We know that you can’t win consistently without a top quarterback. But they aren’t the only players who consistently make a difference for NFL teams.
For the purposes of this list, we’ll be looking at players who are just as important to their team’s success as the guys throwing the ball. These are the most indispensable players for their respective teams, outside of the franchise quarterbacks in the league.
Dallas Cowboys: Tyron Smith, left tackle
The Cowboys found out just how important Smith is the last couple of years when he missed time due to injuries. Especially last year, Dallas’ offense really went into the pits when Smith was unable to play — Adrian Clayborn says hello, by the way. Smith is the catalyst for Dallas’ offense, both in the run game and on passing downs. He’s one of the best left tackles in the game today, and when he’s removed from the equation the Cowboys are just average.
New York Giants: Odell Beckham Jr., wide receiver
After all the hubbub about a potential trade, it sure looks like OBJ is going to remain in New York for the 2018 season. And that’s a good thing. Because, let’s be honest, aside from his diva-like tendencies, he’s one of the truly elite playmakers in the game today. Eli Manning’s stats with and without Beckham roaming the field are a stark reminder of just how valuable this young man (still just 25) really is.
Philadelphia Eagles: Fletcher Cox, defensive tackle
Lane Johnson is a candidate for this spot, but in the end we went with Cox, because there aren’t many interior defensive linemen in the NFL who generate as much havoc on a regular basis as this guy. He’s a wrecking ball in the middle of Philly’s defense, both against the run and pass. Teams that can consistently apply pressure from inside tend to have the most success at thwarting opposing quarterbacks. Cox allows Jim Schwartz to have a lot of fun dialing up plays for the Eagles, who are darn good up front all around.
Washington Redskins: Trent Williams, left tackle
When healthy, there aren’t many left tackles in the NFL who can hold a candle to Williams. He’s a behemoth lane-paver in the run game and one of the best pass-blocking tackles in the league. Unfortunately, Williams has a penchant for getting banged up. And when he’s not in the lineup, Washington’s offense suffers in a big way. Hopefully for Alex Smith and Co. this year, the six-time Pro Bowler will play a full 16-game season.
Buffalo Bills: LeSean McCoy, running back
Especially this year, which will either see A.J. McCarron or a rookie under center, McCoy’s value to Buffalo’s offense is undeniable. He’s still one of the best running backs in the NFL at gaining yards where there is no apparent room to make gains. His lateral agility and vision serve him extremely well, as does his raw acceleration, speed and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. McCoy will be facing an even bigger challenge than usual this year, especially because Buffalo has lost significant talent on the offensive line. But if he’s healthy, he’ll continue to be the engine that drives the offense.
Miami Dolphins: Cameron Wake, defensive end
Given the exodus of top talent in Miami this offseason, Wake almost lands here by default. Incredibly, he’s returned to his All-Pro form even after suffering a torn Achilles tendon in 2015. In the two years since, Wake has racked up 22 sacks to lead Miami’s defense. At the age of 36, Wake’s days as an elite pass rusher are likely numbered. But so far Father Time hasn’t begun to slow this man down.
New England Patriots: Dont’a Hightower, linebacker
It’s not coincidental that New England’s defense fell apart last year while Hightower was out with a torn pectoral muscle. Though he ended up playing five games early in the season, 2017 was pretty much a lost campaign from the start, as Hightower dealt with a knee injury even before hitting IR with the torn pectoral. One of the best run defenders in the game today, Hightower is also dangerous rushing the passer. If he’s back to full strength and has a healthy season, then the Pats should be much better up front.
New York Jets: Leonard Williams, defensive end
Let’s be honest, overall the Jets are a huge work in progress. There aren’t many legitimate players to choose from, but at least we have one in Williams. A former first-round pick out of USC, he’s lived up to his draft slot with three rock-solid campaigns for Gang Green. Stats don’t do him justice, as Williams does plenty of dirty work that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. Still, he’s racked up 178 tackles, 12 sacks and an interception since the start of the 2015 season.
Chicago Bears: Kyle Fuller, cornerback
There’s a good reason Chicago backed up the Brink’s truck for Fuller this offseason in free agency — he’s a darn impressive young cover man. Originally a first-round pick in 2014 out of Virginia Tech, the only real blemish on Fuller’s resume is a lost 2016 season due to a knee injury. In all three seasons as a pro, he’s been the best cornerback on Chicago’s roster, tallying eight interceptions, 41 pass break-ups and three forced fumbles.
Detroit Lions: Glover Quin, safety
It could be argued that cornerback Darius Slay deserves this spot. But it’s a chicken/egg scenario — is Slay good because Quin plays behind him, or is Quin good because Slay locks down one side of the field? In this argument, we’re going with Quin, who is legitimately one of the best safeties in the NFL. Since signing with Detroit in 2013, all he’s done is rack up 19 interceptions, break up 36 passes, force seven fumbles and score two touchdowns.
Green Bay Packers: Kenny Clark, nose tackle
A couple years back, Clay Matthews would have easily landed this spot. Nowadays, it sure seems like his best days are behind him. But there’s a burgeoning superstar developing on Green Bay’s defensive front. Clark, a former UCLA star, emerged last season as one of the premier nose tackles in the NFL. At the age of just 22, he’s still a pup. But this young pup is going to grow into a tremendous pro. He’s the anchor of the Packers’ defense, and should be for years to come.
Minnesota Vikings: Harrison Smith, safety
There are some fantastic players on both sides of the ball in Minnesota. But you take one of them not named Harrison Smith out of the equation and the Vikings would continue to be darn good. On the flip side, take Smith out of Minnesota’s defense and the results would be immediate. He’s the best all-around safety in the NFL right now. Whether he’s up at the line in run support or tracking down receivers on the back end, Smith makes big play after big play for the most dangerous defense in the league.
Baltimore Ravens: Marshal Yanda, guard
It was a sad day for Baltimore’s offense when Yanda was lost for the season with an ankle injury early in the 2017 campaign. One of the best offensive linemen at any position the league has to offer, Yanda is an irreplaceable cog in Baltimore’s offense. He’s a three-time First-Team All-Pro and a two-time Second-Team All-Pro who’s made it to six Pro Bowls. Those accolades speak for themselves. But Yanda is a magician in the middle of the offensive line — equally dominant in the run game and protecting Joe Flacco.
Cleveland Browns: Kevin Zeitler, guard
It’s tough picking a player on Cleveland’s roster now that Joe Thomas has officially retired. There just aren’t many players we can point to and say, “The Browns are screwed without that guy.” Well, Zeitler is one of the few proven assets who can lay a claim to that description. The Cincinnati Bengals were foolish to let him go in free agency ahead of the 2017 season. He was the best offensive linemen the Browns had last year, while Cincinnati’s offensive line fell apart without him and Andrew Whitworth.
Cincinnati Bengals: A.J. Green, wide receiver
Remember when Green was injured at the end of the 2016 season? Yeah, that absence highlighted just how much he means to Cincinnati’s offense. Andy Dalton averaged 241 passing yards per game in the six games Green missed and threw just seven touchdowns in those contests. One of the league’s most dangerous receivers, Green has put up tremendous stats since turning pro, despite dealing with a less-than-ideal situation at quarterback. One wonders just how good he could be with a franchise quarterback throwing him the pigskin.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Antonio Brown, wide receiver
The Steelers could get by without Le’Veon Bell. Running backs are pretty easy to come by, even though it’s true Bell is in a class by himself. However, if the Steelers lost Antonio Brown, it’s safe to say their offense wouldn’t be nearly as dangerous. Brown has averaged 116 catches for 1,570 yards and 10 touchdowns the past five seasons running. That kind of production is unrivaled in the NFL right now, and it’s absolutely irreplaceable if he’s not there to make all those plays.
Atlanta Falcons: Deion Jones, linebacker
It’s pretty scary to think that Jones has just played in two seasons as a pro. He’s already so darn good, yet there is much more room for him to grow into his role as the leader of Atlanta’s defense. Blessed with elite speed, quickness and instincts in the passing game, Jones already is feared by NFL quarterbacks for his ability to turn mistakes into points — he has six interceptions and two touchdowns. The more Jones develops his mental game, the scarier he’ll be in this regard.
Carolina Panthers: Luke Kuechly, linebacker
Back in 2016 when Kuechly missed significant time due to a concussion, Carolina’s defense took a huge step back. It finished that season ranked 21st in total defense and 26th in scoring defense. Fast forward to the 2017 campaign, and those numbers were up in a big way — No. 7 in total defense and No. 11 in scoring defense. Now, Kuechly being healthy wasn’t the only difference between the two seasons, but it was the most significant reason. He’s arguably the best overall linebacker in the game today.
New Orleans Saints: Cam Jordan, defensive end
Drew Brees drives New Orleans’ offense. Sure, Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara are fantastic. But Brees still makes it all work. On defense, Jordan is the man who has that job title. He’s a relentless pass rusher who has long languished without much of a supporting cast. When he finally got one last year, the Saints were suddenly dangerous defensively. Jordan has piled up 58.5 sacks the past six years, and he’s one of the most underrated pass rushers in the game today.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Lavonte David, linebacker
Speaking of underrated defenders, David certainly is one. He’s one of the best all-around backers in today’s NFL but has not received a lot of recognition because Tampa Bay’s defense has generally been awful. Blessed with outstanding speed and instincts, David’s game was at an all-time high during the 2017 season. He didn’t pile up splashy stats but did stop opposing ball carriers in their tracks an awful lot, earning Pro Football Focus’ praise as the second highest-graded linebacker in the league.
Houston Texans: J.J. Watt, defensive end
There’s a caveat to highlighting Watt here: He must be fully healthy for this to hold true. For what it’s worth, I hope we get to see Watt playing many more years in the NFL. His body has to cooperate for this to happen, and if it does he will be a shoo-in Hall of Famer when he’s finished. No defensive lineman in the NFL makes a bigger impact than Watt does when he’s on his game (here’s a great example). He’s an unstoppable force who typically treats double teams like an invitation to maul opposing quarterbacks and running backs.
Indianapolis Colts: Ryan Kelly, center
It was pretty remarkable how much of a stabilizing force Kelly was when he was inserted into the starting lineup at center as a rookie out of Alabama two years ago. A foot injury cost Kelly four games at the start of last year, and a concussion kept him out of the team’s final five games. If he’s healthy, then Luck (if he actually plays) will be in good hands with Kelly at center once again. If not, then the Colts will be in deep trouble.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Calais Campbell, defensive end
There are so many good players on Jacksonville’s roster. But when asking myself which player the team would miss the most if he were unavailable this year, it was an easy decision to choose Campbell. The Jags paid a king’s ransom to bring Campbell on board in free agency ahead of last year. And he delivered in a huge way, posting a career high of 14.5 sacks, taking to the 4-3 alignment like a fish takes to water. He’s impossible to block with one offensive lineman, so opposing offenses constantly give up leverage elsewhere trying to keep him in check.
Tennessee Titans: Jurrell Casey, defensive tackle
How much does Tennessee value Casey? This much. After inking a massive extension last year, Casey had another tremendous campaign for the Titans, racking up 60 tackles, six sacks and one forced fumble. He’s not as flashy as some of the other top interior linemen around the league but is an absolutely stalwart defensive tackle who rarely gets moved off his spot inside. Even better, he’s extremely durable, posting 108 starts the past seven seasons.
Arizona Cardinals: David Johnson, running back
When DJ was lost for the season with a wrist injury last year, the gasp of shock emitted by Cardinals fans and fantasy football owners everywhere was palpable. We’re talking about a player here in Johnson who is probably Le’Veon Bell’s only true peer in the game today, though Johnson has been doing it for less time. In his second season back in 2016, DJ put up 2,118 yards and 20 touchdowns from scrimmage. That kind of production is rare. And it’s treasured. Thankfully, it’s all systems go, as Johnson has been fully cleared for football activities once again.
Los Angeles Rams: Aaron Donald, defensive end
Last year’s Defensive Player of the Year. Need we say more than that? Okay, we will. Not only was Donald the best defensive player in the league for the 2017 season, he did that without showing up to a single training camp practice or preseason game. This 290-pound ball of fury is the NFL’s version of the Juggernaut. He’s brought down opposing quarterbacks 39 times in four seasons, which is absurd for an interior lineman. With all that said, it’s hardly surprising he’s about to be paid in a major way.
San Francisco 49ers: DeForest Buckner, defensive tackle
Don’t let his stats fool you — “just” nine sacks in his first two years — Buckner is one of the up-and-coming elite interior linemen in the NFL today. He was graded out as the sixth-best interior defender by Pro Football Focus last year, ranking fifth in pressures. Much like Kenny Clark of the Packers, Buckner is still just a pup by NFL standards, too. He’s going to continue growing into his massive frame, adding functional strength and technique to his already dangerous skill set.
Seattle Seahawks: Bobby Wagner, linebacker
Running backs don’t get by Wagner very often. He has the speed, instincts and acceleration to run down all but the swiftest ball carriers. And once he’s got his hands on them, they don’t get away. Wagner is a veritable tackling machine. He’s piled up 843 total tackles the past six seasons since being selected in the second round out of Utah State, averaging 140 per season. One of the best all-around linebackers in the game right now, Wagner also has added eight interceptions and 15.5 sacks. If he’s not manning the middle of Seattle’s defense, the entire unit suffers.
Denver Broncos: Von Miller, linebacker
Von Miller has been wrecking offensive lines since his rookie season, which resulted in him hauling in the 2011 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Since then, he’s been to the Pro Bowl six times and made All-Pro squads six times. The former Texas A&M star has accumulated 83.5 sacks in seven seasons, averaging roughly a dozen per campaign. He’s in a class almost by himself as an edge rusher and would be impossible to replace should John Elway and Co. lose him.
Kansas City Chiefs: Eric Berry, safety
After winning the Comeback Player of the Year award in 2015, Berry is in line to pursue that award a second time. He was lost for the season due to a ruptured Achilles suffered in the first game of the 2017 campaign, months after inking a massive extension. When healthy, the veteran safety is a big-play machine. In the five full seasons he’s played, Berry has 14 interceptions and five touchdowns. Without him in the lineup this past year, Kansas City’s defense fell apart completely, showing his value in a major way.
Los Angeles Chargers: Joey Bosa, defensive end
Bosa is on track to put up Von Miller-type numbers if he stays healthy the next handful of years. In just 28 career games — he missed the first four games of his rookie season after a contract dispute — Bosa already has 23 sacks, along with 111 tackles and four forced fumbles. His ability to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks had a huge impact on Los Angeles’ defense as a whole, and specifically on fellow pass rusher Melvin Ingram, who has thrived playing opposite Bosa the past two years.
Oakland Raiders: Khalil Mack, defensive end
The Raiders are in need of more help on defense, but they have a franchise cornerstone in Mack, who’s been dominant since his sophomore campaign. Since 2015, no player in the league has gotten pressure on opposing quarterbacks as consistently as this young man. He’s never missed a single game since joining the Raiders out of Buffalo in 2014, starting 64 straight contests while racking up 40.5 sacks, nine forced fumbles and four recoveries.