The modern version of the NFL is unlike any other in the past. With the advent of free agency decades ago, players simply don’t stay on the same team throughout their entire careers.
There are, however, some exceptions here. The multitudes of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks that have dominated this league’s landscape for the past decade-plus will all certainly retire with their current teams. After all, their importance cannot be overstated in a pass-first league.
Speaking of importance, numerous key defenders make almost as much of an impact as quarterbacks for their respective teams. That includes the likes of Khalil Mack, Chris Harris and Telvin Smith.
It’s in this that we look at every NFL team’s most indispensable player heading into the 2018 campaign.
Arizona Cardinals: Larry Fitzgerald, wide receiver
Whether it’s Josh Rosen or Sam Bradford under center in 2018, said quarterback is going to have one of the most reliable receivers in NFL history to help him out. Fitzgerald’s value is much more than basic stats. Putting up a combined 325 catches over the past three years is absurd for a player entering his age-35 season. But that’s not what separates Fitz from the pack. It’s his otherworldly 71.3 catch percentage that makes this future Hall of Famer indispensable. It will also continue to make him valuable until the all-time great decides to retire once and for all.
Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan, quarterback
The NFL MVP back in 2016, Ryan regressed a great deal this past season under first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. In no way is this a representation of the Super Bowl quarterback somehow being on the downswing of his career. Like pretty much every other franchise quarterback in the league, he simply makes those around him better. How else can we explain Mohamed Sanu putting up a 70-plus percent catch rate with 1,356 yards and nine scores in two seasons with the Falcons? Having put up an average of 448 yards in four seasons with Cincinnati, Sanu is one of many Falcons skill-positions players who are nothing more than a product of Ryan’s excellence under center.
Baltimore Ravens: Terrell Suggs, EDGE
A surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer, Suggs’ level of production over the course of a 15-year career that has included multiple serious Achilles injuries just isn’t natural. He put up 11 sacks as a 35-year old pass rusher last season and has tallied 20 sacks in two seasons since suffering his most-recent injury. It’s that toughness and strength that’s going to help youngsters Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams pick up the slack once Suggs does indeed retire. His consistent pass-rush ability has also helped maintain Baltimore’s status as one of the best defenses in the game despite a questionable secondary. It’s simply remarkable just how important Suggs continues to be to his Ravens.
Buffalo Bills: Kyle Williams, defensive tackle
Having existed in relative obscurity throughout his first 11 NFL seasons, Williams finally saw his Bills earn a playoff spot for the first time in his career last season. It came in a season that saw Williams start all 16 games for the sixth time. His presence along the interior of Buffalo’s defensive line continues to help others out on the edge get to the quarterback. Those names have been disposable throughout Williams’ tenure in Buffalo, primarily because of just how much he helps them out in the trenches. It’s this type of underrated impact that has Williams as one of the greatest players in Bills franchise history.
Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton, quarterback
When Cam is on his game, these Panthers are extremely hard to beat. Since the start of the 2015 campaign, Carolina boasts a 10-1 record in games that have seen Newton throw multiple touchdowns without an interception. It’s 22-15 in games that Newton has not reached that plateau. Perhaps more than any quarterback not named Russell Wilson in the NFC, these Panthers rely on the dynamic Newton to perform at an elite level. With his ability on the ground and as a true team leader, the former NFL MVP is among the most indispensable in the game.
Chicago Bears: Kyle Long, guard
With nothing else really a given along a Bears offensive line that’s acted as a turnstile for opposing defenders, Long’s impact has been felt in more ways than one. He’s missed 15 of a possible 32 games to injury over the past two seasons. During that span, Bears quarterbacks have been sacked 67 times. Back in 2015, when Long was forced from guard to play right tackle, Jay Cutler was sacked just 29 times in 15 starts. Long’s ability to play four positions on the offenseive line makes him valuable. His ability to play all four at a high level makes this former first-round pick one of the most indispensable offensive linemen in the game.
Cincinnati Bengals: Geno Atkins, defensive tackle
One thing most seem to forget regarding Atkins is that he’s almost as good of a run stuffer as he is a pass rusher. Given that Atkins has racked up 61 sacks as a defensive tackle in eight seasons, that’s a crazy realization to come to. He also makes a world of difference for those rushing the passer from the edge. Take Michael Johnson as a case study. Atkins was legitimately responsible for Johnson receiving a five-year, $43.75 million deal with Tampa Bay back in 2014. Once with the Bucs, Johnson bombed out big time and lasted only one season. That came after he tallied 11.5 sacks with the Bengals. Now back in Cincinnati, Johnson is making a similar impact. Talk about Atkins’ presence playing a major role there.
Cleveland Browns: Josh Gordon, wide receiver
Almost on par with the likes of Julio Jones and Antonio Brown in regards to the overall impact he makes, Gordon is looking to put in his first full season since 2013. A multiple-time offender of the league’s substance abuse policy, there’s little doubt that Gordon’s presence makes it easier for both the quarterback and his fellow receivers. His ability to make the contested catch on intermediate routes and take it the distance at any time makes Gordon a huge difference-maker. We’re going to see this play out in a big way for the Browns in 2018, as they rely on Tyrod Taylor and Jarvis Landry to lead this offense out of the doldrums. Gordon’s presence will magnify this even further.
Dallas Cowboys: Sean Lee, linebacker
Lee’s impact on the Cowboys can’t be overstated. Despite dealing with myriad injuries over the past three seasons, this former Penn State star has missed a grand total of eight games during that span. He sat out five games to injury last season, only to see Dallas yield an average of 30 points per game in those outings. In the 11 games that the quarterback of the Cowboys’ defense started, this unit yielded an average of 16.6 points per game. That’s simply an insane split right there. And it tells us a story of a Cowboys team that relies a great deal on this two-time Pro Bowler.
Denver Broncos: Chris Harris, cornerback
It would have been much too easy to go with Von Miller here. He’s a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP. But now that the Broncos just selected all-everything EDGE rusher Bradley Chubb in the top five of April’s draft, we have to go with Harris here. Pretty much the most underrated player in the entire game, Harris yielded a sub 55 completion percentage last season and is one year removed from giving up a 36.7 passer rating. Now that the Broncos have traded Aqib Talib, Harris takes over as the face of the team’s secondary. More than Miller, they’ll need him to perform at an elite level this coming season.
Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford, quarterback
Historically speaking, Stafford is the most important player in the history of the Lions’ franchise. He’s led Detroit to four winning seasons since 2011. Prior to that, Detroit had accomplished this feat four times in 28 years. That’s quite simply remarkable. Sure the Lions have not had a ton of success in the playoffs during Stafford’s tenure, but this organization is no longer irrelevant in the old black and blue division. More than any individual accolades or record contract, this is what has defined Stafford’s excellence in nine seasons with the Lions.
Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers, quarterback
Outside of Tom Brady, there’s not a single player in the NFL more important to his team’s success than Mr. Rodgers. It’s not close. With Rodgers having missed nine games to injury last season, Green Bay failed to make the playoffs for the first time since his initial season as the team’s starter back in 2008. In the nine games Rodgers was absent, Green Bay averaged 18 points per game and was shutout for the first time since 2006. More to the point: Rodgers-led Packers teams have averaged 31 points in his past 13 starts. This is one of the primary reasons the future Hall of Famer is an annual MVP candidate.
Houston Texans: J.J. Watt, defensive end
As much of an impact that Rodgers and Brady make on the offensive side of the ball, Watt himself has made more of an impact defensively for these Texans. With him sidelined all but five games to injury last season, Houston yielded the most points in the NFL. In Watt’s first five seasons with the team — spanning 16 starts each season — Houston finished in the top 10 in scoring defense four times. Outside of his otherworldly stats, that’s the big impact Watt makes on defense. Add in his ability to free up the likes of Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney out on the edge, and he’s the most invaluable defensive player in the game. It’s not even necessarily that close.
Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck, quarterback
We’ve seen just how bad the Colts have been without Andrew Luck under center. Last season saw the team post a 4-12 record with Luck sitting out all 16 games due to a now long-term shoulder injury. Back in 2016, Indy posted an 8-7 record in games Luck started. And despite a 2-5 mark in 2015, this former No. 1 pick won 11 games in each of his first three NFL seasons. With Luck throwing again, the hope is that he’ll be ready for Week 1. At the very least, the Colts have to be praying that he is. After all, the team is completely irrelevant sans Luck.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Telvin Smith, linebacker
Some will conclude that middle linebackers are a dime a dozen in today’s NFL. This explains why the likes of Zach Brown have turned into journeymen despite playing at an elite level. That’s certainly not the case for a player in Smith who started the recent trend of teams going with more athletic backers. A fifth-round pick back in 2014, Smith was downgraded come draft time because of his smallish 215-pound frame. All he has done since is act as the most reliable player on one of the game’s best defenses. Last season saw Smith put up 100-plus tackles for the fourth consecutive season. He also recorded three interceptions and a touchdown. That makes this dude one of the most important defenders in the NFL.
Kansas City Chiefs: Travis Kelce, tight end
Having that consistent target between the hashes and in the red zone proved fruitful for former Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith in the past. Now that the torch has been passed to Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City, we fully expect the second-year quarterback to rely even more on Kelce. A three-time Pro Bowl performer, Kelce has posted two consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. He also boasts a 70 percent catch rate during that span and is coming off a 2017 campaign in which the dominating tight end posted a 10 percent touchdown rate. Not only is he one of the game’s best tight ends, Kelce is among the most indispensable at his position.
Los Angeles Chargers: Philip Rivers, quarterback
Despite having not earning a Super Bowl appearance in his 14 seasons with the Chargers, what Rivers has done for this franchise can’t be overstated. He’s started all 16 games in each of the past 12 years, leading the Chargers to five playoff appearances during that span. Prior to Rivers’ arrival as the team’s starter, this organization had earned a grand total of four playoff appearances in a quarter century. Now in the twilight of his career, Rivers is playing the best football we’ve ever seen from him. It has the Chargers as under-the-radar Super Bowl contenders heading into 2018.
Los Angeles Rams: Rodger Saffold, guard
A key cog along the Rams’ offensive line during the lean Jeff Fisher years, Saffold is finally able to say he’s starring for a good team. And in reality, he’s one of the primary reasons for Los Angeles’ recent turnaround under Sean McVay. Here’s a guy that’s played four different positions during his eight year career. Outside of left tackle, he’s played them all pretty darn well. Now firmly entrenched in as the starting left guard, he’s one of the primary reasons running back Todd Gurley is coming off a 2017 campaign in which he earned NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors. As one of the five-best run-blocking guards in the league, Saffold’s importance to the Rams can’t be overstated.
Miami Dolphins: Cameron Wake, defensive end
A former Canadian Football League standout, Wake’s path to stardom in the NFL took a ton of hard work and dedication. It truly is stunning to realize that this five-time Pro Bowler was a training camp cut of the New York Giants in 2005 and needed four years before he got another opportunity in the NFL. Since then, all Wake has done is record 92 sacks and act as one of the game’s best edge rusher. Even at 36 years old, he’s going strong. In fact, Wake is coming off a two-year span that saw him record a combined 22 sacks. It’s this type of performance that has made him invaluable for the otherwise fledgling Dolphins.
Minnesota Vikings: Harrison Smith, safety
The likes of Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen and Xavier Rhodes might get more play than Smith for a dominant Vikings defense. That’s fine and dandy. But true center fielders from the free safety position are very rare. That’s exactly what this former Notre Dame standout has been for the Vikings over the course of his six-year career. His huge range in the defensive backfield continues to make it easier for Vikings cornerbacks on the outside, as evidenced by the 12 passes defended and five interceptions Smith put up en route to being graded out by Pro Football Focus as the NFL’s best player last season.
New England Patriots: Tom Brady, quarterback
There’s not a player in the history of the NFL that’s been more indespensible than Tom Terrific. Eight Super Bowl appearances and five Lombardi trophies since taking over as the Patriots’ starter back in 2001. During that span, Brady has posted a .781 winning percentage. To put this into perspective, the great Joe Montana boasted a .719 winning percentage during his dominating run with San Francisco in the 1980s. That’s all-time great stuff from a quarterback entering his age-41 season. But that makes Brady so amazing is his longevity. After all, the future Hall of Famer has posted a 36-8 mark with 96 touchdowns and 17 interceptions en route to leading New England to two AFC titles and a Lombardi over the past three seasons. Just astonishing.
New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees, quarterback
Pretty much on par with Brady in terms of longevity, Brees has not slowed down as he enters his age-40 seasons. It’s quite remarkable what this Super Bowl winning quarterback has done from a statistical standpoint since joining the Saints back in 2006. During this 12-year span, Brees has posted six of the 10 best single-season marks for passing yards. He’s clearly on pace to shatter Peyton Manning’s career mark within the first quarter of the 2018 season. Not only that, Brees has led the Saints to a Super Bowl title and six playoff appearances during his career. Prior to his arrival in the Bayou, New Orleans had earned a grand total of five playoff appearances in its 40-year history.
New York Giants: Eli Manning, quarterback
With the Giants have overtaken a roster overhaul in recent years, Manning gets this title by default. He’s two seasons removed from being considered anywhere near a top-flight quarterback and is coming off a disastrous 2017 season that saw the two-time champ benched in favor of Geno Smith. That’s bad. Really bad. Even then, it’s hard to ignore what Manning has accomplished in his career. Winning two Super Bowls isn’t an easy task. Given that both were against Tom Brady and Co., that’s magnified even further. It will certainly be interesting to see how Manning performs this coming season under first-year head coach Pat Shurmur.
New York Jets: Brian Winters, guard
Much like the Giants, these Jets have seen a tremendous roster overhaul in recent years. Unlike the Giants, it was pretty much needed for this team to return to relevance. While that might be a couple seasons away, New York does have a tremendous building block in the form of this fifth-year pro. Winters has started all 26 games in which he’s appeared over the past two seasons. Last season saw Winters struggle compared to 2016 while playing with a torn abdomen. But he’s going to be a key fixture to open up running lanes for the recently signed Isaiah Crowell. That makes Winters an important figure for a Jets team that will soon be relying on rookie top-10 pick Sam Darnold under center.
Oakland Raiders: Khalil Mack, EDGE
A holdout from mandatory minicamp, the Raiders might soon just find out how important Mack is to their success on defense. A former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Mack has recorded 36.5 sacks over the past three seasons. He also ranks No. 1 among players at his position in quarterback pressures during that span. That takes into account the likes of Von Miller. What’s so crazy here is the fact that despite Mack’s excellence, Oakland has boasted one of the poorer pass defenses in the NFL. With a revamped secondary under first-year coordinator Paul Guenther, we can expect Mack’s brilliance to be on full display this coming season. Though, that’s dependent on him actually reporting to camp at some point and not holding out into the season.
Philadelphia Eagles: Jason Peters, offensive tackle
How good is Peters? The 37-year-old left tackle is set to count $10.8 million against the defending champ’s 2018 salary cap. Despite this, the team decided to bring him back with a capable left tackle in the form of Lane Johnson holding down the fort on the right side of the line. That type of financial commitment to a 14-year pro is unheard of in today’s NFL. In the seven games that Peters started last season, Eagles quarterbacks were sacked a combined nine times. In the nine games he missed to injuries, the very same signal callers went down a combined 27 times. That just tells us how important this nine-time Pro Bowler is to the Eagles.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Antonio Brown, wide receiver
Let’s put this into perspective a tad. Over the course of the past five seasons, Brown is averaging 116 receptions for 1,570 yards and 10 touchdowns. Jerry Rice’s best five-year output included 105 receptions for 1,461 yards and 12 scores. Statistically speaking, Brown is entering unchartered waters here. From a team-wide standpoint, his presence has helped morph Le’Veon Bell into the best all-around running back in the game. It’s also aided in the emergence of JuJu Smith-Schuster as a reliable No. 2 receiver. With the attention Brown takes up on one side of the field, his impact is felt more in that area than the basic stats we mentioned above. That’s as clear as day.
San Francisco 49ers: Joe Staley, offensive tackle
The longest-tenured member of these up-and-coming 49ers, Staley played his way into a new contract with the team this offseason. And for good reason. Since joining the club as a first-round pick back in 2007, Staley has seen two rebuilds and a team with Super Bowl aspirations. It’s quite stunning to realize just what he’s been through. From a team perspective, Staley continues to play the role as San Francisco’s most valuable player outside of Jimmy Garoppolo. After all, he’s started all 158 games in which he’s appeared in his dozen seasons with the 49ers, earning six Pro Bowl nods in the process.
Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson, quarterback
Last year’s version of these Seahawks relied more on Wilson than any other team has relied on a quarterback in league history. That’s not hyperbole. It’s precisely what happened. Wilson accounted for 37 of the team’s 38 offensive touchdowns and led the Seahawks in rushing. He also accounted for a staggering 75 percent of the team’s total offensive output. Certainly, the Seahawks are attempting to get away from this by selecting running back Rashaad Penny in the first round of April’s draft. That doesn’t take away from their otherworldly reliance on Wilson last season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Gerald McCoy, defensive tackle
Existing in relative obscurity for an otherwise downtrodden Buccaneers franchise, McCoy has etched his name in stone as one of the best defenders in the game today. His pass-rush ability from the interior of Tampa Bay’s line coupled with an elite ability to stop the run makes it so much easier for fellow Bucs defenders. Tht’s the crux of it all. It might not show up in the boxscore for this eight-year vet, but he’s among the most indispensable in the NFL.
Tennessee Titans: Delanie Walker, tight end
Having entered the league as a wide receiver turned tight end with San Francisco back in 2006, Walker previously earned the nickname Swiss Army Knife for the stellar all-around game he brings to the table. In five seasons with the Titans, Walker is averaging 71 receptions for 831 yards and five touchdowns. Last season alone, the three-time Pro Bowler caught 67 percent of his passes while acting as one of the NFL’s best blocking tight ends. At this point, he has to be seen as the most valuable player on a budding young Titans offense. It’s not really that close.
Washington Redskins: Trent Williams, offensive tackle
There’s not too many Hall of Fame caliber offensive tackles in the league today. Now that Joe Thomas has retired, that number is down to two or three. For his part, Williams is already a likely first ballot Hall of Famer after just eight seasons in the league. With six consecutive Pro Bowl appearances, he’s acted as a dominating blindside protector for the likes of Kirk Cousins and Robert Griffin III in recent seasons. Williams will now be tasked with doing the same for new Skins quarterback Alex Smith, who is certainly in good hands when it comes to pass protection in the nation’s capital.