It has been 14 years since the NFL last conducted an expansion draft. In 2002, the Houston Texans came into existence with a draft that didn't go particularly well. Their first pick, Jaguars tackle Tony Boselli, never played a down for the franchise. The Texans did find a Pro Bowler in defensive tackle Gary Walker, but otherwise, it was mostly a reflection of just how difficult it can be to build a football team out of spare parts and bad contracts.
The league has no immediate plans to expand, especially now that the Los Angeles market has been filled by the Rams, but it's an interesting what-if case. There's the matter of figuring out which players each organization would try to get rid of, naturally, and what that would tell us about their respective situations. On top of that, there are questions about the back of each team's roster, and how you might try to build an NFL team from scratch with limited resources. The NFL probably would try to expand with two teams, but let's run through a would-be expansion draft for one team and assume that the drafts were staggered to have the teams arrive over a two-year stretch.
Let's put together an expansion roster for this new 33rd NFL franchise. I should note that cuts are coming fast and furious, so if you're reading this into the weekend, a name or two below could have been cut (by now).
To fill out our new team's roster, let's follow the rules from the 2002 draft. Each existing team has to make five players from its roster available, and only one of those players can have 10 or more years of experience in the league. Typically, only one player who went on injured reserve can be placed on the list, but because the league would have made its injured reserve decisions differently in 2015 if an expansion draft were coming, we'll relax that rule. The same is true for a limit on posting pending restricted free agents, given how the rules there have changed. Punters and kickers are not allowed, and teams can't include players who are about to become free agents. Once a player is chosen from a team's list, they can elect to pull a player back, but that's not going to affect our selections as part of this draft.
Our new franchise has to pick 30 players or acquire contracts equal to 38 percent of the salary cap; this year, that's about $59 million. There's a dramatic difference between how teams normally dump salaries and how they pull that off in the expansion draft. When teams cut players, whatever bonus money is left on that player's deal accelerates onto that year's cap, and they're still stuck paying guaranteed salaries. If a player is chosen in the expansion draft, though, all signing bonus proration and guaranteed money is passed onto the new team, making it a miraculous play to get out of bad contracts. Indeed, many of the players available to the Texans in 2002 were still-talented veterans under stifling deals.
The fun thing about starting a team from scratch is getting to build them in your desired image, so here goes nothing:
Our team is going to toss the ball around as much as anybody, even without much of a quarterback, because throwing the ball is more efficient than running. We're going to install zone-blocking concepts up front, so we're looking for athletic linemen, even if they're a bit undersized. And because more teams play in a 4-3 than a 3-4, we're going to buck the trend and go with a 3-4 front.
Our draft plan is to try and find undervalued veteran talent, either because of recent injuries, cap woes, or poor scheme fits, preferably on the line of scrimmage. We'll take shots on younger players with draft pedigrees who haven't managed to find steady playing time in their current situation, hoping that a fresh start will get their career going. And as far as the relatively unknown players on the bottom of rosters, we'll look for high-upside prospects who might break out with playing time.
I'll run team-by-team here, list a sample five-man expansion list, and identify the player(s) who will be making the move to our new franchise, listing their cap hits in parentheses.
We're grabbing two players from only three teams; the Cardinals will be one of those three. Shipley is the younger brother of Jordan Shipley, and the league has spent the past 15 years underrating tiny slot receivers out of Texas; he could stick in our pass-happy scheme. Crisp was a highly recruited tackle who is a little undersized. His athleticism will come into play as a swing tackle.
Jackson has been a disappointment since coming into the league in 2009 as the third overall pick for Kansas City, but he had some success as a five-technique defensive end in a three-man front for the Chiefs. He's a fish out of water in Atlanta under coach Dan Quinn. He's overpaid, but Jackson will give us a legit athlete and we have plenty of money to burn.
Monroe was alternately disappointing and injured last season in Baltimore, and the Ravens would love to free up his cap figure to re-sign Kelechi Osemele, who would take Monroe's place on the left side. They would save only $2.1 million by doing so, but with this move, the Ravens get to clear out the full $8.7 million figure. And we get a perfectly acceptable 28-year-old left tackle. Everybody wins.
Buffalo is the first franchise to get the full pass. Clay's the perfect example of an undumpable contract that can be salvaged only by the expansion draft. After restructuring his deal this offseason, the Bills are basically locked into paying Clay $24 million over the next three years; they wouldn't save a dime by releasing the 27-year-old tight end. If the Bills could somehow convince us to take on his deal in the expansion draft, that $24 million comes free.
Stewart had arguably his most valuable professional season in 2015, but his contract remains onerous, given that the Panthers have needed to restructure it twice to create cap space. They could clear $17.8 million over the next two years if our team drafted Stewart, but we're not spending money on running backs. Dismukes, a Rimington Trophy winner at Auburn, is another undersized lineman who could challenge for a starting job at center.
The toughest thing for our expansion team to find in the 3-4 will be a viable nose tackle. There's no stud tackle waiting in this draft, but we'll take a flier on Williams, a 355-pound East Carolina product.
The player pool is thin on tight ends, which is another place we'll probably have to look at in veteran free agency and the draft. One of the best options is Peters, a 6-foot-8 high school quarterback who played wide receiver at Division III Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati. He's not going to get many reps behind Tyler Eifert.
Our team is going to take risks, but Manziel isn't worth the hassle. Gilbert makes sense, given he was universally regarded as a first-round talent at cornerback before being sucked into the black hole of Cleveland. The Browns can't really cut him -- the $7.5 million or so remaining on his rookie deal is fully guaranteed -- but we'll give him a shot as a high-upside cornerback. Given how expensive cornerbacks are on the free market, we'll hope for a Chris Houston-style turnaround.
Mayle had the ignominious honor of being cut by the Browns before the end of his first training camp despite being selected in the fourth round of last year's draft. The Washington State product has some size and leaping ability, so we'll see about developing him into a downfield receiver.
LB Zaire Anderson
T Cameron Jefferson
CB B.J. Lowery ($450,000)
QB Peyton Manning
WR Jordan Taylor
Manning is tempting, but there are better long-term options at quarterback to come. The Broncos are also going to cut Manning if he wants to play in 2016, so we'll probably be able to sign him in free agency if so inclined. Lowery is a physical cornerback at the line of scrimmage, and he should be able to contribute as a special-teamer.
The Lions could choose to put the not-yet-retired Johnson on this list in the hopes of clearing out $11 million in 2016 cap space. Our team would obviously be happy to take Megatron on the books if he would like to play, but it's fair to assume that he won't be interested in playing for an expansion team. None of the other options are particularly appealing.
The Packers are too well-run to have any veteran contracts to foist off on an expansion team. We're stuck looking around the bottom of Green Bay's roster. Here, we opt for McBryde, a disappointing player at UConn who will be in the running for snaps at defensive end.
We were originally interested in Moore, given that he was a year removed from starting for an excellent Broncos defense, but the Texans helped us out by cutting Moore outright yesterday.
The Colts have too many 10-year veterans to put more of their bad contracts on this list, sadly for general manager Ryan Grigson. We're passing on Johnson to go after Mitchel, who could be a slot cornerback if everything breaks right.
The Jaguars don't need to expose anybody they remotely want to keep, which is why the only veteran players on this list are guys like Clemons and Gerhart, who are likely to be cut in the coming days anyway (Ed's note: Clemons was cut Thursday). They're not going to help our team.
Taking wide receivers from the Chiefs admittedly seems like going to 7-Eleven for steak, but the 6-3 Cook is a small-school prospect who overcame Hodgkin lymphoma in high school. If anyone's going to battle his way into a professional roster spot ...
The Rams have suggested that they want to hold onto Foles as a backup to Case Keenum, but this time last year, coach Jeff Fisher was saying that he was committed to Sam Bradford as his starter, so things change. Foles would be on the roster only on a one-year deal, because the final year of his contract has already voided, but he's a young passer with some history of professional success, which is more than you can usually ask for in the expansion pool. (The Browns passed on Kurt Warner during their expansion draft, which is why I say "usually.")
The Dolphins would surely love to clear out cap space by getting rid of one (or more) of their veterans, but we have eyes only for Tuaau. A 328-pound Texas A&M-Commerce product who played some offensive line in camp for the Chiefs, Tuaau will be in the rotation at nose tackle.
The Vikings probably will cut Wallace, who doesn't fit on anybody's roster with an $11.5 million cap hit. Loadholt is a monstrously athletic tackle, but with a $7.8 million cap hit and a torn Achilles in his recent past, he's not a good fit for our team.
Cannon was a disaster in New England's playoff loss to Denver, but he doesn't have to play Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware every week. We're going to tentatively slot him in at right tackle, but he could kick inside to guard or just serve as our sixth lineman. We're already at $40 million in salaries, by the way.
With a bevy of disastrous contracts on their books, the Saints would be desperate for an expansion team to take as many of these deals off coach Sean Payton's hands. But we're not that naive. Spiller holds some interest as a versatile, high-upside back, but there's still too much money left on his four-year, $16 million deal. We're leaving this group in the pool.
Ditto the Giants, who are stuck with an untenable $9.9 million cap hit for Cruz. Thomas has the fourth-highest cap hit on the team despite playing only 34.5 percent of the defensive snaps during his first season in Jersey.
Instead, we'll grab two players from the Jets. Kerley was a useful wide receiver who fell out of favor when coach Todd Bowles and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey arrived in town; he's only 27 and signed to a reasonable contract. Kerley is likely to be our No. 1 wideout in 2016. And Okoye is a former English discus thrower with little football experience. He has bounced around three practice squads, but the 304-pounder will get a look here as a possible defensive end.
And let's take two more, strangely, from the Raiders. Helu was a well-rounded back in Washington and averaged 4.4 yards per carry, but he never seemed to find his way during his debut season with the Raiders. He has some Justin Forsett-style upside, and could be our primary running back. Underwood is a high-character prospect who will be a backup linebacker and core special-teamer.
The Eagles will throw some of the mistakes from the Chip Kelly era out there and see if our expansion team will bite. We won't. Maxwell still has guaranteed money in his deal running through 2017, and he didn't live up to expectations last season. Murray's far too expensive unless he's playing like the guy he was in 2014.
Our defense is probably going to be bad, and if we're going to be bad, we might as well find some high-variance players who can create takeaways. That fits Hagen, another small-school prospect out of Liberty.
This is a premium to pay for an interior lineman, and the Chargers might not be ready to move on from one of their larger recent free-agent signings, but they badly needs cap space to rebuild their roster. They didn't get much out of Franklin, who battled through injuries all season. We're taking a page out of the Reggie McKenzie playbook and overpaying to start our franchise with a veteran offensive line. With Monroe, Cannon and Franklin, we've got the core of a competent line to protect our quarterbacks.
Four years ago, our expansion team would have been interested in the back of the 49ers roster more than perhaps any other roster in football. Those days have come and gone, sadly. With Colin Kaepernick left off of this list, the 49ers just don't have much to offer our team.
Seattle has no fewer than 11 wide receivers on its roster at the moment, which should tell you about its plans regarding re-signing Jermaine Kearse and Ricardo Lockette. Jean-Baptiste could hold some interest as a 6-3 cornerback in a league where big cornerbacks are in vogue, but he couldn't crack the Saints' defensive backfield. That's not exactly a positive recommendation.
As tempting as it might be to bring in Smith, who makes $2.5 million and was once a useful contributor to the Packers' offensive line, he has regressed badly in Tampa and lost his job last season. The bottom of Tampa's roster is as bad as any in football.
Tennessee is right there with Tampa. Greene, sadly, is not the former Steelers star edge rusher, and while McCluster could be interesting as a receiving back, his $3.7 million salary isn't worth the shot in the dark he represents. The Titans could very well choose to cut McCluster, anyway, as the former Chiefs standout enters the final year of his ill-fated free-agent deal.
And we finish up by going after a very expensive lottery ticket. Our team can comfortably afford to foot the $16 million bill on RG III, and the upside still looming after his 2012 (and competent-if-unspectacular 2013) makes him a perfect expansion draft selection. We'll use the leverage from that one-year deal to try and sign Griffin to a Foles-esque two-year extension, and he'll compete with Foles for the starting job. Griffin's selection takes us to $70 million in spending, well over the $59 million cap we needed to hit to finish the draft.
Our expansion team isn't very good, but there are some things to get excited about. We have a coherent, logical plan on both sides of the football, albeit with major holes up the middle on defense and few playmakers on offense. Our offensive line is solid, and we have some athletes with upside. That's a start. We're not going to be very good, even once you throw in a high draft pick or two, but there's some semblance of hope.
There are things to take away from this exercise in reality, too. In going through each team's cap situation and preparing unprotected lists of likely-available players for this draft, it became clear just how few teams there are who are truly threatened by the salary cap these days. In 2002, that wasn't the case; there were multiple teams well in excess of the cap, including the Jaguars and Jets, who desperately needed the Texans to help them out by drafting their players. Those organizations had to let good players leave. The league as a whole has gotten much smarter at managing the cap.
The other takeaway is just how thin the league's teams are at the bottom of their respective rosters. It's one thing to sift through undrafted free agents, as everyone does, but this is the bottom of the NFL barrel. These are street free agents with glaring flaws; if your typical undrafted free agent is a step too slow, the sorts of players who are available in the expansion draft are three or four steps too slow. Even the league's smartest teams don't have meaningful depth this far down on their rosters. And maybe that in itself should be an argument against further expansion.