- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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A team-by-team look at the most indispensable players (non-quarterbacks) in the division.
Take that parenthetical out of the above statement, and the division owns the league’s most indispensable player. No team could afford to lose its top dog less than the Colts with Peyton Manning.
But quarterbacks rank at the top of the list for a lot of other teams too, thus their exclusion here. Let's explore a division that’s likely the only one in the league that includes a pair of indispensable running backs.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: DWIGHT FREENEY
I consider Dwight Freeney the team’s second most important player behind Manning. Take Freeney away and an offense can concentrate on Robert Mathis. Remove the quarterback’s fear of the speedy rusher and then he has more time. With more time there are more confident throws. I like the Colts' secondary, but every man in it will tell you how much he benefits from Freeney’s work. Freeney affects the opposing offense's clock.
Colts president Bill Polian talks all the time about how the Colts won the Super Bowl the only season they had Freeney and Mathis together through the postseason. Mathis is a fantastic player, but certainly benefits from Freeney taking on the better pass-blocking tackle and drawing chips from tight ends and backs. The Colts actually have done well without Freeney in the lineup -- the Elias Sports Bureau says they are 9-2 without him and 90-27 with him. I still am less willing to sacrifice him than any other player on the roster except Manning.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: MAURICE JONES-DREW
Maurice Jones-Drew is an easy name to put in this slot for several reasons. He’s an excellent and productive back, for sure, but plug in backup Rashad Jennings and the Jaguars might still be able to run the ball OK. But Jones-Drew does a lot to bring the Jaguars their personality -- he’s a tough, no-excuses, no nonsense, workmanlike player. On a young team, having the singular star work that way is very important.
And he is a singular star on a team with a limited following. Without him, the volume on the national talk about ticket sales and a potential relocation would be even louder. Without him, the Jaguars would not have much of an identity. With him, there is a workhorse with a winning personality as the face of the franchise. That’s a very valuable ingredient for a young squad trying to climb out of last place. And the guy is a rugged, productive back. He accounted for 31 percent of the offensive yards and 47 percent of the offensive touchdowns last season.
HOUSTON TEXANS: MARIO WILLIAMS
The Texans are working hard to get a good pass rush from linemen other than Mario Williams in order to take advantage of one-on-one matchups that his presence helps create. The team has survived without Andre Johnson before. Take Williams away and a lot of opponents could change their blocking approach. Quarterbacks would drop back with far less worry, and have far more time to pick on young cornerbacks.
Like Freeney, Williams draws extra attention from running backs and tight ends. If one fewer pass target is available to the quarterback or isn’t available as soon, that can make a significant difference to an offense. Left tackles study extra hard to prepare for Williams. If they get beat badly on one play at the wrong time, it can be a complete game-changer. Williams had nine sacks last season with a shoulder injury and insufficient help. If he's healthy and has an improved supporting cast, he’ll be a terror.
TENNESSEE TITANS: CHRIS JOHNSON
Javon Ringer might be a solid NFL back. But the gap between Tennessee’s No. 2 running back and Chris Johnson is a wide one. Coming off just the sixth 2,000-yard rushing season in NFL history, Johnson ranks as the NFL’s most explosive player. His speed creates a fear factor that dictates defensive schemes for every play he’s on the field.
His swagger -- a nicely measured combination of confidence and cockiness -- does a lot to give the Titans their personality. Running behind one of the best offensive lines in the league, Johnson is a home run threat on every play. Defenders know if he breaks into the open field, the perfect angle won’t be enough to catch him because of his ability to pull away. And he’s not only a threat out of the backfield, but a capable pass-catcher as well. Did you see how some teams panicked when he split out prior to a snap last year?