A go-to player is typically someone who is a leader, consistently makes sound decisions and has the ability to change the outcome of a game.
For some NFL teams, this player is easy to identify. However, those teams at the bottom of the league usually lack this important piece.
As you go through this list, compare the success of each team to how reliable its go-to player has been.
Go-To Player: Larry Fitzgerald, Wide Receiver
The Arizona Cardinals’ addition of Carson Palmer gives Larry Fitzgerald his first legitimate quarterback since Kurt Warner. Palmer isn’t an elite quarterback, but he’s more than capable of making the most of Fitzgerald’s talent.
Arizona knows that if it has any hope to contend for a playoff spot, it needs Fitzgerald to have a big season.
There’s no reason to doubt that a big year is a possibility. Fitzgerald was able to haul in 71 passes last season, despite dealing with quarterbacks like Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Ryan Lindley and Brian Hoyer.
Go-To Player: Tony Gonzalez, Tight End
Matt Ryan has proven to be a very effective NFL quarterback. However, it’s tough to overlook the weapons at his disposal. He has the luxury of utilizing a future Hall of Famer like Tony Gonzalez any time he is in a tough situation.
Gonzalez might not match the explosiveness of Roddy White or Julio Jones, but he is a more reliable and consistent performer.
Ryan knows that Gonzalez will always be in the proper position and catch anything that touches his hands. Every quarterback in the NFL is looking for someone capable of earning this type of trust.
Go-To Player: Joe Flacco, Quarterback
Joe Flacco answered every question surrounding his potential during last year’s Super Bowl run. In fact, his strong performance against the New England Patriots in the 2011 AFC Championship Game was the first real example of him raising his level of play in a pressure situation.
The Baltimore Ravens’ decision to ink Flacco to a big-money contract shows that they also have trust in their quarterback. This is his team, and he will be expected to keep them in Super Bowl contention for the foreseeable future.
It’ll be interesting to see how Flacco responds after an offseason that saw the Ravens lose Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin.
Go-To Player: C.J. Spiller, Running Back
The Buffalo Bills are again going through a coaching change that promises to shift the team’s philosophy. Head coach Doug Marrone will not only have to install a new offensive attack but also break in a new quarterback. This is why C.J. Spiller is the most likely candidate to be the team’s go-to player.
Spiller’s big-play ability will instantly help either Tarvaris Jackson, Kevin Kolb or E.J. Manuel become more comfortable in the offense. Look for Marrone to feed Spiller the ball in both the passing and running game.
This versatility means that Spiller is capable of picking up that key first down or scoring a game-changing touchdown from multiple spots on the field.
Go-To Player: Steve Smith, Wide Receiver
It seems as though Steve Smith has been the Carolina Panthers’ top offensive player for their entire existence. Despite showing signs of his age, Smith, 34, remains the player Carolina targets in pressure situations.
He brings a toughness and tenacity that tends to rub off on his teammates. Smith will never fail to make a play because of a lack of effort.
I considered Cam Newton as the Panthers’ go-to player, but he hasn’t shown enough consistency to earn that title. Newton needs to win more games and prove he can win NFL games when they matter the most.
Go-To Player: Brandon Marshall, Wide Receiver
Brandon Marshall uses his size and strength to provide Jay Cutler with an extremely reliable target. Cutler knows Marshall will always fight to make a play on the ball. This is why we see Marshall make so many catches despite tight coverage.
There’s not an offensive player on the Chicago Bears roster who deserves as much trust as Marshall. He has proven time and again that he’s capable of making a big play when his team needs it the most.
I strongly considered making Charles Tillman the go-to player for the Bears. His knack for generating turnovers continuously gives Chicago opportunities to win football games. The reason I went with Marshall is that opposing teams can neutralize Tillman by just avoiding his side of the field.
Go-To Player: A.J. Green, Wide Receiver
There are plenty of wide receivers in the NFL who feature elite talent, but not many are capable of equaling A.J. Green’s production. Green combines his physical gifts with a passion for the game and drive to be the best. This is why we see him continuously make big plays in the face of double teams.
Factor in that he’s dealing with a young quarterback, a limited running game and a lack of another pass-catching threat, and it’s hard not to be impressed with the way he impacts the game.
The sign of a clutch and elite player is the ability to produce in less-than-ideal situations.
Go-To Player: Trent Richardson, Running Back
The Cleveland Browns roster is made up of a collection of young talent. This is why it’s difficult to identify someone the team can go to in pressure situations. A lot of it has to do with the fact that nobody has proven himself. However, Trent Richardson features the talent and toughness to quickly develop into a go-to player.
Richardson does a good job breaking tackles and making something out of nothing. He also features the quickness to attack the edge and make plays in the passing game.
The one issue facing Richardson is the nagging injuries he dealt with last season. He needs to prove he can stay healthy in order to be someone the Browns can count on.
Go-To Player: Jason Witten, Tight End
Jason Witten is always in the right position, and he has bailed out the Dallas Cowboys more than a few times. He has been the one target Tony Romo has grown to trust, as other players like Dez Bryant and Miles Austin have disappeared at times.
Romo’s failures are celebrated just as much as his successes. However, his reputation as a player who struggles to perform in the clutch was earned. He has made more than a few mistakes when the game was on the line.
Witten is typically the guy Romo eyes when he needs to make a big play.
Go-To Player: Peyton Manning, Quarterback
The Denver Broncos went from a surprise playoff team under Tim Tebow to a Super Bowl favorite with Peyton Manning. This is what a reliable presence at the quarterback position can do for a team. Denver is expected to be a Super Bowl contender again this season.
Manning doesn’t just step on the field and find success. He works tirelessly to put his team in the best position to win. His teammates trust him because they know he puts in the time needed to be the best.
There’s no question that the Broncos want the ball in Manning’s hands with the game on the line.
Go-To Player: Calvin Johnson, Wide Receiver
There’s not a defense in the league capable of completely shutting down Calvin Johnson. His size, speed and leaping ability make him a matchup nightmare. He's also a threat to produce a big play at any point in the game.
It’s no secret the Detroit Lions will target Johnson when the game is on the line.
Johnson is not only a highly talented player, he also has the drive to succeed. There are plenty of talented players in the NFL, but few can match his combination of athleticism and desire to be the best. I’m sure just about every quarterback in the league would love to be able to target Johnson in pressure situations.
Go-To Player: Aaron Rodgers, Quarterback
The best way to look at how important Aaron Rodgers is to the Green Bay Packers is by looking at the surrounding cast. Green Bay won 11 games last season despite having the 20th-ranked rushing attack and a defense that allowed 21 points per game.
Rodgers isn’t only counted on for consistency, but also to produce in the clutch. Green Bay isn’t a team that's just looking to make the playoffs, it has its sights set on winning Super Bowls.
To this point in his career, Rodgers has been able to handle this pressure and perform well.
Go-To Player: J.J. Watt, Defensive End
Most of the players on this list are on the offensive side of the ball. However, J.J. Watt finds a way to have just as much of an impact from the defensive side. He possesses the ability to completely disrupt the flow of the opposing offense.
Watt not only generates pressure on the quarterback, but he also does a great job holding up against the run and batting balls at the line.
The identity of the Houston Texans comes from the play of the defense, which is led by Watt. His nonstop motor sets the tone for the entire team.
Go-To Player: Reggie Wayne, Wide Receiver
Despite the success of Andrew Luck, it’s never easy for a rookie quarterback to instantly become the leader of a team. This is why the presence of Reggie Wayne was so important last season. His leadership and link to the franchise’s previous success played a major role in the Indianapolis Colts’ surprise playoff appearance.
Wayne not only provided a stable force in the locker room, but he also found a way to have a major impact on the field.
It’s always beneficial for a young quarterback to have a target he can rely on and trust to be in the right position. Confidence is key for any quarterback, and Wayne absolutely helped Luck develop confidence in his own ability and offense.
Go-To Player: Maurice Jones-Drew, Running Back
Blaine Gabbert’s lack of development and Justin Blackmon’s off-field issues leave Maurice Jones-Drew as the most reliable player on the Jacksonville Jaguars roster. He earns this title despite only playing in six games last season.
New head coach Gus Bradley is a defensive-minded coach who comes from the Seattle Seahawks, where he saw the impact of a strong running game. This, combined with MJD's history of producing, makes it easy to see why he can expect to get a ton of carries this upcoming season.
It’s also important to note that the Jaguars’ decision to select Luke Joeckel in this year’s draft makes the offensive line a real strength. This group should be able to create more running room for Jones-Drew than he has seen in several years.
Go-To Player: Jamaal Charles, Running Back
Despite Andy Reid’s aggressive move to bring in Alex Smith, Jamaal Charles is still the guy the Kansas City Chiefs need to feature on offense. His explosiveness keeps the defense on its heels and helps other areas of the offense find easier matchups.
Charles is one of those players who can make a defense pay if it fails to develop a proper game plan. This is why Smith and the passing game should have the luxury of employing a very effective play-action attack.
It’s important to note that Charles isn’t just a speed player, as he has shown the ability to also break tackles and pick up the tough yards.
Go-To Player: Cameron Wake, Pass-Rusher
The Miami Dolphins offense is in a transition period while it works on developing Ryan Tannehill. This is why they rely on the defense to keep things within reach. The leader of the defense is Cameron Wake, who excels at generating pressure on the quarterback.
Wake finished fourth in the league with 15 sacks last season. He hit that number despite constantly dealing with double-teams.
Miami used the No. 3 overall pick to land Dion Jordan in an attempt to ease some of the pressure on Wake. Jordan’s explosiveness off the edge should force opposing teams to roll some protection to his side of the field.
Go-To Player: Adrian Peterson, Running Back
Outside of Adrian Peterson’s pure dominance, the inconsistency of Christian Ponder and lack of playmakers at the wide receiver position make Peterson the go-to player for the Minnesota Vikings. Last year was a perfect example of his importance to the team.
Peterson is the main reason the Vikings were able to earn a surprising playoff berth. He accounted for 2,314 of the team’s 5,385 offensive yards. This comes out to about 43 percent of the production by the offense.
It’s amazing that he’s able to put up such great numbers despite every defense in the NFL knowing he’s the Vikings’ go-to player.
Minnesota again will be counting on Peterson to be the focal point of the offense this season.
Go-To Player: Tom Brady, Quarterback
Bill Belichick gets a ton of credit for his coaching ability, but he has Tom Brady to thank for the majority of his success. Brady affords the New England Patriots the luxury of making unorthodox roster and scheme changes. This is a team that has seen major turnover at every position on the roster except for the quarterback spot.
Brady heads into this upcoming season dealing with injuries to tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, as well as the loss of Wes Welker. New England was able to take such a hard stance with Welker only because of Brady.
We sometimes overlook just how amazing it is that Brady is able to maintain his elite play.
Go-To Player: Drew Brees, Quarterback
Drew Brees is like a point guard in that he’s responsible for distributing the ball and setting his teammates up for success. His ability to make those around him better is why the New Orleans Saints have been so successful over the past several years.
Brees and the passing game accounted for almost 411 yards per game, compared to the 98 yards per game added by the ground attack. This shows that the Saints offense heavily relied on the passing attack to move the chains.
Brees is paid the big money to handle this pressure and perform in high-stakes situations. Look for Brees and the Saints to rebound from a rough 2012 season thanks to the return of head coach Sean Payton.
Go-To Player: Eli Manning, Quarterback
The New York Giants live and die with Eli Manning. To this point, it has worked out to the tune of two Super Bowl victories. Manning has proven to be one of the more resilient and clutch quarterbacks in today’s game.
He consistently finds a way to play his best football in the later part of the game. This has a lot to do with his ability to put past mistakes out of his mind. It allows him to head into each possession with confidence.
Manning also has shown the knack for making those around him better. He has helped elevate the performance of players like Victor Cruz, Jake Ballard and Martellus Bennett.
Go-To Player: Nick Mangold, Center
The fact that a center was even in consideration for the New York Jets’ go-to player should speak volumes about the state of this franchise. Nick Mangold is an extremely talented player who has a major impact on the game. However, an NFL team should have someone who touches the ball as a go-to player.
Looking at the rest of the roster, it’s easy to eliminate players like Mark Sanchez, Santonio Holmes and Chris Ivory. The defense is also without its most important player in Darrelle Revis.
Another reason I went with Mangold was because of the Jets’ offensive makeup. This is a team that lacks the players needed to have a successful passing attack. The Jets will need to feature the running game, which is anchored by Mangold.
Go-To Player: Darren McFadden, Running Back
It’s hard to overlook his injury history, but Darren McFadden is the Oakland Raiders’ most dangerous and productive player. He features the potential to dominate a game and lead a team to victory by himself.
Oakland needs McFadden to stay on the field if it has any hope to improve. He’s the one player who can help either Matt Flynn or Tyler Wilson succeed at the quarterback position.
As much talent as McFadden possesses, he’ll never be considered an elite player until he can get over the injury problems. This is another reason why the Raiders face an uphill battle in the rebuilding process.
Go-To Player: LeSean McCoy, Running Back
A lot of the focus with the Philadelphia Eagles centers on Michael Vick and the quarterback position. However, LeSean McCoy has been the most consistent performer over the past couple years.
McCoy doesn’t just pick up yards on the ground, he also can make plays in the passing game and help protect the quarterback. This is a player who provides the offense with both explosiveness and consistency.
Hopefully, new head coach Chip Kelly realizes McCoy’s value and feeds him the football. There’s little reason he shouldn’t finish each game with the most offensive touches.
Go-To Player: Ben Roethlisberger, Quarterback
Over the past several years, Ben Roethlisberger has kept the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoff hunt despite dealing with some major issues. His ability to move in the pocket helped mask a constantly injury-riddled offensive line.
He also helped the team go through a revolving door at both the wide receiver and running back positions.
Roethlisberger has been the one consistent presence on the offensive side of the ball—not only in physical presence but also in production. He will again be tested this season as the Steelers look to move past the loss of Mike Wallace.
Go-To Player: Philip Rivers, Quarterback
The past few seasons haven’t been a bright spot on Philip Rivers’ career. He has struggled taking care of the football and leading his team to success. However, the San Diego Chargers are still very much his team. They lack another player on the roster they can count on with the game on the line.
San Diego is hoping that making a move at the head coaching spot—from Norv Turner to Mike McCoy—will give Rivers a fresh start.
The Chargers also used some resources this offseason to upgrade the offensive line. First-round pick D.J. Fluker is expected to help provide Rivers with the time he needs to better attack the defense.
Go-To Player: Colin Kaepernick, Quarterback
Prior to Colin Kaepernick’s emergence, the San Francisco 49ers ran a conservative offensive attack and relied on their defense. The entire makeup of the team changed once Kaepernick seized the starting quarterback job.
His ability to make plays with his feet, attack the deep part of the field and produce explosive plays helped the 49ers offense match the effectiveness of the defense.
Kaepernick heads into this season as the team’s biggest difference-maker and the one the 49ers will turn to in the clutch. He showed last year that he has the poise to handle this pressure and succeed. There’s no reason to expect any type of regression.
Go-To Player: Marshawn Lynch, Running Back
Russell Wilson deserves a ton of credit for how well the Seattle Seahawks played last season, but it’s Marshawn Lynch who’s the stabilizing force on the offensive side of the ball. His ability to grind out the tough yards and keep the chains moving is invaluable.
It’s much easier for a young quarterback to develop confidence when there’s a running game to lean on.
Lynch's play also works well with the Seahawks’ overall design. This is a team that features a strong defense that doesn’t need the offense to light up the scoreboard. Thanks to Lynch, Seattle can head into a game looking to wear down the opponent.
Go-To Player: Tavon Austin, Wide Receiver
Call me crazy, but Tavon Austin instantly became the team’s most reliable offensive player the second he was drafted. He’s the type of playmaker who can change the game in multiple ways. The St. Louis Rams can feed him the ball out of the backfield, in the underneath passing game, on wide receiver screens and deep down the field.
He will need time to transition into the league, but that shouldn’t stop him from making an immediate impact. Austin is too talented and explosive for the Rams to keep him on the sideline.
I considered going with someone like Janoris Jenkins, but his off-field issues make him a little unreliable. The opposing team can also limit his impact by avoiding his side of the field and punting the ball out of bounds. However, Jenkins does have a knack for producing big plays when his team is in need.
Go-To Player: Doug Martin, Running Back
With only his rookie season under his belt, Doug Martin has already become the most consistent and reliable player on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense. His ability to both break off long runs and work between the tackles helped the Buccaneers win more than a few games.
Martin is the go-to player mainly because Josh Freeman struggles to protect the ball and move the chains. Tampa Bay doesn’t know what to expect from Freeman week in and week out.
It’s also important to note that Greg Schiano likes to feature a physical style of play. He has worked to improve the defense that can now help the team grind games out with Martin.
Go-To Player: Chris Johnson, Running Back
The moves made by the Tennessee Titans this offseason all point to Chris Johnson again being the featured offensive player. Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack were brought in to beef up the interior of the offensive line. Both players will provide Johnson with more running room and the opportunity to carry the offense.
Jake Locker’s inconsistency and lack of development is another reason Johnson can expect plenty of carries.
Head coach Mike Munchak likely needs a winning season to keep his job. He can’t rely on an erratic quarterback like Locker to lead the team’s offensive attack.
Go-To Player: Robert Griffin III, Quarterback
The Washington Redskins offense was a disaster until Robert Griffin III was brought in to run the show. His combination of athleticism, arm talent and leadership ability allowed him to find instant success. Mike Shanahan and company should be well aware of Griffin’s importance to the franchise.
Griffin is so tough to defend because he’s equally dangerous as a passer and a runner. Any defense that focuses on limiting his impact as a runner will quickly find out that Griffin throws a beautiful deep ball. This ability to keep a defense guessing makes him a nightmare in late-game situations.
It’ll be interesting to see if Griffin’s style of play changes because of last year’s knee injury. There’s a chance we see a more hesitant and pocket-oriented version.