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Which player would each NFL team protect in an NHL-style expansion draft?

No quarterbacks allowed, though.

The NHL will welcome its 31st team to the fold in 2017. But to stock their roster for their inaugural season, the Las Vegas Golden Knights had to participate in an expansion draft, where they took one player from each of the league’s existing rosters.

The Golden Knights couldn’t take just anyone, however. Each general manager protected seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie; or eight skaters and one goalie. That meant superstars like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, or Jack Eichel won’t be going anywhere this summer.

Expansion drafts like this aren’t new for the NFL. The league last allowed a new franchise to pick through existing rosters in 2002 when the Houston Texans added players like Tony Boselli, Aaron Glenn, and Gary Walker. Before that, the revived Browns kicked off nearly two decades of ignominy by sorting through the tail end of the league’s top rosters in 1999.

With Las Vegas’ first big four sports team ready to make its mark, we decided it was time for an offseason exercise. What if NFL teams had to make a similar decision as the rest of the NHL — but could only protect one player from getting snapped up by a ravenous expansion team?

For this hypothetical, we’ve taken on the NHL’s rule of automatically exempting first- and second-year players, thus saving Dallas the Sophie’s Choice of Dak Prescott or Ezekiel Elliott and keeping each rookie with the teams who drafted them in 2017. In interest of position diversity, we’ve also automatically exempted all starting quarterbacks — otherwise this list would have been 70 percent passers.

Here are the non-exempt players we think each team would opt to save.

Arizona Cardinals: David Johnson

Johnson was a revelation in 2016. The former Northern Iowa back was a source of fantasy salvation with a league-leading 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 total touchdowns. As Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald near retirement, retaining a true home run threat like Johnson is paramount.

Atlanta Falcons: Julio Jones

Jones did this:

in the biggest game of his career. He stays.

Baltimore Ravens: Justin Tucker

Tucker’s historic 2016 solidified his claim as the game’s best kicker. C.J. Mosley deserves consideration here, but Tucker’s tremendous accuracy makes him too big an asset to expose.

Buffalo Bills: LeSean McCoy

Last season, McCoy gained a career-high 5.4 yards per carry and more rushing yards than all but five other tailbacks. That makes him the best player in a limited group for Buffalo.

Carolina Panthers: Luke Kuechly

Kuechly’s concussion history makes him an iffy choice, but there’s no denying his impact on the field. The three-time first-team All-Pro will be only 26 next fall and is a tremendous foundation for any defense.

Chicago Bears: Josh Sitton

It’s slim pickings for the Bears here, especially with dynamic running back Jordan Howard already protected as a second-year player. Sitton, a Pro Bowler last fall, is the best of a rough group.

Cincinnati Bengals: Geno Atkins

A.J. Green was tough to pass up, but the talented receiver’s injury woes in 2016 cause him to cede his spot to All-Pro Atkins, who provides an important pass-rushing presence from the middle of the line.

Cleveland Browns: Joe Thomas

Thomas is perennially in the conversation as the league’s top left tackle. It’s just a shame he hasn’t had a worthwhile blindside to protect in his 10 seasons in the league.

Dallas Cowboys: Dez Bryant

Bryant is an all-important cog in Dallas’ new big three, alongside Prescott and Elliott. An injury-plagued 2016 kept him from reaching his full potential in the Cowboys’ revamped offense, but the receiver has the athleticism and IQ to be truly dangerous as he enters the second phase of his career.


Denver Broncos: Von Miller

There’s no way the Broncos would let the heart and soul of their ferocious defense go, even with $103 million left on his record-setting contract.

Detroit Lions: Ziggy Ansah

Injury and ineffectiveness prevented Ansah from following up on his breakout 2015; his sack total fell from 14.5 to two. Still, the athletic freak still has room to improve and has all the potential to be one of the league’s most disruptive pass rushers.

Green Bay Packers: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix

Clinton-Dix was the last staple holding together a depleted and injury-riddled Packer secondary in 2016. Despite that pressure, he managed to have his best season as a pro, hauling in five interceptions and helping lead Green Bay’s charge to the playoffs.

Houston Texans: J.J. Watt

The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year is a no-brainer, even with Jadeveon Clowney beginning to reach his all-universe potential.

Indianapolis Colts: T.Y. Hilton

Andrew Luck is safe, and so is his favorite target. Hilton’s ability to stretch the field (a league-leading 1,448 receiving yards in 2016) is paramount to the Colts’ quest to rule the AFC South once more.

Jacksonville Jaguars: A.J. Bouye

Bouye has yet to play a down for the Jaguars but was the prize of the team’s 2017 free-agent haul. The rising star will pair with second-year pro Jalen Ramsey to give Jacksonville one of the AFC South’s toughest secondaries this fall.

Kansas City Chiefs: Eric Berry

Berry has exceeded expectations in his six-year career with the Chiefs, overcoming cancer to emerge as one of the league’s most dynamic safeties. He edges out Marcus Peters as the team’s top protected pick.

Los Angeles Chargers: Casey Hayward

Keenan Allen and Melvin Gordon are each solid choices, but their recent injury issues push Hayward to the forefront. The former Packer enjoyed the best year of his career in San Diego, leading the league with seven interceptions and earning All-Pro honors in the process.

Los Angeles Rams: Aaron Donald

Donald is a destroyer of worlds on the Rams’ defensive line. He’s got 28 sacks through his first three seasons and looks every bit a perennial Pro Bowler.

Aaron Donald sack

Miami Dolphins: Jay Ajayi

Ajayi was a healthy scratch for the first game of the season, but once he did hit the field, he was a force. He became just the fourth player in NFL history to rack up 200-plus yards in back-to-back games, and he finished with 1,272 yards and eight touchdowns. The Dolphins can’t afford to let that kind of productivity slip away.

Minnesota Vikings: Harrison Smith

Smith is arguably the best player on one of the NFL’s best defenses. The versatile safety received a five-year, $51.25 million deal a year ago and backed it up with another Pro Bowl season. The other candidate for Minnesota is Anthony Barr, another two-time Pro Bowler, but Mike Zimmer has questioned the pass rusher’s motor and drive.

New England Patriots: Rob Gronkowski

How good is Gronkowski? So good that even his third major back surgery isn’t concerning enough to keep him from being the Patriots’ top pick for retention, ahead of defensive playmakers like Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, and Dont’a Hightower.

New Orleans Saints: Cameron Jordan

The Saints’ defense has been a weakness for years, and New Orleans can’t afford to lose arguably its best player. He had a team-high 7.5 sacks last season, along with a forced fumble and six pass breakups.

New York Giants: Odell Beckham Jr.

Yes, the Giants actually do have other playmakers at wide receiver — Brandon Marshall and Sterling Shepard — but that doesn’t change the fact that Beckham is the best (and most exciting) player on the team. The Giants would be foolish to let Beckham, a top-five talent at his position, walk.

New York Jets: Matt Forte

After the Jets cut Eric Decker and David Harris, you may think that everybody on the roster is expendable. But the team insists it isn’t tanking, even though it’s going to have to roll with either Josh McCown, Christian Hackenberg, or Bryce Petty under center next season. That means the Jets need to hold on to Forte, who had 813 yards and seven touchdowns last season.

(Update: Forte is the Jets’ best chance at scoring any points on offense in 2017, but Gang Green Nation is probably right: Leonard Williams is a better pick.)

Oakland Raiders: Khalil Mack

Mack is the cornerstone of a Raiders defense that really can’t function without him. He had 11 of Oakland’s 25 sacks last season, as well as five forced fumbles and an interception returned for a touchdown. Oakland has to hold on to last season’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Philadelphia Eagles: Fletcher Cox

Cox’s ability to stop the run and provide a solid pass-rushing presence from the trenches makes him a valuable presence — and at just 26 years old, he’s the kind of building block who can contribute well into the future. He beats out an aging Jason Peters and interior lineman Jason Kelce as the team’s pick.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Antonio Brown

Choosing between Brown and Le’Veon Bell is a tough one, but Bell’s injury history makes him the less reliable choice. Brown has been a first-team All-Pro selection in each of the last three seasons, gaining more than 4,800 receiving yards in the process.

San Francisco 49ers: Joe Staley

There are a lack of options for the Niners, who have some intriguing young talent being mentored by underwhelming older talent. Staley will be 33 this season and may have his best days behind him, but he’s a steady veteran presence who can serve as a mentor during new GM John Lynch’s rebuild.

Seattle Seahawks: Earl Thomas

Earl Thomas is indispensable for the Seahawks. That was evident after he went down with a broken leg late last season, and the defense suffered. Since Russell Wilson isn’t an option here, Thomas is the most logical choice.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike Evans

The 6’5 Evans is a massive red-zone target who hauled in 12 receiving touchdowns last season. While drops have been a problem in his past, he’s shown off stronger hands recently and looks every bit an All-Pro wide receiver.

Tennessee Titans: DeMarco Murray

Murray’s revitalized 2016 was a huge factor in the Titans’ first winning record since 2008. His ability to gash holes in opposing defenses opened up the Tennessee offense and allowed Marcus Mariota to overcome any notion of a sophomore slump.

Washington: Ryan Kerrigan

Josh Norman’s monster contract gives the more affordable Kerrigan the edge here. The dynamic linebacker has been a consistent pass rusher for Washington, recording 58.5 sacks in six seasons and never missing a game as a pro.