On every NFL team, there are always players who cannot be replaced, despite the best intentions of coaches who preach “next man up.”
For most teams, the quarterback is first on that list. However, for the sake of creativity, we’re going to focus on non-quarterbacks in this article.
These upcoming players are integral members of their respective teams and the least expendable. If they are lost, whether due to injury or off-field troubles, you can be sure their teams will be hurt in the standings.
These are the most valuable non-quarterbacks on every NFL team.
Arizona Cardinals: Patrick Peterson, CB
Offensively, everything the Cardinals do is predicated on quarterback play and pushing the ball up the field, so our focus turns to the defensive side of the ball.
Arizona loves to send linebackers from all angles to blitz opposing passers, meaning the cornerbacks must be able to play on an island. And there isn’t a defensive back on the roster more integral to this plan than Peterson.
Not only is Peterson one of the most physically gifted athletes in the NFL, but he is turning into an outstanding cover corner, despite a down year in 2014. Peterson’s size, speed, athleticism and skill allows him to stick with the league’s top receivers. He is the catalyst for Arizona’s defense.
Atlanta Falcons: Julio Jones, WR
The Falcons win through the air, and Jones is the key weapon in Atlanta’s arsenal.
In 48 career starts, Jones has been targeted by quarterback Matt Ryan 445 times, has caught 278 passes for 4,330 yards (15.6 yards per catch) and 26 touchdowns.
To understand his value to Atlanta, look no further than the 2013 season, when the Falcons went 4-12. Jones was injured for most of the season, and while the team did go 1-3 in games in which he played, the offense was anemic without him in the lineup.
Baltimore Ravens: Terrell Suggs, OLB
After Ray Lewis retired, the mantle of leadership fell on the shoulders of Suggs, who has been the undeniable heart and soul for the Ravens since that time.
Of course, it helps his cause that Suggs is still among the very best of all NFL players at any position. Even in his 12th season, the pass-rusher continued piling up sacks, registering 12, and ranking No. 4 (Pro Football Focus, subscription required) in the league for 3-4 outside linebackers.
Take him out of the lineup and there is no doubt Baltimore’s defense will suffer a significant setback.
Buffalo Bills: Mario Williams, DE
After three seasons in Buffalo, it is safe to say Williams has done more than enough to earn his massive contract. Prior to free agency, many fans wondered if his best playing days were behind him. He was coming off a season-ending injury and hadn’t registered a 10-plus sack campaign in three years.
Fast forward to the present, and Williams has hit that benchmark every year during his tenure in Buffalo, with 38 total sacks in three years.
With Rex Ryan coaching the Bills this year, it seems safe to assume that Williams will continue piling up monster sack totals for the foreseeable future.
Carolina Panthers: Luke Kuechly, ILB
With the surprising retirement of Patrick Willis, there’s no doubt that Kuechly is now the top inside linebacker in the NFL.
He led the league in tackles in 2012 and 2014, finishing in fourth place in 2013. Furthermore, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has graded him out as top-10 inside linebacker in all three years, with the top spot going to the former Boston College star last season.
The Panthers have made the playoffs the past two years, thanks to a tremendous effort by the defense. Offensively, Carolina has been hovering in mediocrity. And if not for Kuechly’s leadership and production, there is no chance this team would have made it to the postseason.
Chicago Bears: Matt Forte, RB
In an age when running backs are deemed expendable parts, the Bears would be in deep trouble without Forte. Though a bit long in the tooth, at the age of 29, Forte has been the model of consistency for the Bears since joining the team in 2008 as a bright-eyed rookie out of Tulane.
In seven seasons, he has racked up 11,431 total yards and 57 touchdowns. Much of his production has come as a receiver, as well. Break that down per year, and Forte is averaging 1,633 yards and eight touchdowns per season. Those are staggering numbers, folks, and they clearly demonstrate how the running back is the engine that runs Chicago’s offense.
This is especially true considering the ever-erratic play of quarterback Jay Cutler, who averages more than one interception per start—also a staggering number, for all the wrong reasons.
Take Forte out of the lineup and the Bears would be in deep, deep trouble.
Cincinnati Bengals: A.J. Green, WR
Digging into Green’s numbers since joining the league four years ago, one cannot help wonder what kind of NFL demigod he could become if the Bengals had a franchise quarterback.
Green’s production is outstanding, despite the fact Andy Dalton is a substandard passer. In his four seasons, he has caught 329 passes for 4,874 yards with 35 touchdowns.
Take him out of the lineup and the Bengals struggle. Case in point: Green missed three games last season, during which time Cincinnati went 0-2-1. Dalton was less than stellar in those games, throwing two touchdowns and three interceptions.
Undoubtedly one of the league’s top receivers, Green makes up for Dalton’s mediocrity on a regular basis.
Cleveland Browns: Joe Haden, CB
The only way Cleveland has stayed remotely competitive the past few years is because the defense keeps the team in games. Without a quarterback (they still don’t have one, not unless Johnny Manziel turns out to be the savior), the Browns have to play tough defensively every game to have a chance.
Haden is among the top cover corners in the league. His ability to blanket top receivers is a big part of why the Browns defense has kept the team in games.
A five-year veteran, Haden has racked up 16 interceptions, forced four fumbles and recovered three.
His scrappy play epitomizes Cleveland football, and without him the Browns would struggle to keep teams from scoring at will through the air.
Dallas Cowboys: Dez Bryant, WR
This was a tough call. If it were possible to just list the Cowboys offensive line, then that is the clear choice. That said, we wanted to stick to the “one player” rule of thumb, and Bryant is the most impactful single player not named Tony Romo on the team’s roster.
Not only does Bryant produce on the field at a staggering pace, but his vocal leadership—once misunderstood and scorned—pumps life into Dallas when it needs life the most.
Speaking of Bryant’s production, he is arguably the best at his position—no disrespect intended to Calvin Johnson. In the past three seasons, Bryant has caught 273 passes for 3,935 yards and 41 touchdowns.
Are you kidding me?
If Bryant keeps this up for another six to eight years, then he’s going to be a lock for the Hall of Fame.
Denver Broncos: Malik Jackson, DE
Most NFL fans probably have never heard of Jackson, but take him out of the lineup defensively and there is no way the Broncos will stop the run like they did in 2014.
Denver finished the season with the No. 2-ranked rushing defense in the league. The ability to force teams into becoming one-dimensional on offense allowed DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller to go crazy attacking the quarterback.
While Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton (signed by Washington this winter) was the famous one of the bunch, Jackson was the glue that held the wall together.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) rated Jackson as the third-best 4-3 defensive end last year. While he didn’t put up the big sack totals you’d associate with a top player (four), he did manage 29 quarterback hurries (one less than DeMarcus Ware) and registered 28 stops, which constitutes an offensive play that ended in failure.
Jackson isn’t the flashy choice, but he is the right one.
Detroit Lions: Glover Quin, S
No Calvin Johnson???
While Johnson is certainly one of the top players in the NFL, he is not the most valuable, least expendable player on Detroit’s roster.
That honor belongs to Quin, now that Ndamugkong Suh is with Miami.
Remember, the Lions were still explosive offensively last year while Johnson languished on the bench with injuries, thanks to Golden Tate.
The NFC North is loaded with top passing attacks and talented receivers. If the Lions have any hope of returning to the playoffs in 2015, then Quin must continue his stellar play from the safety position. He was graded out as the league’s No. 3-ranked safety last year, tallying seven interceptions and three defensive touchdowns (via Pro Football Focus, subscription required).
Take him out of the lineup and the Lions have no chance of stopping Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers this upcoming season, let alone the Bears and Minnesota Vikings.
Green Bay Packers: Clay Matthews, OLB
As it was with Denver, Rodgers is so great he makes it impossible to select another offensive player here.
And thankfully, Matthews makes this an easy choice.
It is rare in any era that player can shapeshift, but Matthews breaks the mold. He played roughly half the season in 2014 as the Packers inside linebacker, which is crazy considering he has been an outside linebacker specializing in rushing the passer since he came into the league in 2009.
Even playing out of position, Matthews dominated games. He still managed to sack the quarterback 11 times and registered an interception.
The Packers missed him badly when he missed five games in 2013. He is a true difference-maker by any measure or standard.
Houston Texans: J.J. Watt
File this under the “duh” category.
Watt is not only the most valuable player on Houston’s roster—period—but he is also one of the most valuable players at any position in the entire league.
He changes games.
He brings fire and brimstone to every contest and puts the fear of God into opposing quarterbacks.
Watt is a once-in-a-generation player with the heart and drive to maximize his talents.
Indianapolis Colts: Frank Gore, RB
Many NFL analysts have wondered how good the Colts offense could be with a consistent rushing attack and some pass-protection for Andrew Luck.
Thankfully, for Colts fans and curious analysts alike, Gore provides both.
Even at the age of 32, the veteran can still be counted among the NFL’s top running backs. He has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in eight of his 10 seasons, including the last four, and is one of the best pass-blockers in the business.
With Gore lining up behind Luck, the Colts are going to be scary good.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Sen’Derrick Marks, DT
Trying to find the most valuable player on Jacksonville’s roster was not easy at first glance, especially considering the Jaguars hardly ever make it onto the national stage. In the end, the determining factor proved to be finding which player played the best last year, given the fact that the roster is, how do you say, less than stellar.
In the end, Marks was the clear choice.
With 8.5 sacks at the defensive tackle position, Marks is a force to be reckoned with inside, especially on passing downs. His ability to push the pocket gives Jacksonville’s secondary opportunities to create turnovers, which are desperately needed in order for the Jaguars to win games.
Marks might not be ready to play in Week 1 after suffering an ACL injury last year, but he will be back in the lineup sooner, rather than later.
Kansas City Chiefs: Jamaal Charles, RB
With so many talented front-seven guys defensively, it’s impossible to pick one and say the defense would be unable to continue putting pressure on opposing offenses. Therefore, we turned to the offense, and without question the most valuable player is Charles.
The word dynamic is the first that springs to mind.
Averaging 5.5 yards per carry…for his career, Charles is a touchdown waiting to happen whenever he gets his hands on the football. And with Alex Smith’s obvious limitations in the passing game, Kansas City relies heavily on Charles for his game-breaking abilities.
Miami Dolphins: Cameron Wake, DE
Elite pass-rushers are nearly as valuable as quarterbacks these days. Wake can get to quarterbacks with the best of them, averaging 11.5 sacks per season since becoming a full-time starter in 2010.
Miami ranked No. 6 in the NFL last year defending the pass, allowing just over 222 yards per game. Wake’s strong play off the edge is a major reason for this. Take him out of the lineup and the Dolphins would be getting torched on a regular basis.
Minnesota Vikings: Adrian Peterson, RB
There are not many running backs in the league that cannot be replaced.
Peterson is the exception to this rule, as his 2012 season (2,097 rushing yards) clearly indicates.
He is a true game-changer. Every time he touches the ball, Peterson is a threat to score six points. No matter where the Vikings are on the field, he has the speed, quickness and power to bully his way into the endzone.
And while the Vikings did manage a respectable rushing attack last year without him, Peterson’s presence in the lineup this year (provided he actually shows up), will be a tremendous boon for second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
New England Patriots: Rob Gronkowski, TE
As great a quarterback as Tom Brady is, the Patriots are not nearly as potent offensively when Gronkowski is out of the lineup.
All you have to do is look at his touchdowns-to-starts ratio, which is set currently at 1-1. In 54 career starts, Gronk has 54 touchdown receptions. For anyone not familiar with historical standards, Gronkowski is in a league of his own.
New Orleans Saints: Brandon Browner, CB
Rob Ryan’s defense shocked the league in 2013, but without the necessary talent on the back end, New Orleans struggled to defend the pass last year. The Saints ranked No. 25 in passing yards allowed in 2014 and gave up 26.5 points per game.
This prompted the team to pursue one of the league’s biggest and baddest cornerbacks in Browner, who helped the Patriots win Super Bowl last year.
At 6-foot-4 and 221 pounds, Browner is built like a linebacker/safety, but he has the speed and agility to play on an island to shut down the elite receivers of this league. If the Saints have any hope of getting back to the form we saw in 2013, then Browner must stay on the field.
New York Giants: Odell Beckham, Jr., WR
As amazing as Victor Cruz has been in his career, he will not be Eli Manning’s first option in the passing game when he returns from injury. That honor is undoubtedly Beckham’s after the electric receiver blew the hinges off the NFL as a rookie.
Consider these jaw-dropping numbers from his rookie campaign: Beckham averaged eight catches for 109 yards and a touchdown per game.
And he was playing on a couple of bad hamstrings…
Let that sink in for a minute.
Beckham routinely shocks scouts with his insane quickness in and out of breaks, and he has the speed to stretch the field. Despite his diminutive stature (5-foot-11 and 198 pounds), he is one of the true giants of the league at the wide receiver position.
New York Jets: Darrelle Revis, CB
Like Watt, Revis requires little explanation.
Despite Richard Sherman’s claims to the contrary, Revis is still the undisputed king of the league’s cornerback hill. He can play all over the field, unlike Sherman, who is mostly confined to the left side. Revis is also the prototypical press-man corner NFL general managers dream of in their sleep.
The most underrated aspect as it concerns Revis is his ability to turn interceptions into huge plays. During the 2011 season, he returned one interception 100 yards for a touchdown. He makes every team he plays for immensely better on defense.
Oakland Raiders: Charles Woodson, S
Every defense needs a quarterback, just like the offense.
For the Raiders, there is no doubt Woodson is that leader. He is the man who sets everyone else up for success, lining up his teammates before the snap.
Even at the age of 38, Woodson is still fast and athletic enough to make impact plays that turn games in favor of his team. He intercepted four passes last season and even managed to sack the quarterback once.
A first-ballot Hall of Famer when his five-year window comes up after retirement, Woodson is already a legendary figure in league history.
Philadelphia Eagles: DeMarco Murray, RB
If Chip Kelly’s offense is going to dominate the league this year, then Murray needs to stay on the field for the Eagles. The NFL’s leading rusher last year, Murray will be the focal point for Kelly this year. Kelly’s offense has always been predicated on a high-volume rushing attack, which suits Murray’s game perfectly.
He carried the load for Dallas two years in a row and led the league last season with 1,845 yards on the ground. In the past two years, the former Cowboy put up 2,966 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns.
That kind of production cannot be replaced, which is why Murray is an easy choice for this list.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Antonio Brown, WR
Looking at Pittsburgh’s roster, one thing is abundantly clear: The Steelers aren’t going to win games with defense in 2015. Pittsburgh is going to need to score a lot of points to win games, and while Le’Veon Bell will be a big part of the offense, everything revolves around Ben Roethlisberger and Brown.
When Mike Wallace left for Miami via free agency, many wondered if Brown would be able to pick up the slack in his absence. Brown answered that question with two ridiculous seasons, racking up 239 receptions for 3,197 yards and 21 touchdown catches.
Are you kidding me?
Those numbers are beyond outstanding, and all the more so when you consider Brown is only 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds. He abuses cornerbacks with quickness and slick route-running to gain separation and is exceptional after the catch.
San Diego Chargers: Eric Weddle, S
Safety play is so important in the NFL these days—especially in the AFC West. With Peyton Manning, Derek Carr and Alex Smith, to a lesser extent, to contend with, the Chargers rely on Weddle to keep the secondary in line and combat the aerial assaults they face on a regular basis.
Thankfully for San Diego, Weddle is one of the best in the business.
Though he is listed as a free safety, Weddle can play in the box as well. He isn’t the biggest guy, at 5-foot-11 and 203 pounds, but he racks up tackles every year in addition to his fine play on the back end. It is for this reason that Weddle continues to impress the folks at Pro Football Focus, earning the highest grade for all NFL safeties last year (via Pro Football Focus, subscription required).
San Francisco 49ers: Vernon Davis, TE
Polling 49ers fans, most seem to think Aldon Smith is the most valuable non-quarterback on San Francisco’s roster. After doing some soul-searching, however, it seems clear that Davis is the player that will influence San Francisco’s fate the most in 2015.
Davis was invisible in San Francisco’s offense last year. He held out of training camp for a new contract—a contract he never did receive—and then had the dropsies all season long. It was a tremendous regression for one of the game’s great tight ends. He ended with just 26 catches for 245 yards and two touchdowns.
Remember, this is a guy who has caught 13 touchdowns in a season twice.
If he can return to form, then the 49ers will be much more effective on offense than they were a year ago, which appears to be a necessity given the team’s many defensive losses this offseason.
Seattle Seahawks: Richard Sherman, CB
There are more than a few stars on Seattle’s roster, but none of them impact every game like Sherman (no disrespect intended to Marshawn Lynch). Quarterbacks have learned through difficult lessons to avoid throwing at the defensive back almost entirely.
Sherman played in 989 snaps last year, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), allowing just 31 catches while being thrown at 65 times. That works out to a completion percentage of just 47.7 percent, and quarterbacks earned a passer rating of 48.4 throwing at Sherman.
Take him out of the lineup and Seattle’s defense won’t be nearly as effective against the pass, which is the biggest strength of the team that has made it to the Super Bowl the past two seasons.
St. Louis Rams: Chris Long, DE
Heart and soul gets tossed around an awful lot about NFL players, but Long truly embodies this moniker for the Rams. One of the most steady leaders in the league, Long has been a stalwart for St. Louis since joining the team in 2008 out of Virginia.
His value can be quantified by the simple fact that the Rams truly suffered without him in the lineup last year, when he missed most of the season with an ankle injury.
Nobody suffered more than fellow pass-rusher Robert Quinn, who saw his sack totals diminish by nearly half from the year before without Long playing opposite him on the line. And it would have been much worse if not for the three sacks Quinn logged against the hapless Raiders in Week 13.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Gerald McCoy, DT
Though maybe not quite on the extraordinary level of Suh, McCoy is still one of the league’s top interior linemen. He is the premier pass-rushing defensive tackle in the NFL and is not a liability against the run. In the past three seasons with Tampa Bay, McCoy has logged 23 sacks, which is phenomenal for a 4-3 defensive tackle.
Where McCoy truly shines, however (and this separates him from Suh, who is a pure mercenary), is as a vocal leader for his team. He played with a broken hand before being placed in the IR with a knee injury, knowing full well the pain would be ridiculous.
“Being one of the leaders of the team and the defense, it’s obviously better if I’m out there,” he said after breaking his hand, via ESPN.com. “Me personally, anybody that knows me knows I’m going to fight until I can’t fight anymore.”
While dealing with a rash of injuries last season, McCoy continued providing an emotional spark for his team, despite the fact that the Buccaneers couldn’t buy a win. He ended the season with 8.5 sacks and one forced fumble, playing in 13 games.
Tennessee Titans: Brian Orakpo, OLB
The Titans hired Dick LeBeau to run their defense, and his 3-4 scheme is predicated on getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. If that scheme is going to be effective this upcoming season, then Orakpo will need to come up big for Tennessee.
When healthy, Orakpo is an extremely effective pass-rusher. In his four healthy seasons, the former Texas Longhorn has averaged nearly 10 sacks and has also shown a propensity for creating turnovers with five forced fumbles and three recoveries.
His biggest issue since entering the league in 2009 is that he has suffered two season-ending injuries, both of which were torn pectoral muscles. If (and history suggests it is a big if), Orakpo can play all season for the Titans, then Tennessee will be in great shape to improve upon its abysmal record of a year ago.
Washington: Ryan Kerrigan, OLB
One of the best pass-rushers in the league, Kerrigan is highly under-appreciated by the national media.
The former Purdue Boilermaker is coming off a career year, when he sacked opposing quarterbacks 13.5 times to finish No. 7 overall in that department. Per Pro Football Focus, he was even more effective than that number indicates, finishing just behind Justin Houston with 51 total quarterback pressures (via Pro Football Focus, subscription required).
To put that in perspective, the next-best player on the list was Dwight Freeney, with 40.
Kerrigan will miss a portion of team OTAs after undergoing a minor arthroscopic procedure to relieve pain in his left knee, but he is expected to be ready for training camp.
Photo: USA Today Sports