NFL Nation: Eight in the box 062813

NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Other than the quarterback, which player could each AFC South team least afford to lose to injury? Here's a look:

Houston Texans: DE J.J. Watt. Watt was one vote short of unanimous as the NFL’s defensive player of the year in 2012. Although it’s going to be tough for him to match his numbers from last season, he’s a dominant defensive force who always has to be accounted for. The attention he draws and the motor he plays with have trickle-down effects on the other 10 guys on the field with him. It would be a different defense without him, and the pool of backup defensive ends for Houston is hardly loaded with proven guys.

Indianapolis Colts: LB Robert Mathis. Reggie Wayne ranks as indispensable. Without him, every offensive weapon on the Colts would move up a rung and be miscast -- or overcast, if you will. But Indianapolis has just one proven edge pass-rusher, Mathis. What kind of heat could Indianapolis' defense generate without the veteran, who’s now the weakside pass-rushing outside linebacker? The rush may not be good enough with him. I think it’d be a real struggle without him.

Jacksonville Jaguars: RB Maurice Jones-Drew. Tough call here. I gave serious consideration to middle linebacker Paul Posluszny (a heart-and-soul defensive guy), tight end Marcedes Lewis (because of the weak guys behind him on the depth chart) and rookie safety Johnathan Cyprien (wait until you see this guy). Losing either starting offensive tackle, Eugene Monroe or Luke Joeckel, would sting too. But presuming Jones-Drew returns to health, I expect he’ll still be a singular offensive force for this team and a guy they can't afford to lose. I like Justin Forsett, but not as the lead guy.

Tennessee Titans: LT Michael Roos. This is also a tough call. Considering the number of runs for a loss or no gain that Chris Johnson had last season and the addition of Shonn Greene, I don’t know that I’d call CJ indispensable. The pass rush is keyed around Derrick Morgan, who is due to break out. But I can’t pick someone who has not broken out yet. So it’s Roos. With Andy Levitre next to him now, Roos is expected to return to elite form and key pass protection as well as contribute to some solid run blocking.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Other than the quarterback, which player could each AFC East team least afford to lose to injury? Here's a look:

Buffalo Bills: S Jairus Byrd. The Bills have talent in several areas. But the most important player is in their last line of defense: Pro Bowl safety Byrd. Buffalo proved this point by designating him its franchise player. As a result, he is currently in a contract dispute with the Bills and wants long-term security. This is a situation that could spill over into training camp. Despite big names like defensive end Mario Williams, tailback C.J. Spiller and receiver Steve Johnson, Byrd is probably the most difficult player on the roster to replace.

Miami Dolphins: DE Cameron Wake. The play of quarterback Ryan Tannehill kept Miami competitive. But their best player last year was Wake, a Pro Bowl defensive end.. Miami’s best pass-rusher led the Dolphins with a career-high 15 sacks. What’s more impressive is Wake was the Dolphins' only real threat to get to the quarterback and faced plenty of double teams. This offseason, Miami has done a lot to help Wake. The Dolphins drafted rookie defensive end Dion Jordan No. 3 overall. Miami also got faster at linebacker with Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. But Wake’s ability to get to the quarterback is a large part of Miami’s foundation on defense.

New England Patriots: TE Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots have already lost tight end Aaron Hernandez. Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker signed with the Denver Broncos in free agency, and New England released starting receiver Brandon Lloyd for financial reasons. The only productive pass-catcher returning from New England’s top-rated offense in 2012 is Gronkowski, who is now more important than ever. The past few years, New England was able to absorb Gronkowski’s absence because Hernandez was there to pick up the slack. But that cushion is now gone with Hernandez’s release, after he was charged with murder this week. Gronkowski is coming off multiple arm and back surgeries and must stay healthy this year for New England to thrive.

New York Jets: C Nick Mangold. This was a tough choice. The Jets lack the overall talent to be a playoff team this season. However, they do have a handful of key players. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie is a Pro Bowler. But the Jets have talented young backups like Kyle Wilson and Dee Milliner, who are both former first-round draft picks. Defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson and linebacker David Harris are talented. But Jets head coach Rex Ryan has always had a good scheme to get production out of his defense. So former Pro Bowl center Mangold is the choice. The Jets' offense desperately needs Mangold's leadership and consistency in the middle. Mangold is one of the toughest players in the NFL and has played through injuries in the past. He has been their one reliable player on offense the past couple years.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Other than the quarterback, which player could each NFC East team least afford to lose to injury? Here's a look:

Dallas Cowboys: OT Tyron Smith

Smith is a great talent in his own right, a rising 22-year-old star who's quick and strong and physical enough to develop into one of the league's top tackles. His issues with penalties last season likely can be blamed on the transition from right to left tackle, and because he won't even turn 23 until Week 15 of this coming season, it's fair to believe he'll only get better. But what makes him truly indispensable is how much better he is than anyone else on the Cowboys' offensive line. Dallas has tried to patch together its line with second-tier talent for quite a while now, and it's become a major annual weakness. Using a first-round pick on Smith in 2011 and another on center Travis Frederick this year shows that it's finally willing to address it by spending more significant resources, but there's still a big drop-off in talent level to the Doug Frees, Nate Livingses and Mackenzey Bernadeaus in the room. If the Dallas line had to play without Smith, the weaknesses of the other linemen would become more apparent and more damaging.

New York Giants: WR Hakeem Nicks

We saw what happened to the offense last season when Nicks was either missing time or playing hurt. As great as Eli Manning and Victor Cruz are, Nicks at the No. 1 wideout spot is a major, versatile weapon who makes the offense function at a higher level when he's on the field. The Giants' running back corps this season is unproven, and they have a new tight end, as usual, so the wide receivers have to be the guys on whom Manning can rely. And then there's this off-field matter to consider: Nicks is the Giants' main leverage in their ongoing contract negotiations with Cruz. If Nicks is healthy and great, they can get away with offering Cruz less because he's less of a player. But if Nicks is hurt, their need to keep Cruz gets more dire, and he's likely to demand and get more.

Philadelphia Eagles: RB LeSean McCoy

When McCoy went down with an injury in the second half of last season, backup Bryce Brown showed plenty of explosiveness and big-play ability. Unfortunately, he also showed a disturbing tendency to fumble the ball at the worst possible times. Even if Brown were more reliable, McCoy would be a difficult player to replace. His running style is unique among the star running backs in the league today -- no one makes quicker cuts or finds holes more efficiently. And considering how questionable the Eagles' quarterback situation is and the extent to which Chip Kelly's offense is expected to lean on the run game and the short-passing game, there's no player on the Eagles' offense more important to their point-scoring prospects this season than their star running back.

Washington Redskins: NT Barry Cofield

The popular Redskins answer when I put this question on Twitter on Thursday was left tackle Trent Williams. And while I agree that Williams is an outstanding player whose absence would hurt the offense and Robert Griffin III, I also think Griffin's running ability at quarterback helps the Redskins combat whatever issues the offensive line may have. So in a close call, I'm giving this to Cofield, whose impact on the Redskins' 3-4 defense at the nose tackle position is a bit underappreciated. It seemed like an odd fit when the Redskins signed Cofield to play nose tackle, a position he hadn't played in the NFL, but his strength, athleticism and leadership have helped him grow quickly into one of the best nose tackles in the league and a vital piece on Washington's defensive line. If the Redskins lost Cofield, they could find someone to plug up the middle, but whoever it is wouldn't bring the same kind of speed and versatility. Cofield makes plays in the backfield that other interior defensive linemen can't make.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Other than the quarterback, which player could each NFC South team least afford to lose to injury? Here's a look:

Atlanta Falcons: RB Steven Jackson. This one was very difficult. Roddy White and Julio Jones are better and more dynamic football players than Jackson at this point of their respective careers, but the trio of White, Jones and Tony Gonzalez allows the Falcons a little leeway in terms of losing one of those three stars. If the Falcons had one standout offensive lineman, that would have been my choice, but there isn’t one player up front who stands head and shoulders above his peers. The defense isn’t in a position to lose its top players, but who is most valuable on that side of the ball? Asante Samuel? Sean Weatherspoon? A case could be made for either. And I am sure many of you are thinking, “Hey Matt, the Falcons’ offense wasn’t too shabby without Jackson last season. Happen to remember that?” Frankly, I don’t have much of a rebuttal for that assessment. But I do expect Jackson to make a major difference in his first season as a Falcon. The upgrade he represents -- in all facets of the position -- over Michael Turner is stunning. Atlanta will very soon learn to lean on its new back.

Carolina Panthers: WR Steve Smith. Charles Johnson and Luke Kuechly are extremely important to this franchise, but outside of Smith, Cam Newton has very little to throw to, which, frankly, this team should be criticized for. So Smith, even at his age (34), will be absolutely instrumental to the success of the Panthers in 2013 as well as for the continued development of Newton. Smith plays much bigger than he is and brings an attitude to Carolina’s offense. I haven’t seen any major drop-off in his play of late, but the Panthers do need to address the wide receiver position next offseason to prepare for the inevitable life without their star wideout.

New Orleans Saints: TE Jimmy Graham. Graham is poised to have a massive 2013 campaign. Remember, this guy hasn’t been playing the game very long -- and it has shown throughout his career, as Graham is still very much learning the game and the tight end position. But obviously, his talent and playmaking skills are off the charts. Few move as well as Graham at his size, and he plays the game aggressively. He is one of the best tight ends at stretching the field. He can be nasty with the ball in his hands and has a ridiculous catching radius to haul down passes that most NFL receivers cannot. And of course, Drew Brees knows this. With Brees’ pinpoint accuracy, he puts the football in spots where the defender has no chance to make a play as Graham pulls it down. The Saints have a terrific passing attack and now get Sean Payton’s great mind for the passing game, back from his 2012 suspension. The pure talent of the Saints’ wide receivers doesn’t blow you away, but their star tight end very much does.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: CB Darrelle Revis. The Buccaneers’ pass defense was far too generous in 2012. The pass rush was a problem, and that area still very much concerns me. But the cover men also were huge liabilities. That should not be the case anymore. Not only did Tampa Bay bring in the best cover man of this generation in Revis, but it also signed Dashon Goldson to pair with last year’s first-round pick, Mark Barron, at safety and drafted Johnthan Banks, who should compete for a starting spot opposite Revis. But it is Revis the Bucs need to count on. As he showed so many times with the Jets, Revis is capable of eliminating an opponent’s best receiver by himself, which essentially would allow the Buccaneers to play 10 versus 10 against the opposing offense. The ripple effect would allow Tampa Bay to blitz with more regularity, which clearly helps its suspect pass rush. That is, of course, if Revis is healthy. Hopefully for Tampa Bay’s sake, it doesn’t have to find out how indispensable Revis is before he even gets the chance to contribute.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Other than the quarterback, which player could each AFC West team least afford to lose to injury? Here's a look:

Denver Broncos: LB Von Miller. Miller is one of the best defensive players in the NFL heading into his third NFL season. He is a complete player who disrupts every facet of the game. He is special. Of course, Miller particularly excels as a pass-rusher. He has 30 sacks in 31 NFL games. Denver’s defense all starts with Miller. The team lost Elvis Dumervil in free agency. He was the complement to Miller. While Dumervil’s departure hurts Denver, the Broncos are still in good shape because they have Miller. If that changes, every aspect of Denver’s defense gets less impressive.

Kansas City Chiefs: WR Dwayne Bowe. There is great hope in Kansas City because the Chiefs think they upgraded at coach with Andy Reid and at quarterback with Alex Smith. Reid is a pass-first coach and is ready to unleash Smith. That means a lot of work for Bowe, who signed a lucrative contract to stay in Kansas City. Bowe is a huge part of the offense. All we’ve heard about in the offseason in Kansas City is the chemistry that is building between Smith and Bowe. This is where the offense is going to start. Behind Bowe at receiver are Donnie Avery and Jon Baldwin. If Bowe goes down, the receiving crew is not nearly as impressive. Thus, Bowe's presence is vital.

Oakland Raiders: DE Lamarr Houston. Houston is one of Oakland’s best all-around players. The versatile defensive lineman likely will play left end. Oakland is pretty inexperienced on the line, so Houston must set the tone. He is expected to be Oakland’s best pass-rusher as well. He must set the tone with the pass rush or Oakland will have to get creative. There is no doubt much is expected from Houston this season. If Oakland were to lose him for an extended period, it would be a crushing blow to a rebuilding defense.

San Diego Chargers: S Eric Weddle. Weddle is the quarterback of San Diego’s defense. He is a tremendous free safety. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers recently said he thinks Weddle might be the best player at his position in the entire league. San Diego has a lot of talented, young players on defense. But none is more valuable than Weddle. He is the unit’s physical, mental and spiritual leader. He gives the Chargers’ defense an identity. He is particularly valuable because the Chargers are pretty young in the secondary. Weddle will be the glue for the unit. Take Weddle out of San Diego’s defense, and there are major holes.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Other than the quarterback, which player could each AFC North team least afford to lose to injury? Here's a look:

Baltimore Ravens: Wide receiver Torrey Smith. The Ravens can't afford to lose Smith to an injury, especially with Anquan Boldin gone. Over the past two seasons, Smith has averaged 17.1 yards per reception and scored 15 touchdowns. The group of receivers who would replace him -- Tandon Doss, David Reed, Deonte Thompson and Tommy Streeter -- have 21 career receptions combined. Baltimore would go from a proven playmaker to a big question mark. The Ravens don't have to rely heavily on their wide receivers with tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson along with running back Ray Rice. And Jacoby Jones can stretch the field like Smith. But the Ravens don't have a reliable and consistent presence outside without Smith. Other areas where depth is a concern are the offensive line and safety.

Cincinnati Bengals: Wide receiver A.J. Green. This may sound like a similar situation to the Ravens, but this is more magnified with the Bengals. The one player on the team the Bengals can't afford to lose is Green. The Bengals have a good supporting cast at receiver with promising second-year target Mohamed Sanu and shifty slot receiver Andrew Hawkins. But neither is a dynamic playmaker like Green. The Bengals' entire offense changes without him, and it changes how defenses would play Cincinnati. Depth was a problem at receiver after the Bengals lost Sanu to a season-ending injury last season. In the final five games of the season, quarterback Andy Dalton averaged 205.4 yards passing with four touchdowns and six interceptions.

Cleveland Browns: Cornerback Joe Haden. The only established cornerback on the Browns is Haden. It's a major drop-off after that, which is why the Browns can't afford Haden to miss any time. Covering wide receivers was a problem last season, when Cleveland allowed 22 touchdowns to opposing wide receivers, tied for second most in the NFL. The Browns did the minimum to address depth at cornerback, drafting Leon McFadden in the third round and signing Chris Owens in free agency. McFadden is going to endure growing pains as a rookie, and Owens was benched at times last year when he was the nickelback for the Atlanta Falcons. The only other option at cornerback is Buster Skrine, who committed nine penalties. Needless to say, this is where the Browns are most vulnerable.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Offensive tackles. The Steelers will see one of their bigger fears play out if right tackle Mike Adams isn't ready to start training camp after getting stabbed twice in an attempted carjacking. Each of Pittsburgh's backup plans at tackle carry a great deal of concern. The Steelers can go with Guy Whimper, a free agent from the Jacksonville Jaguars who led the NFL in sacks allowed in 2011 with 14, and gave up four sacks in six starts last season. The other option is Kelvin Beachum, who started the last five games at right tackle for the Steelers last season. But moving Beachum to right tackle would hurt the interior of the line. Beachum has been working this offseason on becoming the top backup at guard and center after Willie Colon was released and Doug Legursky wasn't re-signed. In other words, Pittsburgh can't afford for Adams or left tackle Marcus Gilbert to get hurt.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Other than the quarterback, which player could each NFC West team least afford to lose to injury? Here's a look:

Arizona: Receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Given the expected emergence of Michael Floyd -- and I do expect Floyd to develop into a big-time receiver -- I was tempted to pick Calais Campbell as the Cardinals’ most indispensable non-quarterback. But this offense is going to be built around Fitzgerald, who is the best wide receiver Bruce Arians has ever worked with, including Reggie Wayne. Despite a dreadful season in 2012, which wasn’t his fault, Fitzgerald remains as dangerous as any receiver in the league. The offense is changing to feature him more prominently. Arians insists on moving his best weapon around the formation, so Fitzgerald has been practicing and learning every wide receiver position to better generate favorable coverages. With newly found versatility, far better quarterback play and what should be better pass protection, expect Fitzgerald to put up some giant numbers in 2013.

San Francisco: Defensive tackle Justin Smith. The 49ers have plenty of great players, but this was an easy decision for me. Just look at how much different the 49ers’ defense was for the majority of last season when Smith was healthy and destroying offensive schemes as opposed to late in the season and throughout the playoffs when he was either out of the lineup or clearly playing injured. Smith does it all, and he does it all on every snap. He is a great pass-rusher with a variety of moves that can penetrate from an interior or outside alignment. He is a superb run-defender who plays with power, leverage and great hand technique. Most of all, he makes San Francisco’s other defensive players better on every snap and demands extra attention from opposing offenses in their blocking schemes. The Niners recently extended this great player because they understand his immense value. It is surprising that every fan of the game doesn’t understand what a top-notch performer Smith truly is.

Seattle: Safety Earl Thomas. I was torn between Thomas and Richard Sherman for this distinction, but because Seattle added Antoine Winfield in free agency, I believe the Seahawks would be better equipped to deal with the loss of Sherman than Thomas, although both are among the very best players at their positions. In fact, when I projected the top safeties for 2016, Thomas’ name was at the very top of that list. Thomas is best as a center field player in the Ed Reed mold, because he reads quarterbacks and breaks on the ball very well. He also has superb overall range. But don’t mistake Thomas as a finesse player. He is quick to fill in the run game, is a rocket coming downhill and is a flat-out striker who can separate ball from receiver. Thomas really doesn’t have any noticeable holes to his game, and he might be getting better. He is the defensive player Seattle can least afford to lose.

St. Louis: Defensive tackle Michael Brockers. There isn’t just one name that stood out to me for the Rams. Chris Long came to mind, as did Cortland Finnegan and James Laurinaitis. St. Louis has so many offensive weapons now that I believe it can afford to lose one or two. Jake Long also crossed my mind, but I think people forget that Long really didn’t play very well in 2012. I expect Alec Ogletree to make a huge immediate impact on St. Louis’ defense, but he is an unproven rookie. Few know it, but Brockers is an animal -- and on the verge of stardom. Few rookies last season improved as dramatically as Brockers did during the course of the season, and this guy is simply loaded with talent. I am expecting Brockers to assert himself as a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive tackle and the best player on the Rams defense during the 2013 season. For that reason, he will be truly indispensable.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Other than the quarterback, which player could each NFC North team least afford to lose to injury? Here’s a look:

Chicago Bears: DE Julius Peppers. Peppers has been more responsible than any player for the rejuvenation of the Bears' defense since his arrival in 2010. Over that span, he has drawn top priority from opposing offenses but still managed to record 30.5 sacks and force seven fumbles. There is no substitute for a dominant pass-rusher. Perhaps most importantly, he has played through knee and other injuries to start all 48 regular-season games since the Bears signed him to a $64 million contract. It's no coincidence that defensive tackle Henry Melton has emerged to record 15.5 sacks over the same period. Without Peppers, the Bears wouldn't have a front-line player who can perform while drawing high attention from opponents.

Detroit Lions: WR Calvin Johnson. The offense would look much different without Johnson's freakish attributes. Did you realize that Johnson caught 122 passes for an NFL-record 1,964 yards in 2012 even while the Lions faced more pass-stacked sets than any other team? Imagine what he could do if defenses were forced to play honest. We have long known that there are no other NFL receivers with Johnson's combination of strength, size and ball skills. But he has brought it all together in recent years to be just as important to his team as quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Green Bay Packers: LB Clay Matthews. As is the case with Peppers, there is no substitute for a dominant pass-rusher, and Matthews has the fifth-most sacks in the NFL since his arrival in 2009. He has occasionally been limited by leg injuries, and it has been notable to track the impact of his absence -- and not just on the Packers' pass defense. Last season, in the four games Matthews missed because of a hamstring injury, opponents averaged 5.5 yards per carry against the Packers. In the first two games after he returned, that average was 3.38 yards per carry. Like Peppers, Matthews give the Packers' defense a schematic foundation that few other players could achieve.

Minnesota Vikings: RB Adrian Peterson. Let's not overthink this one. Last season, Peterson nearly broke the NFL record for rushing yards in a season. His final regular-season carry got the Vikings in position for a chip-shot field goal to clinch the playoffs. And in the three games that quarterback Christian Ponder failed to eclipse 100 yards passing, Peterson compensated with 489 rushing yards. The Vikings have built their entire offense around Peterson since Leslie Frazier took over as the their permanent coach in 2011. Peterson is the most important non-quarterback in the NFL.

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