- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Assembling "The Best Team Money Can Buy" wasn't hard. Keeping it together is the challenge.
Believe it or not, my 53-man roster featuring 21 current or former Pro Bowl players came in under the $102 million cap, with nearly $1.2 million to spare. Five players -- defensive end Dwight Freeney, guard Eric Steinbach, linebackers Lance Briggs and Larry Izzo, and fullback Justin Griffith -- will be unrestricted free agents after the 2006 season. Four others -- defensive end Jared Allen, quarterback Matt Schaub, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, safety Jordan Babineaux -- are projected restricted free agents.
Not counting tenders to the restricted free agents, the 53-man roster is right around the $109 million cap in 2007. Peyton Manning has a $10 million roster bonus in 2007 that was set aside to be turned into a signing bonus. That saves $8 million and gives cap flexibility in 2007.
The team was constructed for cap flexibility. With the exception of New England's Izzo, all but one of the 24 defensive players are still playing on their rookie contracts. That enabled me to go with 10 first- and seven second-rounders just among the defenders. With improved scouting, more starters are found in the first three rounds of the draft. If the scouting is right, the team should have 12 backups athletic enough to be starters in the league.
Several strategies were used in creating a core group. For one, youth was sought. The average age of the team is 25.1, making it one of the youngest teams in football. That should provide at least a four-year run at the Super Bowl.
Next, the Cover 2 is being implemented, allowing the team to be young and thriftier on defense. Completely opposite of the defensive plan, nine offensive starters are in their second or third contracts, presumably locking them up for the remainder of their careers.
Manning is signed through 2014, Antonio Gates through 2010, Chad Johnson and Santana Moss through 2011, Steve Smith through 2009, Walter Jones through 2010, Jammal Brown through 2009, Jeff Saturday through 2008 and LaDainian Tomlinson through 2011. General managers will tell you teams are built around five key positions: quarterback, left tackle, wide receiver, cornerback and defensive end. The core group on offense (quarterback, left tackle and wide receiver) is set through 2009, but there are two starting receivers locked in to carry the offense through 2011.
Investing in offense came with a price. The 26 offensive players eat up 59.71 percent of the $102 million salary cap. Yet, there's good news going back to the owner and the financial officers. So much signing bonus proration is tied up with those veteran offensive players that the team will cost less than $100 million in pure cash. It's currently at $91 million while we figure out the rookie contracts of LenDale White and Marcus McNeill.
Being "cash under cap" is important because the owner won't mind putting more money into this juggernaut. I left $1.2 million of cap room for injuries, but also for re-signing a couple of players.
Freeney is the key. We can't lose him. He's a leader and one of the best defensive forces in the game. It might cost $9 million a year to get a deal done, but Freeney wants to stay with the Colts, and he surely would want to stay with this team. Before the start of the season, a contract extension should get done that would give him a little bit of signing bonus money for this season and a lot next year.
Why next year? The cash outlay for this team is only around $78 million in 2007. Keep in mind, with so many young players (especially on defense) on this roster, there aren't a ton of performers with lucrative deals featuring top-end salary and roster bonuses. Ultimately, good teams can't afford to lose great defensive ends, so re-signing Freeney is a priority. If necessary, a couple of other contracts would be restructured to free up enough cash to offer Freeney a hefty signing bonus.
Though teams can go over the "cash-over-cash" formula, owners don't like to spend over the salary cap. Still, that gives us $31 million of cash to work with in 2007.
After Freeney, the biggest decisions will involve Steinbach and Briggs. Steinbach's a keeper because he's a budding star, a Pro Bowl alternate who works very well in a passing offense. Briggs is a weakside linebacker who went to the Pro Bowl following last season. Losing Briggs would leave the team with only five linebackers, including special teamer Izzo.
If Briggs goes, though, "The Best Team" will be drafting a linebacker in the first round.
While no team likes to lose players in free agency, a championship team understands it's part of life in the NFL. Deal with it and move on.
With many of the defenders approaching the expiration of their rookie contracts, some will leave over the next couple of years. That's not necessarily a bad thing as long as the general manager keeps the good defenders.
Because this team will always be young on defense, it's important to assemble as many draft choices as possible. Not including picks that have been traded away, each team gets at least seven draft picks -- one for each round. But if a team loses more free agents than it signs, it gets compensatory picks, which can be as high as the third round.
Obviously, there aren't going to be many second-day (Rounds 4-7) draft choices making this team, but getting extra picks opens up the chances of using the team's seven draft choices to move up into higher positions in rounds to get quality players for needs.
With that in mind, figure the team should have eight or nine draft choices in the 2007 draft and 10-11 in future drafts, giving the coach quality young backups to groom for the future.
Another ace in the hole is backup quarterback Schaub. If Andrew Walter has a good training camp and shows he could be a potential backup, Schaub could be used in a trade that could potentially net at least a first-round choice. It's not out of the question for a desperate team to offer a first- and a third-rounder.
The one thing about the cap is planning ahead. That's why it's important to form strategies to make this "The Best Team Money Can Keep."
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
While constructing a 53-man roster was a breeze, John Clayton acknowledged that the challenge comes in keeping the squad together.