What Would an NFL Expansion Roster Look Like in 2021?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJuly 22, 2021

Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock (3) throws a pass against the Las Vegas Raiders during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan.. 3, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/Justin Edmonds)
Justin Edmonds/Associated Press

On Wednesday, just before the NHL held its expansion draft for the Seattle Kraken, Bleacher Report's Gary Davenport took a stab at establishing which five players each NFL team would leave unprotected in the event of a pro football expansion draft. 

As Davenport stated, the rules when the Houston Texans entered the league in 2002 were as follows: Each team had to leave five players unprotected. If the Texans chose a player, that team could pull one of its remaining four off the board. If Houston picked two players from a specific team, then the final three could be pulled back.

The Texans could claim 30 to 42 players or 38 percent of the 2002 salary cap in contracts. But they also had free agency and the draft to work with, so that situation was a little different. 

In this case, let's take a look at what sort of 22-man starting lineup a new franchise could put together strictly using players unprotected in Davenport's hypothetical. 


QB: Drew Lock

The third-year Denver Broncos second-round pick beats out Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles, mainly because Lock has more upside—one is 24 with a cannon arm, and the other is 32 with a third-string role—and because he is cheaper (he makes just $1.8 million a year compared to $8 million per season for Foles). 


RB: Royce Freeman

I'd trust Freeman over Jordan Wilkins and Rashaad Penny, both of whom have flashed but have lacked consistency and are coming off ineffective 2020 seasons. Freeman is a 2018 third-round pick who averaged a career-high 4.9 yards per carry in limited action last year. He's also a lot less expensive than Penny, who  was a first-rounder, so might as well roll the dice on him in a make-or-break contract year. 


WR: N'Keal Harry, Kelvin Harmon, Jamison Crowder

Steven Senne/Associated Press

Harry has been a disappointment in New England but was a first-round pick just two years ago. He's pretty inexpensive ($2.8 million cap hit in 2021), so I'd want to give him a fresh shot. The 24-year-old Harmon flashed late in his rookie season before losing 2020 to a torn ACL. Both of those guys still have starter-level ceilings on the outside. Meanwhile, Crowder is quite pricy with a $9.5 million average annual salary. But Lock needs an experienced and speedy veteran (4.56 40) in the receiving corps, and he's still got gas in the tank entering his age-28 season. 


TE: David Njoku

The 2017 first-round pick has failed to deliver on that draft status with the Cleveland Browns, but he's got more upside than the 30-year-old Cameron Brate. He did put up 639 yards three years ago, so maybe a fresh setting could get him back to that level it not beyond it. 


OT: Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Julie'n Davenport

Vaitai is expensive ($9 million annually) but has the ability to dominate at tackle or guard, and we saw glimpses of that when he was a member of the Philadelphia Eagles. He struggled to deliver in the first year of a big contract with the Detroit Lions in 2020, but this might be a worthwhile gamble for an expansion team. It was then a toss-up between Davenport and Washington's Saahdiq Charles, who has a little more upside but almost no NFL tape. Davenport has disappointed in Houston and Miami but remains a potential long-term swing tackle at the least (he's just 26).


G: Graham Glasgow, Michael Jordan

Justin Edmonds/Associated Press

Glasgow has been a steady starter over the last five years in Detroit and Denver and is worth a premium salary considering he should have a lot of fuel left at 29. The 23-year-old Jordan sometimes looks like he could become a strong starter but has been inconsistent. Might as well see if that'll change at an affordable rate (roughly $1 million per season) in a new home. 


C: Pat Elflein

Davenport didn't leave us a lot here, but Elflein's new three-year, $13.5 million contract with the Carolina Panthers suggests there are still NFL people who have faith in the 2017 third-round pick. He started 27 games at center for the Minnesota Vikings in 2017 and 2018 before transitioning to guard. 


Edge: Clelin Ferrell, Dante Fowler Jr.

The Buffalo Bills would probably love to see this expansion team take Jerry Hughes or Mario Addison, while the Lions and Green Bay Packers might be just fine with seeing the new squad take Trey Flowers or Preston Smith off their respective hands. But those guys have too little tread on their tires and are damn expensive. Same for Dee Ford. I'd consider L.J. Collier here before any of those guys. But Ferrell is probably the better gamble because he's a much higher pick, and Fowler at least has a solid combination of upside at 26 and past production with two eight-plus-sack seasons under his belt.


IDL: Fletcher Cox, Michael Pierce

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - DECEMBER 20: Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox #91 of the Philadelphia Eagles during the NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium on December 20, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Eagles 33-26. (Phot
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

This is where I have the Portland Phantoms, Oklahoma City Desperados or Toronto Trappers valuing some wisdom. Cox, 30, is a star with several good years left in him, and he could become the veteran leader of this defense. Meanwhile, the 28-year-old Pierce has been a solid starter in the past and could use a new setting. He's not cheap ($9 million per year), but he not close to as expensive as Cox ($17.2 million annually). And his contract contains little dead money, so it's easy to move on. 


Off-Ball LB: Mack Wilson, Rashaan Evans

C.J. Mosley is pricy ($17 million) and has been MIA for basically two full seasons, while Jaylon Smith is expensive ($11.4 million) and has come back to earth after a strong third season. Wilson might never reach that level but has flashed quite a bit for a 23-year-old fifth-round pick. He and Evans aren't too expensive but have plenty of upside. The latter is a 2018 first-round pick who put up triple-digit tackles a year ago and is still just 25. These are the types of pieces you want when you're building a team, even if they won't be superstars. 


CB: Xavien Howard, Trae Waynes, Tavon Young

DENVER, COLORADO - NOVEMBER 22:  Xavien Howard #25 of the Miami Dolphins celebrates his interception during the first quarter against the Denver Broncos at Empower Field At Mile High on November 22, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Get
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

How can you pass on Howard? He'd become one of your most expensive investments, but he's a 28-year-old first-team All-Pro corner who should make an impact for several years to come. Perfect combination of upside and track record. Waynes didn't pan out as a first-round pick in Minnesota but has experience with a little room to grow at 28. You can get out of his lucrative deal pretty easily in a year. The 27-year-old Young has playmaking ability and plenty of tire tread to handle slot coverage. 


S: Landon Collins, Tarvarius Moore

It's hard to believe Collins is still just 27, but he's a tremendous box safety who could become a star again in the right environment. He's expensive, but you can make him go away for $9.6 million next offseason if it doesn't pan out. We're giving them another strong safety in Moore, but the options are pretty weak beyond Collins. And at least he's an inexpensive player with room to grow at 24.


A Quicker Glance

QB - Drew Lock
RB - Royce Freeman
WR - N'Keal Harry
WR - Kelvin Harmon
WR - Jamison Crowder
TE - David Njoku
LT - Halapoulivaati Vaitai
LG - Graham Glasgow
C - Pat Elflein
RG - Michael Jordan
RT - Julie'n Davenport

Edge - Clelin Ferrell
Edge - Dante Fowler Jr.
DL - Fletcher Cox
DL - Michael Pierce
LB - Mack Wilson
LB - Rashaan Evans
CB - Xavien Howard
CB - Trae Waynes
CB - Tavon Young
FS - Tarvarius Moore
SS - Landon Collins


How would this team fare? Not bloody well. The defense would be decent, especially against the pass. But a lot would hinge on Lock, Freeman and Harry or Harmon becoming stars, and that could be a problem considering that the offensive line is this team's weakest link. Four of those five starters are arguably below-average players based on recent performances. 

Of course, in a real expansion-draft world, free agency and the draft would be a factor. Not sure this team would want to splurge on too many overpriced free agents considering the anticipated building process (the Texans didn't in 2002), but it'd likely improve on the offensive line for the sake of the young offensive core. It would also theoretically have top 2021 draft pick Trevor Lawrence under center. 

Take this team and add, say, Lawrence, an ideal second-round offensive line target like Teven Jenkins and a few free agents at safety, linebacker, along the offensive line, on the edge and maybe even at receiver, and you're not a complete embarrassment. 

Houston managed to win four games in 2002. I think this team could put up a similar or better result with free-agency and draft additions. 


Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.