I love a good expansion draft. It has been 18 years since the NFL last expanded by adding a franchise in Houston, but while organizations have moved across the country since then, we’ve yet to see any serious consideration paid toward adding teams to the 32-squad setup. The biggest reason, of course, is money: NFL owners already have to split their massive revenue streams with 31 other teams, and that would be shared further if the league added one or two teams.
On the other hand, by adding two teams, the NFL would be able to add an additional game for television each week without having to concede any more money to its players. With the Texans paying $700 million as a franchise fee in 2002, Forbes estimated in 2012 that new franchises would pay between $1 billion and $1.5 billion. With Forbes now suggesting the average NFL franchise is worth $2.8 billion, the cost for a franchise fee could be north of $2 billion per team. In a league that has made repeated overtures toward the international market to fuel future growth, could London and Mexico City eventually be the 33rd and 34th NFL teams?
Let’s try to see what one of those teams might look like if the league decided to expand overnight, following most of the rules from the Texans’ expansion draft.
The rules of the expansion draft
When I last did this exercise in 2016, I followed the 2002 rules as closely as possible. That was in March, though, before the draft and free agency. As we sit here in June, I’ll have to make some slight changes to the rules to account for the different timing. It won’t materially impact the players each team makes available, although a few veterans on questionable contracts were released to the open market when they would have been made available to our expansion team.
All 32 teams have to make five players available in the expansion draft, and only one of those players can have 10 or more years of NFL experience. The crucial difference for this draft is that every player nominated must have played at least one snap for their team in 2019. This eliminates any 2020 draft picks or undrafted free agents. It also means players who missed the entire season via injury, such as Alex Smith, can’t be left exposed. Punters and kickers can’t be included, and I’ll limit myself to a maximum of two players off any one roster.
For each team, I chose the five players I felt each team would be most comfortable losing as part of an expansion draft. In some cases, those were players who were already on the fringes of making their respective teams. In other cases, I picked players whose contacts would be considered a burden their old team would love to escape, even if it meant losing a veteran contributor.
Our new franchise has to pick 30 players or acquire contracts equal to 38% of the salary cap, which is just over $75.3 million. While teams normally have to deal with salary-cap acceleration if they cut or trade a veteran in the middle of a long-term deal, they won’t have to do that here. The expansion team will be able to pick up the remainder of their contracts, including all the remaining bonus proration and guaranteed money.
The cap was a much bigger concern in 2002, which led teams to make plenty of expensive players available. The cap isn’t quite as demanding in 2020, but with the possibility of the cap temporarily contracting in 2021, there are teams that would be willing to throw an unexpected veteran or two into this draft.
I’ll go team by team, detail why some well-known players might have been made available and explain my choices. There’s not going to be an expansion draft in real life, but this should give us a sense of what’s happening on the bottom of NFL rosters.
Let’s start in the AFC, where some of those well-known players pop up quickly, including a pair of quarterbacks. I’ll list the five players from each team, then bold my selections.
The Bills have one of the league’s deepest rosters, making it difficult to abide by the rules without leaving at least one useful player available. Foster appeared to break out at the end of 2018, when he racked up 438 receiving yards over a five-game stretch, but Buffalo buried him on the depth chart over the following offseason. He caught just three of his 18 targets in 2019, but we’re going to take a shot on the 26-year-old’s upside.
Another obvious upside play is Rosen, who has been unplayable behind dismal offensive lines since being drafted with the 10th overall pick in 2018. His experiences with Arizona and Miami might have broken him, but our organization should be willing to take the risk.
Rosen has no future with the Dolphins after they drafted Tua Tagovailoa, and the team would save $5.2 million over the next two years by letting him leave.
The Patriots are perennially one of the league’s deepest teams, and we’ll go to them for two players.
Wise is entering the final year of his rookie deal at defensive end, and Bill Belichick typically prefers to churn young talent at defensive end. Wise has some pass-rushing upside — 11.5 sacks and 45 knockdowns over his first three seasons — but he isn’t as effective against the run, and he was overwhelmed in the wild-card loss to the Titans.
Eluemunor profiles as a utility lineman for this team. The Patriots last year traded a fourth-round pick to Baltimore for Eluemunor and a sixth-round selection, but he played only 29 offensive snaps. With Eluemunor also hitting free agency next year and both Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason under contract, it’s no guarantee that Eluemunor makes the 53-man roster for the Patriots, who could free up cap space by using 2019 fourth-rounder Hjalte Froholdt as their reserve guard. Given the paucity of available tackles, we might even try the 332-pound Eluemunor as a swing tackle.
After years of subpar drafts, the Jets have little to show on the back of their roster. Let’s talk about the big name. They would love to move on from Bell’s lofty contract, but despite suggestions at the trade deadline, no team wants to take on the money owed to the former Steelers star, let alone give up a meaningful player or draft pick in return.
The Jets had no way to move on from Bell this offseason, but this would be a way out of the $13.5 million in remaining guarantees they owe the 28-year-old. Alas, unless we can get them to attach a draft pick, our organization isn’t interested in spending a premium at running back. We’ll pass on the Jets.
On the other hand, the Ravens have one of the deepest rosters in the league, so let’s grab two players from them.
Averett was a starter early in 2019, but he lost his spot altogether after Marcus Peters arrived in a trade at midseason. Averett is going to be one of our starting corners.
Ellis was once a starting tackle for the Raiders, and he could figure into the rotation at nose tackle to replace Michael Pierce, but we’ll grab the 350-pounder as a run-plugger.
The standout salary here belongs to Price, a 2018 first-round pick who just hasn’t been very good as a pro. The Bengals have had one of the worst lines in football over the past two years, and Price wasn’t even able to crack the starting lineup for half of 2019. He still has $1.5 million in guaranteed money left on his deal in 2020. The 25-year-old would be a nice upside play under the right circumstances, but we’re going to go for more talented interior linemen available elsewhere.
Let’s focus on special teams here by adding Hassell, who made it to the NFL in 2019 despite having the use of just one hand. The Florida Tech product has great speed, and he was an effective special-teamer as a rookie; he’ll fill that role for us as a third or fourth safety.
It’s no surprise that the Steelers are another team we’re targeting for two expansion picks.
Hodges is the most famous player on this list after stepping in as Pittsburgh’s third starting quarterback last season; but after posting a 30.1 Total QBR, he looks like a replacement-level backup. I’d rather go with Rosen, who had more upside coming out of college.
Instead, we’ll go for one player on either side of the ball. Whyte was one of the many running backs the Steelers trotted out last season, as the former Bears seventh-rounder toted the rock 24 times for 122 yards. He’ll figure in as a runner, but he is more likely to make an impact as our kick returner.
Adeniyi is a promising athlete who led the Steelers in the 2018 preseason with three sacks, but he played just 62 snaps on defense last season. The Steelers drafted Alex Highsmith in the third round, and he is likely to be their primary reserve at outside linebacker. Adeniyi needs regular defensive reps, and we’re in a position to give him them.
Coutee’s sophomore season was disappointing, as the 2018 fourth-rounder didn’t have a regular role in the lineup. When he was on the field, he mixed in a fumble and a pair of drops, including one that led to a game-sealing interception late in a loss to the Colts. The move to sign Randall Cobb likely sealed Coutee’s short-term fate in Houston, but there’s still promise there.
Coutee has averaged 1.55 yards per route as a pro over the past two years, right in line with guys such as Sterling Shepard (1.50), Danny Amendola (1.53) and Cobb (1.57). Coutee is going to be our primary slot receiver.
Our most expensive player and our likely Week 1 starting quarterback will be Brissett, whose 50.1 Total QBR in 2019 was actually better than that of his replacement, Philip Rivers (48.6). Brissett has been a low-risk, low-reward option over his two stretches as a starter with the Colts, averaging 6.6 yards per attempt in 2017 and matching that rate last season. I’d also argue he was playing behind a struggling offensive line in 2017 and was hit by injuries at wide receiver last season. He is going to protect the football and avoid putting our defense in terrible situations, and while that’s not really a quarterback worth $20 million per season, there still might be upside with the 27-year-old. The Colts would free up nearly $16 million in guaranteed money by letting their backup behind Rivers leave in this draft.
We’re also going to take a flier on Dulin, who is 6-foot-1 and ran a 4.43 40 at 215 pounds last year. An undrafted free agent out of Division II Malone University, he spent 2019 on the back of the Indy roster, mostly playing special teams and eventually seeing time on kick returns. Our roster already has three wideouts — and more to come — but Dulin is an interesting dart throw.
The Jaguars made plenty of moves to try to clear cap space this offseason, but they weren’t able to get off two big deals. Nobody wanted Fournette’s contract, even after his $4.2 million base salary for 2020 was voided by suspension; we would be forced to inherit the $4.5 million remaining from his signing bonus, making his deal even less appealing.
On the other hand, we’ll take a shot on Norwell, who hasn’t lived up to expectations since signing a five-year, $66.5 million deal with Jacksonville in 2018. We would essentially be signing Norwell to a three-year, $43 million deal with $9 million guaranteed after the Jags restructured his deal; on the open market, he would get a smaller average salary, but with more money guaranteed. The former Panthers standout is an above-average guard with a great season (2017) on his résumé; he should be able to lock down one guard spot and protect Brissett from interior pressure.
Nickerson, who has bounced around three organizations over his first two years, will compete for work as a slot corner.
The Titans have a deep roster, but they actually skate by without having to offer much up by our rules. These five players combined for just 76 snaps on either offense or defense a year ago. We’ll move on without drafting a player.
Yiadom has failed to impress since being drafted in the third round in 2018, and I’m not sure he is going to develop into a starter. He could be a reclamation project. But I’m a little more interested in Peko, who bounced around the league in 2019 before making his way back to the Broncos, where he played one special-teams snap to qualify for this list. Domata Peko Sr.‘s cousin has flashed promise during the preseason but has only 204 defensive snaps to show over his first four pro seasons; we’ll give him a shot at regular playing time.
The defending Super Bowl champs are in need of cap space, which is why they would be willing to float a pair of possible starters in Hitchens and Okafor. Hitchens is a solid linebacker being paid like a superstar, while Okafor has had injury issues and probably profiles best as a rotational pass-rusher.
We’ll avoid them and go after a cheaper option in Williams, who scored a short-yardage touchdown for the Chiefs in the playoffs. Not many backs profile as both a possible goal-line runner and receiving option without also projecting as a primary back, but Williams could be the exception.
We’re going to add a pair of wide receivers to our roster, with Williams as the more notable of the two. The former Chargers receiver had his first season with the Raiders wrecked by a toe injury, and his long-term spot on the roster is likely going to be taken by Henry Ruggs III. Williams can be an impactful downfield receiver when healthy, and the price isn’t unreasonable, as the 28-year-old has no guaranteed or dead money on his deal after this season.
Doss impressed Jon Gruden during the preseason and played 181 snaps in 2019, but he has been buried on the depth chart by the Raiders’ offseason moves.
Perryman is unquestionably talented, but years of injuries led the Chargers to trade up and draft Kenneth Murray in the first round in April. Perryman isn’t playing a hugely important position, so we’ll pass on his cap hold and take a shot on Broughton, who has the sort of explosiveness you can’t teach. He fell to the 242nd pick in the 2019 draft thanks to size (6-foot-2, 291 pounds) and consistency concerns, but if he is able to channel that explosiveness into 10 quarterback hits a year, he could be a valuable player.
With five wide receivers on our roster already, we’ll leave these three Cowboys options on their current roster. Instead, we’ll go after a special-teamer and possible starting linebacker in Gifford, who had an interception in preseason before going down with an injury. He didn’t make it onto the field for a defensive snap in 2019 despite the absence of Leighton Vander Esch, so the Cowboys might be willing to list the former Nebraska starter.
There’s not much available at tackle in this expansion draft, and it would be tempting to grab Solder, who was an above-average player during his time with the Patriots. After two dismal years with the Giants, though, I just can’t justify grabbing Solder, who has the ninth-largest cap hit among non-quarterbacks in the league.
Instead, let’s nab Gaulden, who was a third-round pick for the Panthers in 2018 before he was cut after colliding with DJ Moore on a punt return near the end of last season. Gaulden could end up as a contributor at cornerback or free safety.
The Eagles would be overjoyed to get out of their commitment to Jeffery, who hasn’t been able to stay healthy and is coming off a Lisfranc injury to his foot. It’s unclear whether he’ll be healthy enough to play in Week 1, and in addition to his $15.5 million cap hit, the Eagles would owe $10.7 million in dead money if they release him after this season. No, thanks.
Hector is one of the last names on a deep Eagles depth chart at defensive tackle; I wonder whether he could turn into a useful rotation tackle after racking up 18 sacks over three seasons at South Florida.
Peterson might sell some jerseys for our new franchise, and I’m convinced he’ll have one or two games a year in which he looks like the old AD from now until eternity; but the past two years suggest he is a low-ceiling runner who offers little as a receiver. It’s too easy to find those guys in free agency for something close to the minimum.
Orchard hasn’t lived up to expectations since the Browns took him in the second round of the 2015 draft ahead of edge defenders such as Frank Clark and Danielle Hunter. And while Orchard’s 18.5-sack season at Utah in 2014 looks more and more like an outlier, you only have to look to Shaq Barrett as an example of what can happen if the right player gets playing time.
The Bears have nine tight ends on their roster. Shaheen was ticketed as Chicago’s tight end of the future when general manager Ryan Pace selected him in the second round of the 2017 draft, but the Ashland product hasn’t been able to translate his athleticism into production or stay healthy. He has just 249 receiving yards over his first three years, and the Bears are going to move forward with Jimmy Graham, Cole Kmet and Demetrius Harris as their top three tight ends. Shaheen will have a clear path to the tight end job here in the final season of his rookie deal.
The back of the Lions’ roster isn’t up to NFL standards. Not a single one of these players topped 35 snaps combined on offense, defense and special teams for Detroit in 2019, which is impressive for a team that wasn’t exactly dominating with their starters. I’m not going to be adding any of the Lions’ options to our roster.
With guard Elgton Jenkins impressing last season and Lane Taylor returning from injury, Turner is either going to become the most expensive third interior lineman in the league or end up moving to tackle, where he has been stretched in years past. I’m not interested in him at that price tag. The Packers are more top-heavy than they have been in years past, and the back end of their roster is less exciting. As a result, I’m not adding anybody here.
Jones started for the Giants at center during their disastrous 2017 campaign before being sent to the Vikings the following year. I’m not sure he is an average starting center, but he is both competent and cheap, so he’s well worth adding to our roster.
Brown was quietly a disastrous signing for the Falcons, who committed three years and $18.75 million to him, signed James Carpenter for four years and $21 million, and then didn’t get effective play from either player at guard a year ago. If 2020 third-round pick Matt Hennessy impresses in camp, both Brown and Carpenter could be backups this season.
Offensive line depth is great, but your third and fourth guards shouldn’t be occupying nearly $12 million of your cap. We’re not going to add anyone here.
Short is an enormous player to put on this list, but since he signed a five-year, $80 million extension with the Panthers in April 2017, the star defensive tackle has just 10.5 sacks and 27 knockdowns across three seasons. He missed virtually all of 2019 with a partially torn rotator cuff, and the Panthers could clear just under $45 million off their books over the next two years if Short were claimed in the expansion draft.
Carolina couldn’t free up that space via a traditional cut or trade. It might be even more surprising to suggest that an expansion team wouldn’t claim Short at that price tag, but it just wouldn’t be good value given his recent history.
Instead, let’s look toward Larsen, who started 10 games in 2017 when Ryan Kalil went down injured before serving as a backup in 2018 and 2019. He’ll compete with Jones for the starting job at the pivot.
I would argue that the Saints have the NFL’s deepest roster when it comes to veteran talent, but they still manage to find five younger, relatively unused players who would fit as expansion nominees. I’m intrigued by Vander Laan, who was a quarterback at Ferris State before converting to tight end. Third-round pick Adam Trautman is likely to take Vander Laan’s spot on the active roster, but teams like the Saints, Patriots and Colts have all taken fliers on Vander Laan over the past few years. He’s 27 and played a total of 25 NFL snaps on offense, but maybe there’s something interesting here.
In win-now mode with a 42-year-old quarterback and a 67-year-old coach, the Bucs aren’t letting any of their veterans hit an expansion list. The only player in this bunch to see significant action in 2019 was Hudson, who was Tampa’s fourth tight end. With Rob Gronkowski joining the team, it’s difficult to imagine the Bucs carrying five tight ends and keeping Hudson on the roster. We’re going to pass here, which means we have 27 players left on the roster with four teams left to go. We’ll either need to sign three or more players or spend about $5.7 million to get to the minimum.
We’re going to go for the volume approach by adding two Cardinals to the roster. Miles is a sheer desperation pick out of the fact that there just aren’t many tackles available in the pool. He has the ideal size for a tackle at 6-foot-5, but he fell to the seventh round of the 2019 draft. He needs reps, and we’re in a position to give him those reps, likely at right tackle.
Sherfield is simply a product of the numbers game. The Cardinals used three primary personnel groupings last season, and the two groupings that used a tight end were more effective by success rate than their 10 personnel package, which doesn’t. I suspect the Cardinals will be carrying three tight ends in 2020, which limits how many wideouts they can carry. With Larry Fitzgerald, DeAndre Hopkins, Christian Kirk and Andy Isabella all locks to make the roster, the likes of Sherfield, KeeSean Johnson and Hakeem Butler could be competing for jobs with each other. Sherfield caught only four of 13 targets a year ago, but he can help on special teams.
Fantasy players will be most familiar with Kelly, who had a tiny window in 2018 in which he looked to be the starting back for a devastating offense before the Rams signed CJ Anderson. We’re leaving him on the table and instead going for Deayon, who at 159 pounds was the second-lightest player in the NFL last year. I’m of the opinion that NFL teams often underestimate smaller players, and if that goes for height, it’s reasonable to at least imagine it might go for weight as well.
Deayon was an effective corner at Boise State but hasn’t had many chances to play there as a pro. No team is dumping corners with prototypical size and speed into the expansion draft, so we’re gonna have to take risks if we want to land valuable players. Deayon gets us to 30 players.
The Niners are another of the league’s deepest teams, but they surprisingly get away without a single selection here. Verrett is the biggest name of the bunch, but he gave up a touchdown pass and a pass interference penalty on two of his four defensive snaps in 2019 before hitting injured reserve. He hasn’t been a productive player since 2015. While I’ve been rooting for the TCU product to overcome his injuries, I don’t think he is a good project for an expansion team.
The Seahawks are our final team, and I’m going to add one more veteran tight end to our bunch in the 30-year-old Willson. With Shaheen an injury risk and Vander Laan’s aptitude for the position in question, Willson gives us a solid two-way tight end who we can drop directly into the lineup. The Seahawks use plenty of tight ends, but after signing Greg Olsen, bringing back Jacob Hollister and Will Dissly, and using a fourth-round pick on Colby Parkinson, Willson’s roster spot is in question.
The picks from the expansion draft
In the end, we signed 31 players and spent a total of $72.8 million, which comes in at just under 37% of the salary cap. We have most of a starting lineup, although we’re desperately thin at offensive tackle and could use a safety or two. The roster is already full with six wide receivers, although I suspect guys like Dulin and Doss would be competing for roster spots.
Would this team be good? No, of course not, even after you added a full draft and a couple of free agents to the roster. It would take years for this organization to blossom, and it was a different era of roster-building and development when the Jaguars and Panthers made playoff runs in their second seasons. In terms of adding some competent players and special-teamers while mixing in a few high-upside players, though, I like what we’ve built here. Here are all 31 of my picks, sorted by salary: