A team-by-team look at the most indispensable players (non-quarterbacks) in the division.
My basic rule of thumb on this one was to close my eyes and try to picture each team without certain key players. From there, I tried to gauge the impact on the team if each of those players was lost to injury -- or anything else.
In some cases, the answer was blatantly obvious. In others, I went with a player who might not be the best on the team, but his role and the depth situation behind him might have vaulted him over another player. In another case, I went with a player I’m not convinced is anything special, but chose him just because of the importance of his position.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: DONALD PENN
Penn’s the guy I’m not sure is all that great. But his importance was demonstrated right at the start of training camp when the Bucs broke down and gave Penn the huge contract he’d been seeking for months. The thought of putting quarterback Josh Freeman out there -- even on the practice field -- without a legitimate left tackle was just too frightening. For better or worse, Freeman is the franchise in Tampa Bay. At the very least, Penn's a decent left tackle. That means Freeman has a shot at staying upright and the Buccaneers have a shot at digging themselves out of a 3-13 hole. Besides, was there really another candidate for indispensable on Tampa Bay’s current roster?
ATLANTA FALCONS: CURTIS LOFTON
The easy answer here would be to go with running back Michael Turner, and I came very close to doing that. But you can make a case that the Falcons would be able to get by, somewhat like they did when Turner was banged up last season, with some combination of Jason Snelling and Jerious Norwood and a little more emphasis on the passing game. Atlanta’s offense wouldn’t crumble totally without Turner. Without Lofton, the defense might. People are really just starting to realize how good the third-year linebacker is. This summer, he emphatically has taken over as the leader of this defense after staying quiet in deference to veterans Keith Brooking and Mike Peterson in his first two years. Lofton’s become an every-down linebacker and the most respected man on the defensive side of the locker room.
CAROLINA PANTHERS: JON BEASON
Choosing Beason over Steve Smith is sort of like choosing Lofton over Turner. It wasn’t easy, but I’m doing it. My logic is that, even with no other proven receivers, the Panthers at least still could move the ball on offense with the running of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. If something happens to Beason, the defense is done. Beason’s moving from middle linebacker to the weak side because Thomas Davis is injured. Beason will make at least as many plays in his new spot. Bottom line on this one came when someone with another team asked, “Who do you have to worry about blocking on Carolina’s defense besides Beason?’’ The question was asked rhetorically.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: JONATHAN VILMA
This was the easiest call of all. With apologies to Jahri Evans (you can get by without arguably the best guard in football if you’ve got quality on the rest of your line and the Saints do), it took about two seconds to settle on Vilma and it’s not just because of his obvious physical skills. When I was at New Orleans’ camp, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams went off on a tangent about how cerebral a player Vilma is. He also said something like, “Jon Vilma is the Drew Brees of this defense’’. That’s good enough for me.