It’s been a brutal season for injuries in the NFL. Way too many teams have already learned the hard way which player they would nosedive without.
The latest casualty is Carson Wentz. The Eagles’ second-year signal caller had his season cut short when he tore his ACL in his team’s Week 14 win over the Rams. It was cruel timing because that win clinched the NFC East for the Eagles. Now they’ll venture into the postseason with Nick Foles behind center instead of Wentz, who was playing at an MVP level before his injury.
Every team has at least one player it can’t win without — and while it’s often the quarterback, that’s not always the case. We asked our team sites around the SB Nation network to weigh in on which player their teams can’t afford to lose. Some thought about what that meant for the rest of this season, while others answered with an eye toward the future.
Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan
The Falcons have several irreplaceable players, but none more so than the 2016 NFL MVP:
Even in a down year, he’s only had a couple of genuinely lousy games (the last one against the Saints being the best/worst example) and has overcome some bad luck to keep things humming for this offense. Things could be so much better, both for Ryan and the offense at large, but subbing out Ryan for Matt Schaub would be absolutely catastrophic for the team.
The downgrade in talent from Ryan to any other option — not to mention how vital the quarterback position is — makes him the team’s most important player. I shudder to think of what this offense would look like without him, even if the Falcons did finally lean on Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman to get the job done.
For more, check out the entire entry at the Falcoholic.
Baltimore Ravens: Joe Flacco
Even if he hasn’t been elite this season, Flacco’s better than Ryan Mallett:
In a game riddled with injuries, it’s up to the big men and the tallest among them, to stay healthy and make great decisions. It’s up to the offensive line, and Joe Flacco himself, to stay healthy, stay smart, and stay protected. Throw away that football when the pocket succumbs to the pressure, don’t take the terrible slides (please Joe...), and go out there and win these final matchups.
Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton
The Panthers would be S.O.L. without Newton (and less fashion conscious):
Simply put, the Panthers are not a playoff team without Cam Newton under center. Newton has the ability to take over a game and carry the team when it needs him to, as we saw last Sunday against the Vikings when he set up the go-ahead score late in the fourth quarter with a 62-yard dash to the 8-yard line. No other quarterback on the Panthers roster can come close to duplicating that kind of threat.
Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford
The Lions would be doomed without Stafford, so the real question might be: Who is the player behind Stafford they can’t afford to lose?
Last year, Stafford got all of the credit for the Lions’ nine wins, and rightfully so. In eight of those nine wins, he orchestrated fourth-quarter comeback drives, setting an NFL record. He did so with the worst-ranked defense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and a bottom-10 running game.
This year, Stafford hasn’t been awarded the same attention. He hasn’t had as many of the flashy comebacks and, at times, he’s been given some help from his defense in the form of turnovers.
But Matthew Stafford may be more irreplaceable than ever. The Lions cut loose Dan Orlovsky in the offseason, leaving Jake Rudock as their backup quarterback. Rudock has thrown only five career NFL passes and one of those was a pick-six.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles
Wait, really? (Yes, no joke.)
Blake has flipped a switch as of late, and his last two games have been two of the best of his career — and last week’s against the Seahawks I’d call his best ever. With him playing good (not average, legitimately good) football, this team is a Super Bowl contender.
Los Angeles Chargers: Philip Rivers
Rivers is having an MVP-caliber season — maybe the best of his career — after a shaky start:
This team goes as Rivers goes. Through four games, many of us were on the bandwagon to move on from Rivers. Over the last four weeks, no one has been better, and his team looks like (arguably) the scariest team in the league. If Rivers keeps playing at this level, the Chargers will be unstoppable in the playoffs.
New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees
There’s not even a question:
Brees has missed one game due to injury in his Saints career, which saw Luke McCown step in to perform admirably against the Panthers in 2015. So it’s not out of the question that Daniel could do well, but Brees and Sean Payton go together like peas and carrots. They have for over a decade, and they make for a dangerous duo.
Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz
We’re sorry, Eagles fans:
Wentz was our great hope. He was going to prove all his doubters wrong and not only win the NFL MVP, but the Super Bowl MVP as well. Or at least he had a real shot at that.
Wentz will get back there one day. He will. This guy is too special to fail. His talent. His work ethic. His leadership. His resolve. His faith. Everything he’s shown this season is the makings of a championship quarterback. Heck, he might even lead the Eagles to building a dynasty. He’s shown the capability of being that good.
The wait for his return will be long and arduous. But it’s impossible not believe him when he says he’ll be back better than ever.
Tennessee Titans: Marcus Mariota
He’s taken a step back this season, but the team still needs Mariota:
There has been a lot of debate around here about Marcus Mariota over the last six weeks or so. Some people are ready to give up on him and draft a quarterback (which is absurd), but I think we can all agree that he is the one player the Titans cannot afford to lose. Just look back to Matt Cassel’s second half performance against the Texans and start against the Dolphins. There was talk in camp that Cassel might not even make the team. We definitely don’t want him out there for any extended period of time.
Washington: Kirk Cousins
The team may not agree, but Hogs Haven thinks Cousins is indispensable:
The official position of Hogs Haven is that Kirk Cousins must be paid and brought back to (Washington) if the team is to have any chance of progress and contention. It’s the single most responsible move (Washington) can make to maintain relevance in the division, conference and league.
For more, check out the entire entry at Hogs Haven.
Buffalo Bills: LeSean McCoy
Buffalo’s offense runs as Shady McCoy does:
LeSean McCoy is the undisputed backbone of the Buffalo Bills. As one of few teams that consistently run more than they pass, the Bills rely on the legs of their backfield like few other rosters. Shady’s continued ability to make defenders lose their shoes makes him a true threat on every snap. Despite nearing the dreaded wall of 30 years old, McCoy gives fans a show and defensive coordinators headaches nearly every week.
Cincinnati Bengals: A.J. Green
Without Green the Bengals have no offense:
There may be a minority of the fan base that won’t understand this, and they may think a receiver isn’t that valuable to a team. Most of the time you’re right, but a receiver like Green doesn’t come along every day. He is what makes this offense tick. He is the player who makes everything on the Bengals offense work.
For more, check out the entire entry at Cincy Jungle.
Cleveland Browns: Isaiah Crowell
Crowell is the Browns’ only hope, fading as it may be, to get a win this season:
Over his past six games, he’s averaging 5.2 yards per carry. Last year was his first 100-plus yard rushing effort of the season, and he’s not wearing down. He’s still hungry to prove himself in a contract year, and I’m sure he even believes if given the opportunity, he could be a 1,000-yard back to close out the season.
Green Bay Packers: Davante Adams
Adams looked like a top WR even with Brett Hundley throwing him the ball:
While Nelson’s production practically vanished during Brett Hundley’s stint as the starting quarterback, Adams actually saw a slight uptick in his. In the five games before Rodgers’ injury, Nelson averaged just under six targets, four receptions, and 46 yards per game, but had six total touchdowns. Meanwhile, Adams was getting a bit less than eight targets, five receptions, and 57 yards per game, with four scores. Even before Rodgers’ injury, the stats showed Adams taking over the mantle of WR1.
Houston Texans: DeAndre Hopkins
The Texans have been dealt blow after blow on the injury front, most notably when they lost Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt for the season. Losing Hopkins would be catastrophic:
Me, I’m going with DeAndre Hopkins. I tremble at the thought of the Texans’ offense even attempting to move the ball without his otherworldly talents. I say Nuk’s the player the 2017 Houston Texans as currently constructed could least afford to lose. You?
Kansas City Chiefs: Travis Kelce
Arrowhead Pride cut Alex Smith out of the equation and landed on the tight end:
He lines up everywhere, he is the best player at his position, and he can be a security blanket for Alex Smith. He had all those things before, but the touchdowns weren’t coming in droves. They are starting to this year as he already has a career high with seven touchdowns this season.
Los Angeles Rams: Andrew Whitworth
The difference Whitworth makes for the offense and Jared Goff has been obvious:
It’s not just his individual value on the field which he has proved and re-proved nearly every game this season. It’s not his value off the field having helped his previous team, the Cincinnati Bengals, to six postseason appearances evidenced by his stark poise after the Rams’ Week 11 loss to the Minnesota Vikings to suggest the Rams “needed” the adversity the loss posed.
It’s all of it and how irreplaceable he is.
Minnesota Vikings: Riley Reiff
The Vikings got a huge scare when they thought they might be without left tackle for a while.
Thankfully, we found out a few days ago that Reiff’s injury is not as bad as the team officially feared, which can be taken as a positive. In a perfect world, Reiff would have a few weeks to heal up, and if the Vikings can lock down the NFC North sooner rather than later he might get that opportunity. If the Vikings want to go anywhere in the postseason, they absolutely need Riley Reiff to be manning the left tackle spot in this offense.
New England Patriots: Rob Gronkowski
The Patriots wouldn’t be the Patriots without Tom Brady, but Gronk is the best choice not named Brady — especially when they lost to the Dolphins without him:
Gronkowski opens up the field for everyone. He draws the safety help away and allows Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan to get single coverage deep down the field. He is the best blocking tight end in the NFL and creates lanes for the running backs. He can run up the seams and open up pockets underneath for Danny Amendola. He’s also pretty good at making impossible catches on a regular basis, and Brady missed having a player like that on Monday night.
For more, check out the entire entry at Pats Pulpit.
New York Giants: Odell Beckham Jr.
Big Blue View’s readers voted, and Beckham was the clear winner:
Beckham is a great player, and there is a solid argument that with a limited offensive system and a poor offensive line the Giants haven’t didn’t use him well enough while he was healthy the past couple of years. The Giants weren’t a good offense with Beckham last year, 26th in the league at 19.4 points per game. In the four games he played this season, the Giants averaged 17.3 points.
For more, check out the entire entry at Big Blue View.
New York Jets: Robby Anderson
Anderson may be the only big-play threat the Jets have right now:
At this point, I think I would have to say Robby Anderson is the player the Jets could least afford to lose. To the extent this team has a big play threat on offense, Anderson is it. It isn’t exactly a dynamic unit with Anderson in there. Robby has developed into one of the better deep threats in the league this season so taking him out would have an impact. At this point, he is the only above average wide receiver on the team.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Le’Veon Bell
The offense could probably survive without Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown. But not Bell:
No one wants to see any of Pittsburgh’s playmakers injured, but when looking at the overall roster, and depth, there is no way to replace Bell. Roethlisberger would be replaced by Landry Jones and/or Joshua Dobbs, but if Bell is healthy he is capable of keeping the team afloat with his running, and receiving, skills. Antonio Brown certainly is as dynamic as they come, but there is only so much he can do from the receiver position.
Seattle Seahawks: Doug Baldwin
Because Russell Wilson is too predictable of an answer, Field Gulls decided to highlight Wilson’s favorite target:
Baldwin’s been with the team since 2011, making him one of the most experienced Pete Carroll students in the system. He’s a veteran leader in the locker room, on the field, and when standing in the vicinity of a microphone. He’s also just an exceptional football player, perhaps the best slot receiver in the NFL and easily the best receiver on the Seahawks.
For more, check out the entire entry at Field Gulls.
Arizona Cardinals: Chandler Jones
The Cardinals have already been hit hard by injuries, but they can’t afford to lose their Defensive Player of the Year candidate:
Jones has 38 negative plays accounted for in the NFL, most of any player in the league. He leads the league in both tackles for loss and sacks.
He also is the guy who consistently makes a big play when you need it. We’ve seen the sack fumbles; sometimes his teammates aren’t close enough to help him recover, but he’s giving his team a chance.
Dallas Cowboys: Sean Lee
Unfortunately, they’ve often been without him. But his football IQ is impossible to replace:
Watch how many times Lee scans the offense pre-snap, then lifts his arm to tell the defense which direction the play is going. Or watch him point to a specific player who is going to get the ball. Or watch him shift the defensive line, or move a player in the secondary to the right spot. It seems like more than not, he knows exactly what play the offense is going to run before they run it. No other linebacker on the team, or defensive player in general, has that ability to the same degree that Lee does.
Miami Dolphins: Ndamukong Suh
They’re another team that’s had to deal with too many injuries this year, but losing Suh would break the Dolphins:
The five-time Pro Bowl player dominates the middle of the line of scrimmage, allowing Jordan Phillips as the other defensive tackle, along with defensive ends Cameron Wake, Andre Branch, and Charles Harris to create pressure from the sides. Suh continues to show why he is among the best interior defensive linemen in the league, and he really sets the tone for the defense.
For more, check out the entire entry at the Phinsider.
Oakland Raiders: NaVorro Bowman
Bowman is on just a one-year deal, but the Raiders need to bring him back next season:
The former All Pro middle linebacker was signed to a one-year deal earlier this season after being released by the 49ers. Three days after coming across the bay, he was named the starter and has led the team in tackles six out of his seven games in Oakland. His 98 tackles (61 with the Raiders) is most of anyone on the team by a wide margin. He also has one of two team interceptions and a fumble recovery.
Having finally found a bona fide and productive middle linebacker, they can’t afford to just let him walk away now, re-opening the team’s annual gaping hole at the middle linebacker spot.
Protecting the future
Chicago Bears: Mitchell Trubisky
Trubisky is the Bears’ most important player this season and gives them a reason to be optimistic about the future:
Ever since the first round of the 2017 NFL draft came to a close, it has been obvious that the Bears plan on making quarterback Mitchell Trubisky the face of the franchise. After decades of uninspired play at the quarterback position, Trubisky represents a beacon of hope that the city of Chicago hasn’t seen in a long time. He is expected to be with the team for the long run and turn around a franchise that hasn’t won more than eight games in a single season since 2012.
Denver Broncos: Cody Latimer
Latimer is a special teams star for the Broncos who’s set to be a free agent:
Add in the fact that he is just 25 years old and finally starting to find his legs as a wide receiver and you have a strong candidate for your number three guy on the field. After being inactive from Weeks 4-7, Latimer returned to the field and began contributing as a wide receiver. He has tallied 16 catches for 227 yards and a touchdown.
Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck
We’ve already seen that Luck is impossible to replace. As long as he recovers, the Colts can’t walk away from him.
Without Luck there is another period of transition and rebuild with question marks at the most important position on a football field. All of the other pieces you get might not amount to anything without that final piece. Ask the Chicago Bears. Ask the Jacksonville Jaguars. Ask the Denver Broncos.
There are exceptions to every rule but the Colts cannot afford to lose Andrew Luck if they hope to have any chance to compete for the multiple championships Jim Irsay has been promising since he was drafted.
For more, check out the entire entry at Stampede Blue.
San Francisco 49ers: Jimmy Garoppolo
Niners Nation wouldn’t part with the 49ers’ quarterback of the future, even for both of the Browns’ first-round picks:
Garoppolo is not a “sure” thing, but he’s more of a sure thing than a college quarterback is right now. Garoppolo has nearly four full seasons in the NFL, and while he only has four starts under his belt, he spent over three seasons getting mentored by Tom Brady. No college quarterback can match what Garoppolo has in his favor right now.
For more, check out the entire entry at Niners Nation.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Noah Spence
The Bucs could desperately use Spence, but only if he gets healthy and develops:
The Bucs’ pass-rush is anemic and arguably the worst in the NFL this year. They have exactly one player on the roster who’s capable of being a dynamic edge-rusher, and that’s Noah Spence—he has the speed, and the ability to turn that speed into power, to turn into a quality edge-rusher.
Unfortunately, Spence has spent the past two seasons dealing with a recurring shoulder injury, which landed him on injured reserve this year. It’s robbed him of precious development time, and the Bucs of a competent pass rush. Not that Spence could produce that all by himself, but the Bucs can’t produce one without him.
For more, check out the entire entry at Bucs Nation.