Several weeks ago, I wrote a column about how I would build a team if the NFL has an uncapped year in 2010. So now it's time to put my words into action and build my own 53-man roster. Only this time I have to do it under the 2008 salary cap of $116 million.
I want a team that is dominant on the offensive and defensive lines. I want a great quarterback who can make big plays in the passing game. My team will rely on basic principles of winning football: a great defense starts with a dominant pass rush and a great offense starts with a dominant offensive line. And I can't forget special teams, where a unit full of speed and space guys, along with a dynamic return man, can control and dictate field position. As you review my team, please keep those principles in mind.
Click here for Michael Lombardi's 53-man roster.
With Tom Brady ($14,626,720), I get a leader, a playmaker, someone the team will respect and, most of all, a real winner. Brady will allow my offense to always be in the right play; he is capable of running the "check with me" offense at the line. He can make sure we run the ball to the weakness of the defense and ensure we always are in the correct pass protections. His accuracy throwing the ball will allow our wide receivers to do what they do best -- run with the ball after the catch. He will make the offense go with his brain, his arm and his commitment to winning.
Jay Cutler ($2,325,000) is a rising star. He possesses the great arm, the great anticipation and the toughness that all star quarterbacks must have. I don't mind putting high cap dollars into my backup because I want my team to function effectively if the starter were to get injured. Cutler's intelligence helps him in this role. And the fact that he will play so effectively in the preseason allows me the luxury to trade him to another quarterback-needy team for a multitude of draft picks. Investing in a great backup quarterback is a very effective method of gaining assets to trade. Backups at any position do not get many live game repetitions during practice and must rely on their intelligence to perform if called into duty.
Troy Smith ($411,720) is a young player who can learn from the sideline. He shares the same passion and commitment that Brady and Cutler possess. Our quarterback room will have three unique players in style of performance but similar in their competitive fire.
Maurice Jones-Drew ($685,000) is the perfect back for the kind of offense this team will run. He's multi-dimensional: very proficient as a runner, blocker and receiver. He can make plays on his own, breaking tackles whether running or receiving. He can run inside with power and can convert first downs; he had 35 carries last year on third-and-one and gained 211 yards.
My favorite runner of the 2008 draft was Jonathan Stewart ($2,000,000) of Oregon. Stewart will be the power back in the offense and also fit the multi-dimensional theme we are trying to create with our offense. Stewart is 235 pounds. He will become more difficult to tackle as the game goes along. He can pass protect against linebackers and he can catch the ball in the flat, turning short passes into long gains. With Jones-Drew and Stewart, their versatility will allow the offensive staff to use them both in the game at the same time and create mis-matches against the defense. All the backs on the team are very good on special teams and fit our versatile theme.
The No. 1 requirement for players at this position is not speed. I'm more concerned with their ability to have quickness at the line, to defeat press coverage, and how they run with the ball after the catch. Brandon Marshall ($556,480) and Greg Jennings ($760,280) have the quickness to separate from the line are both very good runners with the ball. They are explosive players who require constant attention from the defense. If we get "off coverage" from the defense, we have two players that can catch the short pass and break a tackle for a potential big play. Jennings last year had 394 yards after the catch of his total 920; Marshall had 549 YAC of his total 1,325. Both players are very hard to tackle especially if the opponents have soft or smallish corners.
Having Wes Welker ($3,731,720) in the slot with our tight ends will then allow some single coverage on the outside and the potential for big plays will become very real. Welker is a key for us on third down, as he will draw double coverage allowing Witten to be one-on-one.
Joshua Cribbs ($1,045,000) is a playmaker with the ball in his hands and is very versatile as a player. He will enhance our return game. Sam Hurd ($455,054) is one of the best special teams coverage men in the NFL, which is critical coming from the wide receiver spot.
This is one of the most important positions in football to get the right blend on your team. You must have a blocker, a player that can handle pass protections and secure the edge in the run game. Donald Lee ($2,881,720) fits that description perfectly. And when you have a player that can play on the line, you then need a tight end who can line up anywhere on the field, is willing to block and has deadly good hands, catching the ball in any situation. Jason Witten ($4,111,720) has great hands, is able to make the tough third-down catch in traffic and will create mismatches on many nickel linebackers.
Lee and Witten will work very well together. Both players have lined up all over the field for their teams and most important, since there is not a true fullback on the team, both have backfield experience. Our team will have the ability to stay in base offense on third down and if the defense goes nickel, we then can run the ball, or if the defense stays in their base, we can exploit the weakness in the passing game. Having versatile players at tight ends helps create problems for the defense.
As it has been the constant theme with our team, we need versatile players who can play and align in various positions. Size and pass blocking are major requirements here, and Bryant McKinnie ($7,424,501) clearly has both. Shawn Andrews ($5,121,250) plays guard in Philadelphia, but he has the skills to play right tackle to utilize his power- and run-blocking skills. I don't mind having more than $12 million dollars of cap room eaten up at the tackle position because this will enhance the offense. Chris Snee ($2,779,166) is a very tough player who can handle quickness inside and has excellent run-blocking skills. Andre Gurode ($3,673,386) has the size, arm length and power to deal with nose tackles and the athletic ability to get to the second level, blocking the linebackers in the run game. Every player on this team has the toughness, arm length and the intelligence to handle the rigors of playing offensive line. Arm length combined with quick hands is critical to pass protections as is size and athletic skills are critical for the run game. This offensive line is very effective in both areas.
Who is ever going to block this line? Each player requires double teams on every play and can rush the passer with amazing skill. Albert Haynesworth ($7,250,003) in 2007 was the most dominating defensive lineman in the game. He did not just defeat the block, he destroyed the block. Dwight Freeney ($5,750,000) is an offensive left tackle's worse nightmare and Osi Umenyiora ($4,987,500) is just as explosive. With JohnHenderson ($2,890,000), Haloti Ngata ($1,984,990), Vince Wilfork ($2,040,054) and Tommie Harris ($4,501,440), there is unique power and athletic skills. Also, there are versatile players here that can play anywhere in the line and defeat single blocks. The goal here was to put a significant amount of money into having the best defensive line and being able to control the game much like the Ravens of 2000 and the Giants of 2007.
Speed and space-playing ability was what was required when building this group. Players that can play on third down, on nickel downs, who can run with anyone on the field and are excellent tacklers in the open field best describes all the players on the team. DeMeco Ryans ($1,282,970) will control the defense with his ability to tackle and make plays either in the run or pass. He can play in a three- or four-man set, depending on the down, and has the intelligence to get the defense lined up correctly. He will be the Tom Brady of the defense, making sure we are aligned correctly on every snap. Many times during games, big plays occur when a defensive player is not aligned correctly in the defense. Ryans has the speed to make space plays and to make tackles from sideline to sideline. It has always been my belief that when your middle linebacker is fast, your defense is fast -- and Ryans is fast.
Thomas Howard ($1,001,240) can make plays on the ball, especially on third down. Howard had six interceptions last year and converted two of them into touchdowns. Michael Boley ($2,023,720) is an extremely fast linebacker, who can make tackles in the open field and is very effective playing the game in space or attacking the pocket. Having rare speed and excellent tacklers at this position help enhance your special teams coverage units. Worth noting: Zak DeOssie ($484,945) will serve as our long snapper for field goals and punts.
It is critical to get players in your secondary that can play on all three levels of the defense and are willing to tackle. When a team has a bad tackling defensive corner, it can never balance its defense and this allows the offense to attack. Each player here can tackle and has very good ball skills. Cortland Finnegan ($466,013) is not a well-known player to the average fan, but he is a very effective player, being able to blitz, cover, play zone or man and tackle. He has balance and long arms, which is critical for playing the corner position.
LaRon Landry ($2,645,833) and Reggie Nelson ($1,044,220) have size and speed, are excellent blitzers and show the ability both to play deep in the middle of the field and close to the action at the line of scrimmage. Every player here is versatile, can tackle and has balance to ensure they can make plays on the ball down the field.
Stephen Gostkowski ($557,970) has been able to perform in pressure situations in critical games and has the confidence from his teammates. He can kick on bad grass, good grass, turf, in bad weather, in wind and has the power in his leg to handle kickoffs, too. Shane Lechler ($1,884,298) is the best punter I have seen in my career. He has the leg and power of the bionic man and will control field position with his ability to power the ball. He can also hold for Gostkowski with his great hand-eye coordination. Lechler is a great person and great teammate which is so critical for players at this position.
Head coach: Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh SteelersTomlin has the ability to adapt to his personnel and is not scheme driven. Spending most of his career in the 4-3 defense before arriving in Pittsburgh, Tomlin recognized the value of Dick LeBeau and his zone blitzing 3-4 defense and he adapted. Being able to adapt to the situation at hand is a critical factor for a head coach. Tomlin can inspire players to prepare and to play hard each week. He has been in the big games and understands how to deal with all the game-management situations.
Offensive coordinator: Josh McDaniels, New England PatriotsMcDaniels is an adaptive coach, knows how to set up a game plan and knows how to call plays that help the team, not his statistics or profile. A true team player, McDaniels' offense can feature one player one week and a totally different player the next. Plus, my quarterback Tom Brady loves him.
Defensive coordinator: Jim Schwartz, Tennessee TitansOne of the smartest people in football, this Georgetown graduate (economics degree) knows how to run a defense and manage the game. Schwartz's mind is always in the game, he is very adaptive and understands how to modify his game plan each week around what the team has to emphasize in order to win the game. He is a team player, couldn't care less about stats and knows the only thing that matters is winning. His teams will be well prepared and he will know all the key calls that will happen in the game -- before the game starts.