I just crossed the same bridge, started my budget at $800.
Did a LOT of shopping around, settled higher, but am DAMN satisfied with my purchase.
I ended up just a little > $1k for the rifle, got a S&W M&P, but did not go sport, got the forward assist and port cover, will eat 5.56 and .223.
If you look at the sport next to the one I purchased, there is a visible and a tactile diference
Have 5 magpull polly 30 round mags, one with target 55gr ammo, the other four 75gr BTHP.
It was a hard call to blow the budget, but there is a HUGE line between the $800 and $1k range.
I cannot speak for the quality of the guns below that range, some are highly spoken of, and some of them felt nice to hold, but the line between "glad I own it" and "proud to" left me looking up a couple hundred.