2021 Season Preview: The Top Valued Rosters in the NFL

With the regular season about to get underway I thought this would be a good time to start breaking down the rosters in the league in some different ways. For today I wanted to look at which teams have the most expensive rosters in the NFL when valued by the annual contract value of the players on the team. These numbers will change (Mark Andrews for example signed a $14M contract as I started this) this week but for the most part should give an idea of who does and does not have a lot invested in their team.

The second thing I wanted to look at was how much cap space each team is projected to have in 2022. I used each team’s estimated cap room and added in the salary cap carryover estimates to come up with those figures. That gives us an even better idea as to who is and who is not “all in” on this season. While I did have time to add the Andrews contract to the APY calculation the Ravens cap calculations have not been updated for Andrews.

The most valuable roster is the Tampa Bay Bucs at $240M, about $35M more than the NFL average this year. The Buccaneers went off all their salary cap norms in order to keep this team together to try to repeat as a Super Bowl champion and it is reflected in how strong the roster, on paper, is.

The Bills come in at number 2 with a $239M roster led by their $43M quarterback, Josh Allen. The Bills are not a team that traditionally people would expect to see here but they were incredibly successful last year and probably kept a few guys they would not have if the 2020 season finished in the wildcard round.

The Browns at just under $235 million are number three and the expectations are going to be sky high. With a few potential big extensions on the horizon they may be moving into a firm hold on the top spots for the next few years if things go well this season, though I would expect the complexion of the team to look a little different.

The Cowboys are one of the rare teams with three $20M/year players not to mention an expensive running back. They rank 4th in the NFL at $234M. Dallas had a rough season with Dak Prescott sidelined for most of the year in 2020 and there is a ton of pressure on Dallas to dominate a weak division this year is Prescott is healthy.

Finally at number five we have the Colts at $230.5M. This is the team that surprised me the most. Part of their numbers are inflated by the presence of Carson Wentz who costs the team far less than his contract value but they have a good amount of middle class and upper level players on this team. They do not have the long term commitments other teams do, but this was a big change for the Colts this year who have a big payroll.

On the low end are three traditional higher spenders in the Falcons, Panthers, and Steelers. I am confident the Steelers number will shoot way up by Saturday if they sign TJ Watt to a big contract with what I would expect to be a $40M signing bonus, but they have clearly been impacted by their cap situation. The Panthers and Falcons are basically reeling from bad cap situations and drafts that have made it more difficult for them to really make the kind of additions one would expect.

The Chargers have the 4th lowest number which also surprised me. I wonder if they could have added a little more this year in free agency to surround their young star QB rather than waiting until next year. The Dolphins are number five which was not a surprise. They took a step back with some of their roster decisions from last year and did not replace them, clearly looking more at 2022 than 2021.

That brings me to my next point which is where we look at how teams value this year may or may not impact cap room next year.

The X-axis shows this year roster value based on the APY of all the players on the team while the Y-axis shows next year’s projected salary cap space (and it includes the early estimated for cap carryover). The lines represent the averages in the NFL. If you are in the top right quadrant it means you have both an expensive roster this year and cap flexibility next year. That is usually a good spot to be in because you have room to keep your free agents and if you do not have many free agents you have room to add. The Colts, Bears, Patriots, Washington, and Seattle show up here.

The left quadrant are the teams likely playing with house money in 2021. They have low valued rosters this year and a lot of cap space next year. This includes the Steelers, Chargers, Panthers, Bengals, Jets, Jaguars, Broncos, Raiders, Ravens, and Lions. The closer you are to the mid line (Raiders, Lions, and Ravens) the more pressure there should be on this year while the further you are the more the teams were likely looking at 2022.

The bottom right are the teams who are all in. They have high valued rosters and below average cap space. The Packers, Saints, and Cowboys are the three who clearly are all the most on this season. The Vikings and Cardinals also both sneak in here and are two teams that should have a ton of pressure to deliver. Arizona in particular has the makings of a team that could make in season changes if things fall apart. The Chiefs, Texans, 49ers, Browns, Bills, Bucs, Titans, and 49ers are all here.

Finally the bottom left is a rough spot. These are teams who don’t have the high valued rosters and do not have good cap projections for next year. These teams are likely a WYSIWYG situation for two years which can be very difficult if the team winds up flopping this year. The Giants and Rams are right at the edge of this while the Falcons and Eagles are in a bad spot.

The other thing interesting about this is how many teams are on the two extremes. Todays NFL has definitely embraced the idea of playing for the future more than the present where teams are basically given the ok to not maximize their roster with a faint hope of winning and being more realistic about their fortunes. That does allow more teams who project to be good to load up in a given year rather than losing those free agent players to the “bad teams” in the league. Not sure if this is a trend that continues but it has come more into focus the last few years.

Here is the list in table form.   

Team2021 Roster Value2022 Cap Space
Football Team$208,935,428$54,645,531