carter (six). He’d be red-zone target numero uno for this list’s QB1 Brady; Adams has 53 trips to the end zone from inside the 20 since 2016 — 17 more than the next-closest player (Mike Evans, 36).
The NFL’s leader in deep receptions (59), yards (2,410) and touchdowns (25) over the last five seasons, Tyreek Hill‘s mere presence limits what opponents can do on defense. Not to mention, he is the only player in the Super Bowl era with at least 50 receiving touchdowns, five rushing touchdowns and five return touchdowns. Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell is the only other player to do so in NFL history.
Justin Jefferson‘s route running and separation can be put up against any player in the league. The third-year pro paces all players with 3,016 receiving yards since entering the NFL in 2020 and he is the first player to open his career with back-to-back 1,400-yard receiving campaigns. Already atop the record books for receiving yards over a player’s first two seasons, he needs to log 1,148 in 2022 to break Randy Moss’ record of 4,163 in a player’s first three.
Tee Higgins provides an athletic, talented 6-foot-4 target who can win at the catch point. He finished top six in the NFL with 16 contested catches (PFF) and 245 receiving yards in tight windows (Next Gen Stats) last season. The third-year pro really began to shine toward the end of the season. In Weeks 12-17 (Bengals rested starters in Week 18), only Cooper Kupp had more receiving yards (688) than Higgins (645).
Darnell Mooney accounted for 28 percent of the Bears’ total receiving yards in 2021, the 10th-highest in the NFL. His 1,055 receiving yards in 2021 ranked seventh among all players under 25 years old, behind Jefferson, Higgins, Ja’Marr Chase, D.J. Moore, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Pittman Jr. The last time Gabriel Davis was on the field, he recorded eight catches for 201 yards and an NFL playoff-record four receiving touchdowns. The 2020 fourth-round pick is a cheap option with great upside.
Toughest decision: Getting both of the NFL’s two highest-paid wide receivers on their Year 1 cap numbers and Justin Jefferson on a rookie contract seems criminal enough, but having do-it-all Deebo Samuel on this roster would have been amazing. The scenario of him signing an extension and blowing up this roster is too likely to overlook. Still, my favorite Samuel stat that I found last season: He was the first player to lead the NFL in yards per reception (18.2) and receiving yards after the catch per reception (10.1) in the same season since the latter has been tracked in 1992 (min. 50 receptions).
TIGHT END (4): $13,489,362 (6.5%)
George Kittle is the perfect do-everything tight end to start a roster. When the Iowa product was on the field last season, 49ers quarterbacks completed 68.8 percent of their passes with a passer rating of 106.1. Without him, QBs had a completion percentage of 58.4 and passer rating of 70.9. The only non-running back since 2019 to average more yards after the catch per reception or yards after contact per reception than Kittle is his teammate Deebo Samuel (min. 200 targets). Kittle needs 1,067 receiving yards to set the all-time NFL record for the most in a tight end’s first six seasons (currently held by Rob Gronkowski, 5,555). An extension of the offensive line, Kittle is one of the position’s best run blockers as well.
Having played alongside Zach Ertz for most of his first four seasons in Philadelphia, Dallas Goedert can fit right back into the TE2 role here. He ended 2021 with 830 receiving yards, behind only Mark Andrews, Travis Kelce, Kyle Pitts, and Kittle at the position. According to Next Gen Stats, Goedert finished fifth in the NFL in receiving yards per route run last season (min. 60 receptions), directly behind Kupp, Samuel, Adams and Jefferson. He’s an inline receiving tight end who is also impactful as a run blocker.
This is where things got interesting. Initially, Rob Gronkowski signed the Veteran Salary Benefit with this roster. The Brady-Gronk pairing was too appealing to pass up. However, he decided to walk away from the game last week, and the roster went into a mini tailspin.
John Bates played almost 500 snaps as a rookie in 2021 and finished as PFF’s highest-graded run-blocking tight end (87.6 run block grade). He also added 249 receiving yards in his inaugural season. Albert Okwuegbunam ran a 4.49-second 40-yard dash at 6-5, 258 pounds. He only has 451 receiving yards over two seasons, but his value and upside warrant his spot as the last tight end of this roster.
Toughest decision: Filing this roster without Kyle Pitts on the team. We all just want to have fun. However, the value of using a first-round pick on a tight end just wasn’t there. One day soon.
OFFENSIVE LINE (8): $31,124,172 (14.9%)
If you’re building an offensive line for one season, there’s no better starting point than the “Silverback” himself, Trent Williams. He is coming off the highest-graded season in the PFF era (97.8, min. 200 snaps). Locking in the game’s best left tackle at a $13.9 million figure is good business. It also makes him the second-highest paid player on the roster behind Aaron Donald. A Pro Bowler in nine of the last 10 seasons, Williams did not play in 2019 due to health concerns — the lone season in the last decade in which he was not selected.
Tristan Wirfs has been an elite starting right tackle since entering Tampa Bay’s lineup in Week 1 of his 2020 rookie season. The 2021 first-team All-Pro, who was PFF’s sixth-highest graded OT last season, has yet to miss a regular-season game in his career (he did miss the Buccaneers’ Divisional Round loss to the Rams).
Two PFF darlings, Wyatt Teller and Creed Humphrey, headline the interior of the offensive line. Teller has a 91.4 offensive grade since 2020, the third-highest among guards, while Humphrey led all centers with an identical offensive grade as a rookie in 2021. Teller’s play is anchored in his work in the ground game, trailing only Zack Martin in PFF run grade among guards over the last two seasons. The Chiefs’ second-year center was one of three players to receive multiple votes for 2021 Offensive Rookie of the Year, along with winner Ja’Marr Chase and Mac Jones (five votes to Humphrey’s two).
Mike Onwenu has 24 starts in two seasons and inside-outside flexibility is always an asset. He excels in pass protection, which offers a nice yin to Teller’s yang. Terron Armstead is as good of a backup swing tackle as any roster has ever seen (one of the three tackles could move inside if necessary). Armstead anchored Drew Brees’ blindside on his way to three Pro Bowls (2018-2020) and just signed a five-year, $75 million contract with the Dolphins in late March.
Trey Smith was the steal of the 2021 draft for the Chiefs, who solidified two starting interior O-line positions in one class, as a sixth-round pick in the same draft class as second-rounder Humphrey. Lloyd Cushenberry III had a rough go as a rookie in 2020 but was the 10th-highest graded pass-blocking center by PFF last season. Once again, selecting just eight offensive linemen can be dicey, but decisions need to be made.
Others considered: Quenton Nelson (Colts), Zack Martin (Cowboys), Corey Linsley (Chargers), Shaq Mason (Buccaneers), Ryan Jensen (Buccaneers), Alex Cappa (Bengals), Rashawn Slater (Chargers), Elgton Jenkins (Packers), Laken Tomlinson (Jets), Tyler Biadasz (Cowboys), Jonah Jackson (Lions).
Toughest decision: Deciding against investing more on the interior of the offensive line. It’s likely the weakest group on the roster. However, something has to give on a roster like this, and going light in this area made the most sense, albeit with a soon-to-be 45-year-old quarterback standing behind them. This could be the one flaw in the roster construction.
INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINE (5): $35,683,798 (17.1%)
This annual roster might be built on the foundation of Aaron Donald until he decides hang ’em up. Donald is the highest-paid player on the roster by over $10 million. Name a metric: sacks, tackles for loss, quarterback hits, PFF defense grade; Donald leads the NFL in each since entering the league in 2014. He’s the best player in the NFL. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year accounted for 11.5 percent of this team’s cap.
Big men aren’t supposed to move like Vita Vea. The 6-4, 347-pound defensive tackle amassed a career-high 4.0 sacks in 2021 en route to his first Pro Bowl nod, and his 85.7 PFF pass rush grade since 2020 ranks seventh among interior defensive linemen. The Eagles’ new deal with Fletcher Cox dropped his cap hit — the only way he could’ve claimed a spot on this roster. Cox’s pass rush grade over the last five seasons trails only Donald and Chris Jones, and though the 31-year-old might have lost some of his freakish athleticism, he’s still an active presence in opposing backfields.
Akiem Hicks missed eight games in 2021 (groin and ankle injuries) but still managed 3.5 sacks. Injuries have slowed him down some in recent years, but he’s still averaged 6.5 sacks and 19 quarterback hits over his last three healthy seasons. Isaac Rochell has 9.5 career sacks in 63 games but fit right under the cap. He was the last addition to the roster.
Others considered: Jeffery Simmons (Titans), Jonathan Allen (Commanders), Kenny Clark (Packers), Dalvin Tomlinson (Vikings), Dexter Lawrence (Giants), Zach Sieler (Dolphins), Matt Ioannidis (Panthers), Jarran Reed (Packers), Anthony Rush (Falcons), Johnathan Hankins (Raiders).
Toughest decision: Not teaming up Jeffery Simmons with Aaron Donald. Offenses would have no chance blocking that duo on the inside. However, it was tough to use one of the four first-round contracts on Simmons after already spending $24 million on Donald.
EDGE RUSHER (6): $35,790,454 (17.2%)
With a cap hit a shade under $13 million, Myles Garrett once again provides one of the best values on the team. He also brings another Reggie White reference. Garrett has at least 10 sacks in four of his five career seasons, while White is the only player to do so in each of his first five NFL seasons. The 2022 campaign will be Garrett’s last season at such a value, as his cap hits increase to between $27 million and $32 million over the 2023-26 seasons.
This is the only pass rush Khalil Mack has joined better than the one the Chargers will front this fall, with Mack and Joey Bosa coming off the edges. A top-five draft pick in 2014, Mack ranks in the top four in sacks (72.5), tackles for loss (87) and forced fumbles (22) since 2015. Mack missed an extended stretch for the first time in his career in 2021, sitting out 10 games after being absent just twice over his first seven seasons.
Although lacking the gaudy sack numbers of some of his elite pass-rushing peers, Maxx Crosby‘s name deserves to be in the conversation for best in the NFL right now. The Pro Bowler led the NFL with 82 quarterback pressures last season, according to Next Gen Stats, and his 30 QB hits also ranked in the top five league-wide.
Von Miller‘s 115.5 sacks are the most in the NFL since 2011, when he entered the NFL. He also has 4.5 career sacks in the Super Bowl, tied with Hall of Famer Charles Haley for the most in NFL history. However, the feat Haley accomplished in five games, Miller has done in two. Having the Super Bowl 50 MVP as the fourth rusher in the rotation is beautifully excessive.
Alex Highsmith turned in six sacks, 15 tackles for loss, and 15 QB hits in his first season as a starter, making him one of nine players with at least five sacks and 15 TFL in 2021. D.J. Wonnum led the Vikings with eight sacks and 15 QB hits in his second season — more than adequate production for the last pass rusher on the roster.
Others considered: T.J. Watt (Steelers), Nick Bosa (49ers), Harold Landry (Titans), Chandler Jones (Raiders), Jadeveon Clowney (Browns), Za’Darius Smith (Vikings), Haason Reddick (Eagles), Malik Reed (Broncos).
Toughest decision: This might have been the group that was the most fluid during the process. There was a point when I considered three-for-three fantasy football-like trades with the pass rushers. Using a first-round pick on Nick Bosa was a huge consideration and was one of the most likely outcomes that didn’t come to fruition.
LINEBACKER (5): $14,415,044 (6.9%)
On a roster like this, Micah Parsons would be free to do whatever he wants on the football field, and the staff would be keen to let him do so. The Penn State product was the only player in the NFL with at least 200 coverage, pass rush, and run defense snaps in 2021 (Next Gen Stats). Parsons had the highest pressure percentage in the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016) and did not allow a receiving touchdown in coverage. Even more impressive, he finished sixth in the league with 13.0 sacks despite rushing the passer on just 52.9 percent of dropbacks (260th in the NFL, min. 100 pass rush snaps).
Everything Demario Davis lacks in award recognition, he holds in on-field production. Davis has double-digit tackles for loss in each of the last five seasons, and the Saints linebacker is the only NFL player with at least 500 tackles and 20.0 sacks over that span. His 58 stops behind the line of scrimmage since 2017 lead off-ball linebackers and rank 10th overall in the NFL.
Bobby Wagner is one of seven linebackers in the Super Bowl era to earn at least six first-team All-Pro selections. The other six each have a bust in Canton. In fact, only two players in the Super Bowl era have more All-Pro selections in their first 10 seasons than Wagner (six), and both are in the conversation for greatest defensive player of all time: new Rams teammate Aaron Donald (seven) and Pro Football Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor (eight). Wagner’s new five-year, $50 million deal with the Rams carries a convenient $2.5 million cap hit that made his admission inevitable.
Jayon Brown is a depth player with good coverage skills, while Tae Crowder put up 130 tackles and two interceptions in his second NFL season. Both have experience on special teams. This roster might be a little bit light on off-ball work once Parsons gets to unicorn-ing his way around the defense, but I think this group is more than adept considering the talent around it.
Others considered: Darius Leonard (Colts), Fred Warner (49ers), De’Vondre Campbell (Packers), Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (Browns), Denzel Perryman (Raiders), Leighton Vander Esch (Cowboys), Anthony Walker Jr. (Browns).
Toughest decision: Leaving 2021’s top two linebackers off the roster, especially considering Parsons will have a specialized role. Having even one of Darius Leonard or Fred Warner would have solidified this group.
CORNERBACK (5): $20,357,285 (9.8%)
Jaire Alexander missed 13 games in 2021 but signed a well-deserved four-year, $84 million extension in May. During his last healthy season in 2020, Alexander was in the conversation for the game’s best cornerback after allowing the fewest receiving yards (335) and lowest passer rating (52.9) in coverage among 62 players with 60-plus targets, including the playoffs. In four seasons since being selected fourth overall in 2018, Denzel Ward has notched two Pro Bowls on his résumé and is one of four players with at least 10 interceptions and 50 passes defensed over that span. Ward has ceded a reception on just 53.9 percent of his 291 career targets in coverage, the fifth-lowest rate in the NFL since 2018 (PFF, min. 200 targets).
A.J. Terrell allowed the most receiving yards in coverage (901) by any NFL player as a rookie in 2020, but bounced back in a major way in 2021. As Alexander did the season prior, Terrell surrendered the fewest yards (200) — and lowest completion percentage (43.9) — in coverage of any player with at least 50 coverage targets in 2021 (PFF). He gave up more than 20 receiving yards in coverage in just three of 16 games played last season.
Trevon Diggs brings his wide receiver skill set to the defensive side of the ball. Diggs finished on the opposite end of the spectrum from Terrell, allowing the most receiving yards (1,016) in 2021. He also had the most interceptions (11) by any player in the last four decades. Though a tall task, Diggs has a shot to become the first player in the Super Bowl era with consecutive seasons of double-digit interceptions. On a roster like this, Diggs’ aggressiveness is far less of a worry.
Amani Oruwariye combines sub-4.5 speed and ball production (six INTs in 2021) in a 6-2 frame. He trailed just Diggs (11) and J.C. Jackson (eight) in picks last season and comes at a fifth-round price tag. Ward and Alexander form an athletic and elite man-to-man cornerback duo. Uniting the scheme-versatile Terrell and ballhawk Diggs, who both ranked top eight in the league in PFF coverage grade while in zone, is almost unfair.
Others considered: Jalen Ramsey (Rams), Patrick Surtain II (Broncos), J.C. Jackson (Chargers), Kenny Moore II (Colts), L’Jarius Sneed (Chiefs), Charvarius Ward (49ers), Bryce Hall (Jets), Sean Murphy-Bunting (Buccaneers), Jamel Dean (Buccaneers), Troy Hill (Rams).
Toughest decision: Leaving off Jalen Ramsey despite his $23.2 million cap hit in 2022. The combination of Ramsey, Donald and Wagner makes the 2021 Rams the first team since the 1981 Steelers to have three defensive players (Joe Greene, Jack Lambert and Jack Ham) to each have at least five Pro Bowls and three First-Team All-Pro selections entering a season. Securing Ramsey to complete the Rams’ big three would have been quite the lick. J.C. Jackson also had a spot on the roster for some time. His inclusion would have given the roster the top three leaders in interceptions from 2021.
SAFETY (4): $12,825,170 (6.2%)
Kevin Byard led the NFL with eight interceptions in his first career All-Pro season (2017), then led the league in PFF coverage grade during his second (2021). He led all players with a 90.7 coverage grade (min. 60 coverage snaps) and all safeties with a 90.2 defense grade last season. Plus, he has the third-most interceptions (23) over the last five seasons, trailing only Xavien Howard (27) and J.C. Jackson (25).
The Honey Badger can line up all over the formation, from the slot to the box and on the backend. In his three seasons in Kansas City, Tyrann Mathieu had the second-most interceptions (13) among safeties. He’s the only safety with 10-plus INTs and three-plus sacks in that span. Although far from his prime, Mathieu can still be a major difference-maker on defense.
Drafted as a safety, listed as a linebacker as a rookie and a safety as a sophomore, versatility is Jeremy Chinn‘s game. He’s lined up for at least 200 snaps at each level of the defense over the last two seasons, per Next Gen Stats: line of scrimmage (232), linebacker (672), cornerback (459) and safety (532). Chinn has flashed some struggles in coverage, but his all-around skill set was too enticing to pass on. This dude also scored two defensive touchdowns on consecutive scrimmage plays as a rookie.
Jordan Fuller provides security for Byard as a high safety. The 2020 sixth-round pick has 173 tackles and four interceptions in two NFL seasons. Although he doesn’t have but a handful of special teams snaps, he’s started all 28 games in which he’s appeared.
Toughest decision: Derwin James held a roster spot for some time despite his $9 million cap hit. When healthy, there are few defensive players more impactful. When it came down to it, though, the decision between Byard and Minkah Fitzpatrick was tough. Fitzpatrick’s extra $1 million cap hit sealed it.
SPECIAL TEAMERS (3): $2,630,929 (1.3%)
Evan McPherson’s rookie heroics are well-documented. He hit 12 field goals of at least 50 yards in 2021, including the playoffs, the most in a season in NFL history. Five of those came on the game’s final play, also tied for the most all time. In the playoffs, McPherson hit 14 field goals, which also tied Adam Vinatieri (2006) for the most in a single postseason. For a fifth-round pick, this was a no-brainer. Jack Fox made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2020 and has averaged 49.2 yards per punt in his career, the highest in the league over that span. Scott Daly is a long snapper who had an 87.0 PFF pass-blocking grade in a whopping three such snaps in 2021.
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