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Young talent offers bargains in building ideal 53-man roster

Gregory Bull / Associated Press
Vincent Jackson, with a base salary of $12 million, is the most expensive player on Michael Lombardi's roster.


Watching all the teams this weekend make cuts and set their 53-man rosters gave me the itch to build a team of my own. With players from all 32 teams serving as my candidate pool and working under the constraints of the $121 million salary cap, I put together my own 53-man roster. I used the base salaries of the players for the 2011 season and not their cap number, which gave me a little more flexibility in assembling my team.

My point of emphasis for building this team was to make sure I had top players at what I believe to be four critical positions:

1. Quarterback
2. Left tackle
3. Defensive end
4. Cover corner

I spent most of my money making sure I have talent in those four areas, as well as depth on both lines. Also, knowing it will be an explosive offensive team that can quickly build a lead, I placed a large emphasis on making sure to have tremendous pass rushers. This team should be able to establish the lead early, rush the passer, create negative plays and control vertical field position. This team also has versatile players who are young, fast, athletic and hungry to get their next big contract.


» Season predictions: Our experts make their picks
» Team-by-team season previews

Monday:
» XLVI things to look forward to this NFL season
» Must-see TV: Most-anticipated game of 2011 season
» Let's not inscribe Super Bowl rings for Eagles just yet
» For Patriots, Ochocinco, Haynesworth are risks worth taking

Tuesday:
» Who will be next 'elite' QB to join list of Super Bowl winners?
» Cowboys, Colts could be left out of the mix come playoff time
» Proliferation of spread offense has NFL defenses on the run
» Cutler's game, not attitude, must improve to take Super step

Wednesday:
» These five players have potential for breakout seasons
» Surprise stars from 2010 appear to have staying power
» Can Vick repeat success of 2010? Don't bet against it
» Star search: Who will rise from obscurity this season?

Thursday:
» NFL division power rankings: NFC North tops list
» Three reasons why things are again bleak in NFC West
» More than shtick, winning is what Jets' Ryan does best
» Five in, five out: Will NFL playoff parity party continue?

Friday:
» Who will pick first in the 2012 NFL Draft?
» Some rookie QBs could find themselves on the field soon
» Newton's special but he has a whole lot to learn
» Dominating Steelers defense won't fall off in 2011

(*Denotes starter)

Quarterbacks

*Tom Brady ($5,750,000)
Sam Bradford ($405,000)

Brady is an easy pick, as he is exactly the kind of person to lead the team and execute the offense. Brady will be the driving force because he will demand excellence from every player on every play. He will get their full attention, making sure there are not mental mistakes during the game. Bradford as the backup adds a nice young player to play behind Brady and learn how he works his craft. I decided to go with only two quarterbacks, which is becoming the norm in the league.
Spent: $6,155,000.

Running backs

Peyton Hillis ($555,000)
Ray Rice ($555,000)
*Arian Foster ($525,000)
Bernard Scott ($480,000)
LeSean McCoy ($480,000)

Yes, I know I am cheap. I decided to add only running backs in their first contract because I did not want to spend top dollar on this position, knowing there would be plenty of talent available. Hillis and Rice are the highest paid backs on team at $555,000, which is well below their real value. I wanted to have the right blend of backs -- power with Hillis; speed and loose-play ability with Foster and McCoy; a shifty three-down player in Rice and a return man with Scott, who might be the next star running back in the league if he is ever featured. For success at this position, a team needs versatile players who must be able to pass protect when called. All these backs can do that well.
Spent: $2,595,000

Wide receivers

*Vincent Jackson ($12,000,000)
*Andre Johnson ($6,000,000)
Percy Harvin ($655,000)
DeSean Jackson ($555,000)
Danny Amendola ($480,000)

Building a wide receiver group is like building a basketball team. Each successful basketball team should have a power forward, small forward and point guard. And any successful receiving corps should have the same style of players -- a power forward-type receiver who can win and muscle for the ball, go inside and make the tough plays and is not afraid of contact (Vincent Jackson); a small forward-type receiver who must be extremely athletic, able to run and explode with the ball in his hands (Johnson); and a point guard-type receiver who must be quick, explosive and create plays in critical situations (DeSean Jackson, Harvin and Amendola). With great point guards on the field, the other receivers will be in position to win against single coverage.
Spent: $19,690,000

Tight ends

*Brandon Pettigrew ($728,750)
Jared Cook ($480,000)
*Rob Gronkowski ($405,000)

Following my basketball analogy, the tight end position would be the center -- the player who controls the middle of the field in many ways. This is another position I went young and cheap, but all three still are great players priced well below their value. Each player runs well, blocks at the point of attack and pass protects. Gronkowski is the starter. Each time I watch him, he reminds me of a faster Mark Bavaro because he is always open and is tough at the point.
Spent: $1,613,751

Offensive line

*Donald Penn ($7,200,000)
*Chris Snee ($2,950,000)
Carl Nicks ($2,610,000)
*Josh Sitton ($1,200,000)
Ryan Clady ($1,105,000)
*Michael Oher ($630,000)
Sebastian Vollmer ($510,000)
*Maurkice Pouncey ($405,000)
Rodger Saffold ($405,000)

Setting up the offensive line, I made sure I had a collection of players who are tough, smart and capable of playing left tackle. The inside guards and centers are all able to run block and pass protect. The other critical requirement were finding strong players inside to keep the pocket flat, allowing Brady to step up as he pleases.
Spent: $17,015,000

Total spent on offense: $47,068,751

Defensive line

Terrell Suggs ($3,400,000)
Domata Peko ($3,100,000)
*Trent Cole ($2,900,000)
Robert Mathis ($2,410,000)
*Ndamukong Suh ($1,405,000)
B.J. Raji ($955,000)
*Gerald McCoy ($873,750)
Henry Melton ($480,000)
Jason Pierre-Paul ($475,000)
Carlos Dunlap ($405,000)

I just love defensive linemen. My ideal draft would be to pick them in every round as you can never have enough good players in this group. Carrying 10 is not a problem as it's important to keep them fresh and fit for the fourth quarter when the game is on the line. The philosophy of assembling this defensive line was to have tackles who were capable of rushing the passer on first down, but also tough at the line of scrimmage. I also wanted power players who can bull rush guards and not allow the quarterback to step up. With McCoy and Suh inside, this crop has power and athleticism to create a soft pocket, allowing the ends to rush the passer and make plays. The philosophy for the end position was built on finding rushers who can defeat single blocks and have the ability to overpower a tackle. Since not all ends can run around the edges -- the worst place to be in football is past the quarterback -- it is important to have ends who can go inside. My ends are capable of both and can be disruptive forces.
Spent: $16,403,750

Linebackers

*DeMarcus Ware ($6,700,000)
*Lance Briggs ($3,650,000)
Jarret Johnson ($3,500,000)
Jon Beason ($1,100,000)
*Clay Matthews ($660,000)
*Curtis Lofton ($602,000)
Brian Orakpo ($480,000)

Versatility was the key element in assembling this group. I needed some players who could rush the passer (Matthews, Ware and Orkapo) and some players who could play off the ball and cover (Briggs, Lofton and Johnson). This guys must also provide special teams coverage since my receivers are not going to be much help in the kicking game. With the exception of Ware, this entire group should comprise the punt team and should cover extremely well.
Spent: $15,592,000


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Defensive backs

* Eric Berry ($3,250,000)
Brent Grimes ($2,610,000)
* Aqib Talib ($1,650,000)
Morgan Burnett ($1,000,000)
* Louis Delmas ($608,750)
Brandon Flowers ($555,000)
Jairus Byrd ($480,000)
* Devin McCourty ($450,000)
Tramon Williams ($405,000)

This group consists of five corners and four safeties. Each player is able to make a contribution in the kicking game. Safeties must be able to tackle, be physical in the run game and show range in the passing game. Instincts and awareness are critical factors a safety and all four excel in this area. At corner, the key component was finding bigger players who could play press coverage, jam at the line and win early in the route. Remember, the pass rush should be excellent. The team also needed a smaller quicker corner (Grimes) to stay with the quick, little receivers. These corners also must be able to tackle. When a team plays with a corner who cannot tackle, it is hard to balance the defense. This is another position where each player is still in his rookie contract, thus making their salaries so low.
Spent: $11,080,750

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Specialists

Donnie Jones (punter) ($1,100,000)
Josh Brown (kicker) ($2,600,000)
Justin Drescher (long snapper) ($300,000)

Brown is dead-on consistent kicking field goals at any distance. Jones has a powerful leg and can control vertical field position. Spent: $4,000,000

Total spent on defense: $48,176,500
Total spent overall: $95,245,251

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi

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