- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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A few weeks ago, my editors asked me to assemble the best team that could fit within the $102 million salary cap for the 2006 NFL season.
Being a salary cap freak armed with a database of salaries and contract breakdowns for 2,330 players, the assignment was easier than imagined. Using a couple of simple salary cap philosophies I've adopted from my years of covering the league, I was able to assemble "The Best Team Money Can Buy" with very few adjustments. My total cap number for 2006 was $100,822,220, leaving me more than $1 million under the cap. But I had the ability to pull in top players from the 2006 NFL draft, assemble an all-star special teams unit and have a backup unit on offense and defense that could probably win the NFC North.
My 53-man roster has 21 Pro Bowlers, including 16 starting position players. The team features the league's trendiest receivers -- Cincinnati's Chad Johnson, Carolina's Steve Smith and Washington's Santana Moss -- who offer great hands and exceptional run-after-the-catch ability. It features the league's most talented and versatile running back, San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson, whose work can be augmented at times by Falcons fullback Justin Griffith. The team also has a game-breaking tight end in San Diego's Antonio Gates. And the quarterback? Two-time league MVP Peyton Manning of the Colts.
Given $102 million of cap room to fill out a 53-man roster, there was enough room to splurge on five Pro Bowl special teamers: Kansas City returner Dante Hall, Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, Raiders punter Shane Lechler and coverage specialists Larry Izzo of the Patriots and David Tyree of the Giants.
The defense is built for speed and playmaking ability. Only in the Pro Bowl could Indy's Bob Sanders and Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu line up as teammates. Thanks to easy cap management, they can play together on this team and can freelance behind a defensive front seven featuring the pass-rushing abilities of the Colts' Dwight Freeney and the Chargers' Shawne Merriman, with Houston's Mario Williams filling in as a backup.
Perhaps the biggest fundamental concept that allows all of this to work is an acceptable cap philosophy that isn't given much publicity. The Cover 2 defense, employed by the Colts' Tony Dungy and several other coaches, is a better system to work under the cap than the 3-4. In the 3-4, teams must pay big money for at least a couple of starting linebackers, a couple of defensive linemen, a hard-hitting strong safety and for bigger, more physical cornerbacks. The Steelers' starting 11 in the 3-4 defense totals around $34.88 million and the Chargers' $30.6 million, while the Colts' starting 11 in the 4-3 is $26 million.
The Cover 2 in a 4-3 allows for a younger flow of players. Younger usually means cheaper, but Cover 2 defensive coaches are accustomed to grooming young linebackers with speed. The Seahawks, for example, went to the Super Bowl with two rookie linebackers. Dungy has gone to the playoffs year after year realizing he probably will lose a young linebacker after his fourth season in the league.
One of the reasons the Colts hired Dungy is the franchise knew its cap was going to be dominated by offensive stars: Manning, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Brandon Stokley, etc. Because it's hard to spend on both sides of the ball, something has to give. The Cover 2 allows for more flexibility as long as the team drafts well.
Naturally, championship teams are built around quarterbacks. While it can be debated forever whether New England's Tom Brady is better than Manning, the salary cap made the decision simple for "The Best Team Money Can Buy." Manning has run one of the league's top offenses since the late 1990s and his cap number is $10.566 million. Brady has a $15.67 million cap hit. That difference freed up $5 million for four of the top five linebackers: D.J. Williams of the Broncos, Lofa Tatupu of the Seahawks, Lance Briggs of the Bears and Karlos Dansby of the Cardinals.
Though it was tough to separate Manning from his favorite receiver, Harrison, the luxury of building a good young unit of pass catchers was too tempting. Harrison is 34 and has a $6.4 million cap number. Johnson, Smith and Moss give Manning a trio of top-10 receivers who averaged 95 catches, 1,492 yards and 10 touchdowns each in 2005. Yards after the catch are so important because of the speed of defenses these days. Getting three receivers who combined for a 15.7-yards-per-catch average was too tempting to pass up.
Plus, it's fun to see Smith and Johnson, former Santa Monica Junior College teammates, together again.
The offensive roster reads like the first round of a fantasy draft. At halfback, I have Tomlinson, who has the ability to catch 100 passes or rush for 1,800 yards. At tight end, Gates starts and is backed up by Cardinals rookie Leonard Pope and Redskins H-back/tight end Chris Cooley. Like the Colts, the team can switch to a two-tight end set and be explosive, but its primary offensive formation will be three receivers (Smith, Moss and Johnson), one tight end (Gates) and one back (Tomlinson).
It's almost impossible to assemble a fantasy team that talented, but it's easy to do with $102 million to spend. In case a fullback is needed for short-yardage and early-down running plays, Griffith is available. He comes from the league's top rushing team and has a cap number of $811,510.
The offensive line has two current Pro Bowlers (Seattle left tackle Walter Jones and Colts center Jeff Saturday) and features two of the best young guards in the game (Eric Steinbach of the Bengals and Chris Snee of the Giants). Steinbach and Snee were Pro Bowl alternates last year. Jammal Brown wins the right tackle job, even though the Saints are moving him to left tackle this season. Brown, a first-round pick in 2005, looked dominating at times as a rookie at right tackle. Brown, Snee and Steinbach eat up only $3.4 million of the cap, and give the team the chance to have a starting lineup of five potential Pro Bowl blockers.
Flexibility was the key to the backup decisions. Quarterback Matt Schaub is considered the hottest name in trade circles although he's too valuable for the Falcons to surrender. With a big arm and a big body, Oakland's Andrew Walter is being molded into a potential starter by Art Shell. For backup running backs, I wanted size. The Cowboys' Marion Barber and Tennessee rookie LenDale White fit the bill because they give extra power for short-yardage and goal-line plays. Buffalo's Roscoe Parrish was the choice as the fourth receiver because I was looking for a slot receiver with quickness. The young backup line of tackles Michael Roos (Tennessee) and Marcus McNeill (San Diego) and interior blockers Richie Incognito (St. Louis) and Chris Spencer (Seattle) could be starters, but they cost only $3.22 million.
With a Cover 2 defense in mind, I wanted to build an aggressive front four. Merriman of the Chargers made the Pro Bowl as a 3-4 outside linebacker, but he's big enough to move to an end spot in the 4-3 on the side opposite Freeney. The Ravens' Terrell Suggs has made similar moves when Baltimore switched between 4-3 and 3-4 schemes. I almost took Indy's Robert Mathis as my third end, but for less than a million more than Mathis' new deal, I got Mario Williams, the first pick in the draft.
The choices at defensive tackle were intriguing. Good 4-3 defenses need quickness and pass-rushing ability at the three-technique tackle spot. The Bears' Tommie Harris is the starter, and the Cardinals' Darnell Dockett, a John Randall-like tackle, is the backup. I feel great about the run-stopping tackles. The Titans' Albert Haynesworth is a dominating player coming into his own. The Patriots' Vince Wilfork is good enough to be a starting nose tackle, but I still believe his best spot is as a tackle on a 4-3.
Any good 4-3 needs a top weakside linebacker, and Briggs made the Pro Bowl on the weak side of one of the league's best defenses. Tatupu may be undersized, but he's a smart leader and playmaker in the middle who helped get the Seahawks to the Super Bowl. D.J. Williams is the ideal athlete on the strong side and he's backed up by Dansby, another emerging Pro Bowl star.
Who wouldn't drool over a secondary that starts Sanders, Polamalu, Atlanta's DeAngelo Hall and Seattle's Marcus Trufant? Hall, Trufant and Polamalu are former first-rounders. Sanders is one of the game's best hitters. Hall and Trufant give this team the chance to play some bump-and-run man at times. Any opposing receiver crossing the middle of the field would be punished by Sanders and Polamalu.
Flexibility was the key to the backup decisions. Chicago's Charles Tillman is a big corner who can match up against the tall West Coast wide receivers. Seattle's Jordan Babineaux may be the team's best bargain. He can help out as a Cover 2 inside cornerback or as a backup safety while only making $425,000. Corey Webster is good enough to start for the Giants, but he's available as a backup on this team. Plus, how about the speed of the Saints' Josh Bullocks, who will be asked only to be a third safety on this team?
There was so much available room, I overdid it on specials team. Lechler is a two-time Pro Bowl punter. Vinatieri is the best clutch kicker of his era. For coverage teams, you look for leaders, and who could be better than Izzo and Tyree?
My returning unit is ridiculous. Hall is the main returner, but I have the options of using Steve Smith and the Raiders' Chris Carr on punt returns. For kickoff returns, I can choose among Hall, Carr and San Diego's Darren Sproles, who each averaged more than 24 yards a return. Chris Massey of the Rams is my deep snapper and third fullback behind Griffith and Cooley.
One of the tricks to building the defense was getting first-, second- or third-round choices in their rookie contracts who freed up the room for top offensive players, who are among the highest-paid at their positions. A head coach using the Cover 2 has to figure to keep the defense simple enough for a change. That allows the team the chance to keep top offensive players until the end of their careers.
Sure, a good defense can take a team to a Super Bowl, but the offense has to be good enough to win during those games. "The Best Team Money Can Buy" would post a lot of W's.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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