It's that time of year again -- time to talk about the players who are most vital to their teams. We call this list "The Indispensables," because that's exactly what these athletes are. It's all too easy to praise a guy based solely on statistics. The harder task is determining how certain organizations would fare if stripped of their biggest names.
As has always been the case, there is only one main criterion for inclusion: How a player's absence would affect his team's chances of winning games. That means not every quarterback can be on the list because some organizations have found ways to win without their starting signal-callers. (See: Tom Brady, 2008.) It also means more attention will be paid to the supporting casts and whether their teams actually can contend for playoff spots (apologies to Maurice Jones-Drew and Adrian Peterson). This isn't about who is most valuable, which generally tends to be based on productivity. It's about how devastated these teams would be if they lost any of these players for a prolonged period of time.
Most importantly, this list focuses on this season. I don't care so much about longevity, Pro Bowl honors or Hall of Fame credentials. I'm looking at what these players mean to their franchises this fall. Here, in order of importance, are the most indispensable players in the NFL this season:
1. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina: Newton enjoyed the best rookie season for a quarterback in NFL history. Even though he wasn't as consistent in the second half, few people imagined he would throw for 4,051 yards, run for 706 and accumulate 35 total touchdowns in his first year. Some people -- including yours truly -- thought he could be a disappointment if handled incorrectly by the Panthers' coaches. Now we know the truth. Newton made the Panthers relevant in one season, and he's good enough to lead them to the postseason in his second. But look out if he ends up injured. Derek Anderson is a mediocre backup and Jimmy Clausen, the team's second-round pick in 2010, is lucky to have a job still in the organization. Neither could compensate for what Carolina would lose -- both in physical ability and overall confidence -- if Newton were lost. In fact, few players could.
2. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England: It's easy to pick Tom Brady as the Patriots' representative on this list. It's wiser to go with the man known as "Gronk." As brilliant as Brady has been during his career, we all know what happened when he sustained a season-ending knee injury in the first game of the 2008 season. Head coach Bill Belichick turned his offense over to an unknown named Matt Cassel (now Kansas City's starter) and still managed to win 11 games that year. On the other hand, let's recall how different the Patriots' offense looked when an ankle injury hobbled Gronkowski in last year's Super Bowl loss to the Giants. Gronkowski clearly is the most dangerous weapon in New England's passing game, a major mismatch who wound up with 90 receptions and 17 touchdowns in 2011. You can talk all you want about the skills of fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez, but he didn't take over the Super Bowl when Gronkowski was limited. For that matter, neither did Brady.
3. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans: If I'm picking the top three quarterbacks in the league, Brees is third on my list behind Aaron Rodgers and Brady. It's a different story when you're talking about which QB means the most to his team. Brees broke the NFL single-season record for passing yards in 2011, and this year he'll have to guide an offense that won't have suspended head coach Sean Payton on the sidelines. It's hard enough to see the Saints reaching the playoffs in spite of all the controversy. It would be even tougher if anything happened to Brees. Think about it: Backup quarterback Chase Daniel has thrown eight passes in three years in New Orleans. His presence under center wouldn't create much optimism on a team that has won largely because of a high-powered offense the past three years.
4. Ryan Clady, LT, Denver: We all know what quarterback Peyton Manning can do when healthy. But the Broncos don't want to find out how he'll fare if Clady is out of the lineup. Clady has played in two Pro Bowls in four seasons, and he's one of the best left tackles in the game. He'll also play a major role in determining whether or not Manning's surgically repaired neck becomes a bigger issue. As great as Manning is, he's been successful largely because he's taken as few sacks as any starting quarterback in the league the past 15 years. His offensive line in Indianapolis protected him the way Secret Service agents guard the president. Clady will be just as vital to whatever dreams Denver has of Manning taking the Broncos deep into the playoffs.
5. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay: It's hard to drop a reigning league MVP to fifth on this list but there are two reasons Rodgers isn't higher. First, he has ridiculous talent around him. The Packers have one wide receiver who is Pro Bowl-caliber (Greg Jennings), another who is quickly reaching that point (Jordy Nelson) and two others (Donald Driver and James Jones) who could start on other teams. They also have a stud tight end in Jermichael Finley and a decent enough running game to complement that aerial attack. That supporting cast brings so much to the table that the Packers could survive without Rodgers. He sat out last year's season finale, and former backup Matt Flynn (now in Seattle) torched the Lions for 480 yards and six touchdowns. Even though Flynn is gone, it's safe to assume second-string signal-caller Graham Harrell could be productive. The Packers wouldn't reach a Super Bowl in that scenario. But they'd still be dangerous.
6. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati: If Green had as much personality as his predecessor, Chad Johnson, he'd be as hyped as any receiver in the NFL. Because he plays in Cincinnati, casual observers may have no idea how special he is. All Green did in 2011 was make the Pro Bowl in his rookie season and create excitement about what he could become over the next decade. He helped an unheralded rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton, look better than he actually is. His presence allowed the Bengals to forget about the way former starting quarterback Carson Palmer abandoned them and the antics that turned Johnson into a sideshow. Oh yeah, the Bengals made the playoffs in a season in which most experts picked them to go nowhere. Take Green away from the Bengals -- a team with no other proven wideout -- and they're not even contending. He's that good.
7. Haloti Ngata, DT, Baltimore: Ngata is probably the most underexposed superstar in the NFL, in part because he's a quiet presence on a defense filled with much bigger personalities. But people around the league know what this three-time Pro Bowler has meant to the Ravens' defense, and we'll all get a better sense this fall. Baltimore has to make up for the absence of injured outside linebacker and reigning league Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs. The Ravens have to hope this isn't the year when star linebacker Ray Lewis starts showing serious signs of aging or standout safety Ed Reed starts to break down. Ngata arguably has been the Ravens' most vital defender the past three years, both because of his interior play and the way he allows Lewis to make plays behind him. There will be no argument about his importance this season.
8. Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit: This is a tough one. On the one hand, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford had a monster season (5,038 yards, 41 touchdowns) and led the Lions to their first playoff appearance in more than a decade. On the other hand, Johnson is one of the three best offensive players in the NFL. You can't say enough about a receiver who had 96 receptions, 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2011. But numbers alone don't define Johnson. He also came up huge in three comeback wins last season, including game-changing or game-winning touchdown receptions in victories over Minnesota, Dallas and Oakland. Check the highlights of those games. All Stafford did on those plays was loft the ball in the general vicinity of Megatron, which is something that Lions backup Shaun Hill could do as well. Johnson did the bulk of the work.
9. DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Dallas: Ware is the best defensive player in the NFL for one simple reason: Nobody produces more big plays with less help. Last year alone, Ware had 19.5 sacks on a team that had 42 total. Ware was dominant even when opponents knew the most important priority for their success was containing him. That might change this season if defensive coordinator Rob Ryan can scheme ways to get other defenders to the quarterback. Until that happens consistently, you can bet the Cowboys will be praying that nothing happens to their biggest star.
10. Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets: You could make a case for center Nick Mangold as the player the Jets could least afford to lose, especially given all the issues with the offense. It's safer to go with the guy who's become the league's best cornerback. If the Jets make the playoffs, their defense will have played lights out. That defense is playing at a sublime level only if Revis is doing his thing. No cornerback in the league is as capable of shutting down receivers of all types (big, small, fast, quick, outside, slot), and that is the key to this unit's success. Revis has been dominant without the aid of a legitimate pass-rushing force on that defense. He's the rare cornerback who actually makes life easier on the guys who play in front of him. Although the Jets have another talented corner in Antonio Cromartie, it's impossible to think of them as contenders without Revis Island.