It’s been two decades since the NFL added a new team into the mix. With rumblings about the potential for the league to eventually include 40 franchises, there's a high probability that more expansion drafts are in the pipeline.
Regardless of where the NFL ultimately brings its product, these new organizations will need to fill out their rosters.
Talent could be at a premium if the league adds multiple franchises at once, but a surprisingly competitive squad could be created in a single-team expansion draft.
Using the rules from when the Houston Texans were added in 2002, let's dive into a hypothetical example of what the NFL’s 33rd team might look like if an expansion draft were held today.
Each of the current 32 teams must leave five players unprotected. When a player is picked by the expansion club, his former team can then choose an additional player to protect. If the expansion team picks two players from a single organization, that organization gets the option to pull back its remaining three players.
The expansion team can claim between 30 and 42 players or up to 38 percent of the salary cap, which would be a shade over $79 million this season.
Unlike the Texans' expansion draft 20 years ago, this event is occurring after both the initial waves of free agency and the year's NFL draft. To that end, this hypothetical squad will not be able to select any rookies or add any players who were signed by a new team in the 2022 offseason. Veterans who remain unsigned were considered fair game during the creation of this roster.
With those parameters in mind, here's what the 22-man starting lineup could look like at the conclusion of a 2022 NFL expansion draft.
POS: Player (Current Team, 2022 Base Salary)
*=Projected Contract for Free Agent
QB: Gardner Minshew (Philadelphia Eagles, $2.5M)
Minshew is one of the more talented quarterbacks who has yet to find a regular starting job in the NFL.
The 26-year-old may not have the pedigree of some veteran signal-callers who would likely be unprotected in an expansion draft, but he does possess an ideal combination of upside and experience.
Minshew has completed 63.2 percent of his passes for 5,969 yards and 41 touchdowns against a mere 12 interceptions in 27 career games (22 starts).
Those aren't world-beating numbers, but this expansion squad should feel comfortable going to battle with Minshew as a game manager who has the potential to evolve into an upper-echelon starter.
RB: Trey Sermon (San Francisco 49ers, $881K)
Given how loaded San Francisco's backfield is right now, it is possible Sermon would be readily available in the expansion draft.
The 23-year-old is coming off a highly disappointing rookie year, one in which he barely saw the field after joining the 49ers as a highly touted third-round pick.
The Oklahoma and Ohio State product only generated 167 rushing yards and a touchdown on 41 totes in nine games. He may not improve upon that mark in 2022. He's buried on the depth chart behind Elijah Mitchell and Jeff Wilson Jr. and has to compete with JaMycal Hasty and rookie Tyrion Davis-Price for touches.
There is a chance Sermon will develop into a real weapon at the professional level, however. He amassed nearly 3,000 rushing yards and 48 touchdowns during his collegiate career, and a clean bill of health and some consistency could make him this expansion club's star.
WR1: Curtis Samuel (Washington Commanders, $8.5M)
Samuel has flashed plenty of skill during his five-year NFL career, but injuries and streaky play have held him back from becoming a top-end wideout.
The Commanders brought him in as a free agent last year but couldn't unlock his potential because of hamstring and groin issues. He participated in 10 games, starting five, while catching a paltry six passes for 27 yards.
Considering Samuel signed a three-year, $34.5 million deal last offseason and produced so little, Washington should have no problem leaving its disappointing wideout unprotected, passing the buck to this expansion team as it tries to rehabilitate his career.
Slot WR: Parris Campbell (Indianapolis Colts, $1.1M)
Campbell is another wideout who hasn't come close to reaching his ceiling in the pros.
After getting picked near the end of the second round in 2019, the Ohio State product has only contributed 34 receptions for 360 yards and two touchdowns.
Campbell hasn't even played a full season worth of games because of a variety of ailments, seeing action in just 15 contests.
Despite the underwhelming start, Campbell is oozing with potential because of his unique blend of size (6'0", 208 lbs), speed (4.31 40-yard dash) and athleticism that can make him a matchup nightmare out of the slot. It would be hard to fault an expansion team for rolling the dice on a turnaround in Year 4.
WR2: Tre'Quan Smith (New Orleans Saints, $1.1M)
Smith has been honing his craft over the last four seasons in the Big Easy. He's proved himself to be a reliable if unspectacular weapon in that time.
The UCF product has notched 112 catches for 1,486 yards and 17 scores in 51 career games. He’s shown a nose for the end zone, using his big 6'2", 210-pound frame and large catch radius to best his defenders in tight spaces.
While Smith may not ever evolve into a superstar, he's a quality wideout who also does his part as a blocker in the running game. He'd augment the team's more athletic boom-or-bust type of playmakers with steady, consistent performances.
TE: Jonnu Smith (New England Patriots, $9M)
The Patriots overhauled their tight end room last offseason, bringing in both Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry to reinforce a position that direly needed help.
Henry ended up being the much more efficient signing, outperforming Smith in nearly every aspect while displaying immense chemistry with rookie quarterback Mac Jones. Considering Smith is being paid more than his counterpart, New England should be open to leaving him unprotected in an expansion draft.
The six-year veteran is only a campaign removed from a two-season stretch during which he tallied up 76 receptions for 887 yards and 11 touchdowns for the Tennessee Titans.
New England's loss would be this team's gain, giving it a tight end who could work as Minshew's safety net and a red-area target.
LT: Duane Brown (Free Agent, $8.5M*)
Getting a Pro Bowl-caliber left tackle should be at the top of the to-do list for any incoming NFL team.
While none would likely be available in an expansion draft, the organization could turn to the open market. Duane Brown is still without a team, and per TMZ Sports, he was arrested last weekend on a charge of possession of a concealed firearm after allegedly trying to go through TSA with an unloaded gun in his luggage.
In addition to his developing legal situation, Brown could miss time if he receives a suspension from the NFL.
Brown may be 36 years old and near the end of his career, but he's still a highly serviceable starter at left tackle. He's coming off his fifth Pro Bowl appearance and looks to have plenty left in the tank entering his 15th season. A veteran presence at one of the league's most important positions always helps.
LG: Max Scharping (Houston Texans, $2.5M)
The Texans envisioned Scharping shoring up the interior of their offensive line when they drafted him in 2019. While he’s drawn 33 starts in that span, he's failed to live up to expectations and is likely to be a backup behind A.J. Cann and rookie Kenyon Green in 2022.
Scharping did earn his best Pro Football Focus grade as a pro in 2021, although it was just a mediocre 59.9 (replaceable). A change of scenery could benefit the 25-year-old as he attempts to prove he's a viable long-term starter.
C: Pat Elflein (Carolina Panthers, $1M)
Elflein was one of Carolina's more disappointing pickups during the 2021 offseason. He struggled in his first year with the club, scoring a pedestrian 50.1 PFF grade across 534 snaps.
The 28-year-old spent the first two seasons of his career as the Minnesota Vikings' top center, starting 27 games at the position. He earned a decent 66.6 PFF grade as a rookie in that role and is worth kicking the tires on for a potential return to form following a switch back to the position.
RG: Graham Glasgow (Denver Broncos, $3.1M)
Glasgow has been a good interior offensive line starter for the first half-decade of his career. While he missed a significant amount of time last year because of an ankle injury, the 29-year-old should bounce back in 2022.
With Quinn Meinerz stepping up to fill the right guard void admirably as a rookie, the Broncos could shed some salary by leaving Glasgow unprotected in an expansion draft. His versatility and reliability are both assets a new club should covet.
RT: Greg Little (Miami Dolphins, $1.5M)
Little hasn't been able to shed the bust label since the Panthers drafted him near the top of the second round in 2019. He's now failed to pan out in Carolina and Miami.
While he has only a small amount of experience under his belt—he's played just 358 career offensive snaps—Little does have the tools to become a great right tackle. It's worth taking a gamble on him finally putting it all together with a third and potentially final chance in this league.
DT: Fletcher Cox (Philadelphia Eagles, $1.5M) / Broderick Washington (Baltimore Ravens, $895K)
An expansion team should jump at the chance to scoop up a player with a decade of experience and six Pro Bowls to his name.
Fletcher Cox may be on the wrong side of 30 and beginning to fade into the twilight of his career, but he's a consummate pro who can make an impact on both the field and in the locker room.
The Eagles brought him back on a one-year deal this offseason but may wish to open up more interior defensive line snaps after drafting Jordan Davis at No. 13 overall. Leaving Cox unprotected would let Philadelphia move on from the veteran without having to find a trade partner.
Broderick Washington is on the other side of the spectrum, having accomplished little in his career thus far but offering plenty of upside at the age of 25.
The third-year veteran hasn't established himself as a regular starter for the Ravens but could play that role with a brand-new club. His development would be further expedited under Cox’s tutelage.
LB: Dont’a Hightower (Free Agent, $6M*) / Tremaine Edmunds (Buffalo Bills, $12.7M) / Isaiah Simmons (Arizona Cardinals, $895K)
The linebacking corps may end up the strength of this team's defense. It could acquire a pair of high-upside young players and complement them with one of the most consistent veterans in the league.
Dont'a Hightower is a natural leader who helped turn the New England Patriots defense into one of the league's most feared during his decade-long tenure with the club. The Pats have so far declined to retain him after he hit free agency this spring, making him an ideal signing for this club.
Tremaine Edmunds would be one of the more expensive additions in the expansion draft after the Bills elected to pick up his fifth-year option. He has yet to fully tap into his potential but has shown plenty of flashes.
The rangy, athletic linebacker would match up well with the instinctual but aging Hightower, 32, offering sideline-to-sideline speed and the ability to knife into the backfield and blow plays up with his quickness.
Isaiah Simmons would round out the unit nicely, even if he has been largely disappointing for the Cardinals.
The 23-year-old earned a 59.9 PFF grade as a rookie and then had his score fall to a 51.0 last year. The No. 8 overall pick in 2020 is struggling to live up to that lofty draft status in Arizona, but a fresh start with an expansion club could help him turn his career around before it's too late.
Edge: Clelin Ferrell (Las Vegas Raiders, $4.8M) / Dee Ford (San Francisco 49ers, $1.1M)
This expansion squad's edge position is brimming with athleticism while also having quite a bit of unrealized potential it can try to tap into.
Vegas' selection of Clelin Ferrell at No. 4 overall three years ago seemed questionable at the time and has thus far looked like a major misstep. The Clemson product has had ample opportunity to succeed, logging 1,370 defensive snaps across 42 games, but has just eight sacks to show for it.
With the Raiders opting not to pick up his fifth-year option, Ferrell is likely on his way out after the 2022 season. Keeping him unprotected in an expansion draft would expedite that departure as the new franchise takes a chance on the upside of the 6'4", 265-pound pass-rusher.
Ford has been much more productive during his professional career. He's amassed 40 sacks in eight seasons but has been limited by injuries since signing with the 49ers in 2019.
The team could be ready to move on after Ford has played just seven games and picked up a mere three sacks since the start of 2020. If he can get healthy, he'll be a major boon for a squad that will direly need help on the edge.
CB: Rasul Douglas (Green Bay Packers, $1.1M) / Darren Hall (Atlanta Falcons, $825K)
Quality cornerbacks can be tough for any team to find, especially an expansion club trying to unearth a pair of starters from a limited pool of unprotected players.
Douglas could be the best of the bunch in wake of a surprisingly strong 2021 campaign. The Packers signed him off Arizona's practice squad during the season and started giving him regular action in Week 6.
The 27-year-old cornerback ultimately finished the season with 57 tackles, five interceptions—two of which he returned for touchdowns—and 13 pass defenses.
Hall is a promising prospect out of San Diego State who spent his rookie year with the Falcons. He saw a good chunk of defensive snaps down the stretch and earned one start when Fabian Moreau went down with injury.
While the 6'0", 190-pound Hall, 22, still has much to improve after giving up a 77.1 percent completion rate and a pair of touchdowns when targeted in 2021, he has flashed the potential to become a serviceable outside corner.
S: Andrew Wingard (Jacksonville Jaguars, $2.4M) / Malik Hooker (Dallas Cowboys, $1.3M)
There are several quality safety options who would conceivably be left unprotected in an expansion draft.
Wingard is one of the more unique players a new team could come away with. He's spent the first three years of his career with the Jaguars, emerging as a capable starter for the club in 2021.
The 25-year-old secured 88 tackles, a sack, a pass defense and an interception while starting 15 games. He has value as a defender who can aid a defense in a variety of ways, including playing close to the line of scrimmage as an extra linebacker when needed.
Hooker would be an athletic complement to Wingard to round out this secondary. While he had significant durability issues during the first four years of his career, culminating in just two games played in 2020, the 26-year-old finally appeared to be healthy last season.
At his best, Hooker is a highly instinctual, decisive safety who moves extremely well in space. He plays smart and rarely gives up the big play while always lurking as a threat to pick off a quarterback.
Hooker has already tallied eight career interceptions and could add several more in 2022 if he assumes a starting role for this expansion club.
Advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted/linked.