Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFC West [Print without images]

Friday, September 9, 2011
Players NFC West teams cannot lose

By Mike Sando

No team in the NFC West and few anywhere have a player as valuable to them as Peyton Manning is to the Indianapolis Colts.

But with Manning lost to the Colts indefinitely following neck surgery, this marks a good time to update the list of "indispensable" players in the NFC West. These aren't always the best players on their teams. They're the players teams can least afford to lose right now.

Thanks to 710ESPN Seattle for the idea. Hosts Brock Huard and Mike Salk were discussing possible candidates for the Seahawks earlier Friday. This was a conversation I wanted to take to the blog.

Arizona Cardinals

1. Kevin Kolb, QB: The Cardinals' entire offseason revolved around upgrading this one position. They liked what they saw from Rich Bartel and John Skelton during the preseason. They hope both look good in the 2012 preseason as well. But they don't want to go through another regular season without a legitimate starting quarterback.

2. Larry Fitzgerald, WR: Receivers can do only so much. The Cardinals went 5-11 with Fitzgerald getting his usual 90 catches for 1,000-plus yards. Still, losing Fitzgerald would hurt more now than in years past because the Cardinals are developing young talent at the position. They don't have Anquan Boldin or Steve Breaston to fall back on. Losing Fitzgerald would deal a strong psychological blow as well.

3. Beanie Wells, RB: Wells has only two career starts. He would not rank among the 10 most accomplished players on the team. But with backup Ryan Williams on injured reserve and former starter Tim Hightower having been traded to Washington, the Cardinals cannot afford to lose their starting running back.

St. Louis Rams

1. Sam Bradford, QB: Bradford answered the durability questions that surrounded him coming out of Oklahoma by taking every offensive snap during his rookie season. Steven Jackson remains the most respected player in the Rams' locker room, but Bradford is most important to the team's success on offense, particularly now that the Rams have better veteran depth behind Jackson.

2. James Laurinaitis, MLB: He's the quarterback of the defense and one of the best young linebackers in the league. The Rams' defense would suffer a great deal from losing other players, including tackle Fred Robbins and either starting defensive end. But Laurinaitis might be the hardest to replace, not just for his ability but also for his energy.

3. Rodger Saffold, LT: This was a tough call. Losing a starting cornerback or even rookie tight end Lance Kendricks would hurt, too. But teams can scheme around holes in their secondaries. The Rams have done that in the past. And Kendricks, though impressive so far, remains an unproven rookie. Left tackle would be the hardest position on the line for the Rams to patch. The offense would change significantly.

San Francisco 49ers

1. Alex Smith, QB: Weary fans are counting down the days til Smith is finished with the 49ers. That is understandable in the bigger picture, but even Smith's harshest critics shouldn't root for the Colin Kaepernick era to begin before its time. The 49ers do not have a veteran backup quarterback on their roster. Losing Smith this early in the season would put Kaepernick in a tough situation. The offense faces enough challenges already.

2. Patrick Willis, LB: As great as Willis has become, the 49ers would also have a hard time playing without defensive end Justin Smith. The team did keep extra defensive linemen on its roster, however. It's easier, in theory, to find 3-4 defensive ends than all-world linebackers. And with Willis set to blitz more frequently this season, the 49ers need him. Larry Grant would probably replace him.

3. Frank Gore, RB: Vernon Davis was nearly the choice here because the team has already lost one tight end to a season-ending injury. But with Braylon Edwards on the team, Michael Crabtree returning from injury and Ted Ginn Jr. reportedly looking good, the 49ers have other options in the passing game. Gore's a huge part of the 49ers' plans for a power offense. The team replaced him better than I would have anticipated last season, however. That's why Davis and Justin Smith drew consideration here as well.

Seattle Seahawks

1. Red Bryant, DE: Opposing coaches tend to take special notice of Bryant's massive frame when discussing the Seahawks' defense. "He weighs around 330 and looks every bit of it," 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said this week. It's an exaggeration to say the Seahawks go from very strong against the run to utterly helpless when Bryant isn't available. It's only a slight exaggeration, however. Bryant combines surprising quickness over short distances with sheer size to make running against Seattle difficult. The run defense collapsed without him in 2010.

2. Russell Okung, LT: I could make a strong case for including Okung atop this list, but the Seahawks have become accustomed to playing without him. Repeated ankle injuries to Okung have at least partially numbed the Seahawks to losing him for stretches. They're expecting him to start against San Francisco and hoping he'll stay in the lineup this time. But the offensive line is going to experience growing pains anyway.

3. Chris Clemons, DE: For years the Seahawks were searching for someone to give them badly needed pass-rush production. Clemons came through with 11 sacks last season despite playing through an ankle injury. I'll rank him third even though tight end Zach Miller would also be tough to replace with John Carlson on injured reserve. Earl Thomas and Marshawn Lynch also come to mind for Seattle.