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The NFL’s most indispensable players

Todd Gurley is carrying the Rams. (Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

In the NFL, the quarterback is usually the most important player on the field. Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, or Tom Brady have won the Associated Press Most Valuable Player of the year award in seven of the last eight seasons. The Dallas Cowboys 2015 season was torpedoed immediately after Tony Romo broke his left collarbone.  For many teams, the quarterback is the star.

[Week 10 Watch: Can the Seahawks turn it around?]

That’s why, despite being just one of 22 players on the field on any given play, quarterbacks get a disproportionately large amount of credit and media attention. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most indispensable players on the field this season, ignoring quarterbacks. And let’s start with a team that sure doesn’t have one of those star quarterbacks.

Todd Gurley, St. Louis Rams

Since entering the starting lineup in Week 4, the Rams rookie has averaged 22 carries a game for 131 yards, producing an exceptional 5.85 yards per carry average. No team has thrown fewer passes in the league this year or gained fewer passing yards than St. Louis. Incredibly, Nick Foles has failed to hit the 200-passing yards mark in any of his last seven games, despite throwing at least 20 passes in each contest; that makes him the first quarterback to meet those marks since Matt Hasselbeck in 2008. Gurley is the Rams offense, making him the most indispensable running back in football.

[Week 10 Power Rankings]

Darrelle Revis, New York Jets

A year ago, the Jets defense had the third worst passer rating in the NFL, allowing a 101.5 rating to opposing passers. This year, that average has improved to 79.0, the fourth best, and that improvement is thanks in large part to the addition of Revis. What makes the four-time first-team All-Pro cornerback indispensable is that the Jets defense lacks either an elite pass-rush (the defense ranks 22nd in sack rate) or other above-average cornerbacks. According to Mike Clay of Pro Football Focus, the website has graded Revis with a +9.2 rating in pass coverage this year, while Antonio Cromartie (-6.5) and nickel corner Buster Skrine (-5.8) have each struggled.

Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers

On every Pittsburgh pass play (including sacks) this season, Antonio Brown has produced an average gain of 3.20 yards. The Steelers are incredibly reliant on Brown, which is why he’s not only the best wide receiver in the NFL, but the most indispensable one. While Atlanta’s Julio Jones has 27 more receiving yards, the Falcons have been much more pass-happy this season, making it easier for him to gain more yards (not to mention the quarterback advantage he has enjoyed). On a per-attempt basis, Brown stands out as the clear top receiver in the league.

Rk Receiver Tm Rec Yds Team Pass Att Avg Gain
1 Antonio Brown PIT 1,002 313 3.20
2 Julio Jones ATL 1,029 374 2.75
3 A.J. Green CIN 702 269 2.61
4 Larry Fitzgerald ARI 706 275 2.57
5 Brandon Marshall NYJ 730 300 2.43
6 Demaryius Thomas DEN 745 315 2.37
7 DeAndre Hopkins HOU 870 379 2.30
8 Greg Olsen CAR 584 259 2.25
9 Odell Beckham NYG 759 352 2.16
10 Allen Robinson JAX 707 336 2.10
11 Amari Cooper OAK 653 315 2.07
12 Mike Evans TAM 538 260 2.07
13 John Brown ARI 562 275 2.04
14 Emmanuel Sanders DEN 639 315 2.03
15 Rob Gronkowski NWE 693 346 2.00

J.J. Watt and DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans

Houston is 3-5, but has two of the most indispensable players in the league. Watt was the best defensive player in football last season, but with the Texans struggling in 2015, the attention being paid to Watt has been muted in recent weeks. Yet Watt has 15 tackles for a loss this year, three more than any other player in football, and an incredible 26 quarterback hits, seven more than anyone else. Hopkins has been the only reliable piece of the Houston offense. As Adam Harstad noted, Hopkins has 54 receiving first downs this season, putting him on pace to obliterate the NFL record of 92. With better quarterback play, Hopkins would be a legitimate MVP candidate.  Then again, the same could be said for Watt.

Jared Veldheer, Arizona Cardinals

A great left tackle may never be noticed: after all, his job is to make sure the opponent’s top pass-rushers don’t have an impact on the game. Carson Palmer’s average pass this season has traveled 10.8 yards in the air, the farthest in the league according to the NFL’s Game Statistic and Information System. Head coach Bruce Arians employs a deep, vertical passing attack, and that can only work if the quarterback has time to make those throws. Veldheer has solidified a position that was a problem area for the franchise for years. Arizona ranks in the top three in points, yards and yards per pass attempt, and that wouldn’t be the case without Veldheer.

Chandler Jones, New England Patriots

New England’s top three cornerbacks last year were Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington, and none returned to the team in 2015. Concerns about the secondary have been mitigated by the dominant season up front by Jones. He leads the league with 9.5 sacks, and guides a defense that is much better than the raw statistics indicate. The Patriots are often playing with a lead and allow points later in games when the outcome is largely decided. But in the first half of games this year, New England has allowed just 56 points, the second fewest in all of football.

[The Patriots just sustained a huge loss]

Greg Olsen, Carolina Panthers

Carolina lost No. 1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a torn ACL in August, leaving Ted Ginn as the top wide receiver for quarterback Cam Newton.  But Ginn has struggled significantly in his role as the team’s top wideout, catching just 21 of 51 passes thrown his way.  There are 135 players in the NFL this season who have seen at least 20 targets, and Ginn’s 41.2 percent catch rate ranks 135th.

Enter Olsen, who has been the most indispensable tight end in the league (the best, as always, is Rob Gronkowski).  He has caught a whopping 32.1 percent of all Panthers receiving yards this season, by far the largest number of any tight end this season.

Rk Tight End Team Rec Yds Team Rec Yds Pct
1 Greg Olsen CAR 584 1820 32.1%
2 Travis Kelce KAN 538 1973 27.3%
3 Rob Gronkowski NWE 693 2709 25.6%
4 Gary Barnidge CLE 602 2458 24.5%
5 Jimmy Graham SEA 450 1878 24.0%
6 Delanie Walker TEN 456 2031 22.5%
7 Jason Witten DAL 403 1913 21.1%
8 Tyler Eifert CIN 434 2226 19.5%
9 Martellus Bennett CHI 381 1971 19.3%
10 Charles Clay BUF 356 1843 19.3%

Carolina’s defense and Josh Norman, who is having a breakout season, deserve much of the credit for the team’s undefeated record.  But without Olsen, the offense would have little hope of moving the ball through the air.

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