Quarterbacks are the cornerstone of every great NFL team. Teams that don’t have top talent at this position rarely ascend to the heights of the sport. That said, they’re hardly the only players who are indispensable.
It’s the non-quarterbacks we’re turning our gaze upon for the purposes of this article. We’ll be focusing on the running backs, wide receivers, defensive ends, defensive tackles and even an offensive linemen, among other positions, who are absolutely critical to the success of their respective teams.
Some are old, and some are new. But all are indispensable players who will help shape the landscape of the NFL in 2017.
Arizona Cardinals: David Johnson, running back
The Cardinals have some serious talent at receiver, but nobody on the roster carries more clout than Johnson. Here’s all you need to know about how valuable this youngster is: Larry Fitzgerald doesn’t think it’s going to be that hard for DJ to eclipse 1,000 yards, both on the ground and through the air.
Though, Carson Palmer might want to work on his touch when throwing passes to this phenom (stitches were recently required).
Atlanta Falcons: Julio Jones, wide receiver
The past three seasons, Jones has caught 323 passes for 4,873 yards and 20 touchdowns during the regular season. He’s one of the most prolific receivers of this era and is the key to Atlanta’s success through the air. Constantly double-teamed and sometimes bracketed by three defenders, he continuously wins battles. And his stats might become even more attractive to fantasy owners if new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has anything to say about it. Without him, Atlanta’s offense wouldn’t be nearly the same.
Baltimore Ravens: Eric Weddle, safety
It’s going to be a sad day indeed when Father Time finally manages to lay a finger on this savvy vet. After being so casually discarded by his former team (the then San Diego Chargers) Weddle put together one of his finest seasons as a pro for the Ravens last year, racking up 89 tackles and four interceptions. Now at the age of 32, Weddle leads a revitalized defense that added some key pieces, both in the draft and free agency, and could be a force to be reckoned with.
Buffalo Bills: LeSean McCoy, running back
Where would the Bills be without Shady? Well, backup running back Jonathan Williams has some people excited, but he’s no replacement. McCoy has averaged 1,486 yards from scrimmage and over nine touchdowns per season since entering the NFL as a rookie out of Pitt in 2009. Last year, in just 15 games, he racked up 1,623 yards and 14 touchdowns. Buffalo will continue to be a run-first offense in 2017, and McCoy will be its most relied-upon player.
Carolina Panthers: Luke Kuechly, inside linebacker
Put Kuechly on almost any roster and he’d be in the running to be the most indispensable non-quarterback on the squad. In 71 career games, Kuechly has racked up 453 tackles, nine sacks, 12 interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), four forced fumbles and five recoveries. Blessed with sideline-to-sideline speed, the quickness of a jungle cat and first-rate instincts, he’s a prototypical new-age NFL linebacker.
Fully recovered from the concussion that caused him to miss six games last season (a lost one for the Panthers), Kuechly has made it clear he’s not thinking about the injury and won’t even discuss it any more with media members.
Chicago Bears: Jordan Howard, running back
If the Bears have any chance of staying competitive this season, then Howard needs to continue what he started as a rookie in 2016. Last year, the Indiana product tallied 1,313 rushing yards in 15 games, breaking off 43 rushes of 10-plus yards, which was the third-most by any rookie in the past 15 years. We’re not saying Mike Glennon can’t be somewhat competent in the passing game. But we are saying the Bears won’t have an offense that scares anyone if Howard doesn’t have another big season.
Cincinnati Bengals: A.J. Green, wide receiver
Is it any coincidence that Cincinnati’s offense went into the crapper last season when Green went down with a hamstring injury? It was a rough year all around for the Bengals, but the offense was particularly affected when Green was no longer available. He’s one of the NFL’s top receivers and consistently makes Andy Dalton look better than he is. Without him, Cincinnati’s offense would be doomed to mediocrity.
Cleveland Browns: Jamie Collins, outside linebacker
The Browns are a tough team to gauge. But one player we absolutely know about who can not only ball hard but who is an invaluable part of the team’s future is Collins. He was landed in a trade with New England last year, and it didn’t take all that long for Sashi Brown to lock him up long term. One of the most talented young linebackers in the league, Collins will be a huge part of what Gregg Williams is building on the defensive side of the ball.
Dallas Cowboys: Ezekiel Elliott, running back
This is really a no-brainer, as are some others on this list. It would be easy as well to say “offensive line” instead of an individual player, but we can’t do that here. Without Elliott, the Cowboys would still have an offense that could move the ball, but it wouldn’t be nearly as dangerous. He made so many big plays on runs in which other backs would have been stuffed last year and led the NFL in rushing as a rookie. It remains to be seen, but Dallas just might have to see what life is like without Elliott, depending on the NFL’s investigation into off-field issues.
Denver Broncos: Von Miller, outside linebacker
There are some very impressive defensive players on Denver’s roster. But none compare to Miller, who is one of the top players at any position around the NFL. In his first six seasons as a pro, the former Texas A&M stud has racked up 73.5 sacks, five Pro Bowl bids, is a three-time First-team All-Pro and won the Super Bowl MVP award for his efforts against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. As if that weren’t impressive enough, after missing the playoffs for the first time in his career last season, Miller turned to the trainer from Hell to get even better.
Detroit Lions: Darius Slay, cornerback
Offensively, Detroit is pretty much Matthew Stafford or bust. Defensively, there is a lot of work left to be done for this team to get back to the playoffs. But thankfully it already has a viable No. 1 corner in Slay, who was quietly one of the NFL’s best last year. Entering his fifth season, the former Mississippi State star has developed into a defender opposing quarterbacks generally try to avoid.
Green Bay Packers: Clay Matthews, outside linebacker
The past couple of seasons have been pretty frustrating for Matthews. In 2015 he played more inside linebacker than he did on the edge, as his team had no better options. Then last year Matthews was injured, missing four games and starting just nine. As a result, his numbers have dipped considerably. It’s not coincidental that Green Bay’s defense has also suffered along the way. When Matthews is healthy and on the edge, the Packers are very dangerous on the defensive side of the ball. When he’s not, the entire unit struggles.
Houston Texans: DeAndre Hopkins, wide receiver
It would be easy to plug J.J. Watt into this spot. Except the Texans were pretty dominant defensively without the best defender in the NFL last year. So we’re rolling with Hopkins, who is one of the very best receivers in the NFL. Even with the poor play of Brock Osweiler last year, Hopkins managed to haul in 78 passes for 954 yards and four touchdowns — a significant dip in production for him, which shows just how dominant he is normally.
Indianapolis Colts: Frank Gore, running back
The Inconvenient Truth is one of the NFL’s marvels. About to enter his 13th season, Gore is 34 years old. Last year he eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the ninth time, caught 38 passes and scored eight touchdowns. There isn’t anyone on Indy’s roster behind the future Hall of Famer who can put up the kind of consistent numbers he does, and the Colts will be in big trouble if Gore finally starts acting his age in 2017.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Leonard Fournette, running back
It seems strange to include a rookie on this list, and a running back at that. But let’s be honest. There are a couple of very good reasons the Jags took Fournette No. 3 overall this year. First off, they don’t have a strong rushing attacks without him. Consequently, and leading us nicely into the second main point, the Jags cannot win if Blake Bortles (who threw five interceptions in practice Saturday) and/or Chad Henne are throwing the ball 50-plus times per game.
Kansas City Chiefs: Marcus Peters, cornerback
The AFC West is one of the most challenging divisions for cornerbacks in all of football. Just don’t tell that to Peters, who owned the top receivers in his division last year. One of the most dominant cornerbacks out there, all Peters has done since being selected in the first round in 2015 is pick off 14 passes, including two he took to the house as a rookie. As Kansas City’s pass rushers get older, Peters’ job will get harder, making him all the more valuable to his team.
Los Angeles Chargers: Joey Bosa, defensive end
All Bosa did once he finally got onto the field was put forth the most dominant effort of any rookie pass rusher in recent memory. He piled up 10.5 sacks, 38 hurries and 60 (SIXTY!!!) pressures. And Bosa did this in 12 games, only 11 of which he started. A team that hasn’t been great defending the pass in recent years, Bosa’s talents are highly prized.
Los Angeles Rams: Aaron Donald, defensive tackle
Donald is, quite honestly, one of the most terrifying interior defenders to come into the NFL in the past decade. Pro Football Focus named him the top player in all of football ahead of this season. Possessing a potent blend of size, strength (see for yourself), quickness and skill, he’s notched 164 tackles and 28 sacks in his first three seasons. Keep in mind, this is a young man who dominates inside, both against the pass and the run. Without him, Los Angeles would have an okay defensive line. With him, it’s nearly unblockable.
Now officially a camp holdout as he looks for a new deal, Donald has some serious leverage.
Miami Dolphins: Jarvis Landry, wide receiver
Odell Beckham Jr. gets all the media attention, but no player in NFL history has more receptions in their first three seasons than Jarvis Landry. He’s been astonishingly productive since coming into the league as a rookie out of LSU with OBJ. The two of them are tied atop the NFL leaderboard with 288 receptions after Year 3. Landry has added 3,051 yards, a 10.6 yards per-catch average and 13 touchdowns. Much of Ryan Tannehill’s development has happened because he has such a reliable target.
Minnesota Vikings: Xavier Rhodes, cornerback
It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that Rhodes is the best physical man-to-man cornerback in the NFL today. This is reflected in the fact he just hauled in a massive new contract that locks him up in Minnesota through 2022. Though he doesn’t have the interception totals to match Kansas City’s Peters, Rhodes is an all-around player who is still improving. He’s a big reason why the Vikings feature one of the league’s best pass defenses, a feat that wouldn’t be possible without him.
New England Patriots: Dont’a Hightower, inside linebacker
It’s impossible to list anyone on offense not named Tom Brady as “indispensable” when discussing the Pats. Defensively, there are some very talented guys on the roster, including the two main cornerbacks. But perhaps nobody is counted on by Bill Belichick more than Hightower, who earned a big-time contract in free agency, despite a health issue that has kept him sidelined this spring. Obviously the Patriots are taking extra precautions to ensure he’s healthy for the season, placing Hightower on the PUP list to open camp.
New Orleans Saints: Cameron Jordan, defensive end
This was tough, because Brees is the offense in New Orleans, and the defense is a dumpster fire. That’s not changing in 2017. However, if there’s anyone who is indispensable other than Brees, then it’s Jordan, who has been pretty much the only defender who’s consistently maintained a high level of play the past handful of seasons. Going back to his second season in 2012, Jordan has racked up 45.5 sacks, even though he’s been the only guy worth a lick rushing the passer. Take him out of the equation and the Saints would be about as imposing as wet cardboard up front.
New York Giants: Landon Collins, safety
There are receivers galore on New York’s roster, which is why OBJ isn’t listed here. There are also defensive linemen galore. But there isn’t another safety who can replace Collins, a guy who broke out in a huge way last year with 125 tackles, four sacks and five interceptions. He earned First-team All-Pro honors and was thought by many to be worth of Defensive Player of the Year consideration.
New York Jets: Matt Forte, running back
A rugged veteran of nine previous NFL campaigns, Forte isn’t the same spry back who set the league on fire during his days with the Chicago Bears. But he might be the only player who can keep New York’s offense running in any sort of cohesive capacity in 2017, especially if the Jets end up letting Christian Hackenberg swim in the deep end to see what he can do. Since landing with Gang Green, Forte has rushed for 1,711 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Oakland Raiders: Khalil Mack, defensive end
There is a ton of offensive talent on Oakland’s roster. On the defensive side? Not nearly as much. Yet no edge player was more dominant last year than Mack, whose 11 sacks don’t tell the entire story. Take him out of the lineup and the Raiders would be lucky to win half their games, even with Derek Carr’s fourth-quarter magic. Yet with him, they won 12 games and could have potentially challenged the Patriots in the AFC if not for Carr’s injury before the postseason began.
Philadelphia Eagles: Fletcher Cox, defensive tackle
Not many interior linemen are as consistently good as Cox, who isn’t talked about as much as some of the other big-time defensive tackles but should be. The past three seasons, Cox managed to combine for 175 tackles and 20 sacks. Now that he’s in Year 2 with defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, we’d be surprised if he didn’t continue improving upon his strong play as he enters his prime.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Le’Veon Bell, running back
There’s a big reason why guys like Antonio Brown and Maurkice Pouncey are begging Bell to show up to training camp as he holds out in protest after failing to land a new deal this offseason. He’s the most dangerous offensive weapon in the NFL when he’s healthy. Period. In 12 games last year, he racked up 1,884 yards and nine touchdowns. Even if Antonio Brown wasn’t in the lineup, Bell would be gashing defenses left and right. He’s just that good.
San Francisco 49ers: DeForest Buckner, defensive tackle
A lot of 49ers fans would say NaVorro Bowman is the guy here. But with rookie Reuben Foster coming on so strong, it wouldn’t cripple the defense for Bowman to be out of commission once again. The same cannot be said for Buckner, who is one of the NFL’s most impressive up-and-coming interior defenders. Last year as a rookie Buckner logged over 1,000 snaps, racking up 73 tackles and six sacks. He’s a future All-Pro and the guy the 49ers need to build around for the years to come.
Seattle Seahawks: Earl Thomas, safety
Last year when Thomas went down with the broken leg that made him consider retirement, we all got to see just how valuable he is to the Seahawks. Never was this made more clear than the playoff game against the Falcons when Matt Ryan went off to the tune of 338 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Thomas is the prototypical single-high safety in today’s pass-happy NFL. He can cover so much ground and has the instincts to match his physical skills.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike Evans, wide receiver
One of the most underrated elite players in the NFL, Evans is Jameis Winston’s best friend on the gridiron. The past two seasons, he’s caught 170 passes for 2,527 yards and 15 touchdowns, 12 of which he hauled in last season. Many of the passes Evans catches would be uncatchable for other receivers. He’s so long and tall that he has helped Winston overcome spotty accuracy at times, and he is becoming a downright dominant red-zone threat.
Tennessee Titans: Delanie Walker, tight end
Speaking of underrated players, Walker is undeniably one of the NFL’s best tight ends. Since being signed by Tennessee in 2012, the former 49ers backup has caught 282 passes for 3,349 yards and 23 touchdowns. The Titans are much more explosive through the air when Walker is in the game. Even at the age of 32, he’s still got the speed that helped turn him into a top fantasy star, a trend that should continue in 2017.
Washington Redskins: Trent Williams, left tackle
This five-time Pro Bowl left tackle has a very important job in 2017, because Kirk Cousins is on the second one-year contract in a row in Washington. Whether he plays for the Redskins in 2018 or not, Cousins will be counting on Williams to maintain his exceptional level of play to ensure he stays healthy for whichever team he’s on in the future.
When Williams was out of the lineup for four games last year, the Redskins weren’t nearly as good, both in the running and passing games. He’s quite simply one of the league’s best offensive linemen, and Washington doesn’t have a great backup plan if he’s not playing.