This offseason, lists of the NFL's best players have been all the rage. How about one of the NFL's most irreplaceable payers?
In many ways, the two lists are similar. In order for a player to be irreplaceable, he has to be pretty good. But there are other factors. How important is the player to his team, and what the team would be like without him are both key considerations.
The best NFL teams, such as the Ravens, Steelers and Patriots, have proven that most players are replaceable by letting them leave in free agency. Some players, though, go beyond that general principle.
Clay Matthews III is the NFL's most versatile 3-4 outside linebacker. He is adept in coverage and against the run, and, of course, he dominates as a pass-rusher.
In just 12 games last year, Matthews picked up 13 sacks. That was without someone to take blockers away from him too—Matthews was Green Bay's only legitimate threat off the edge.
The Packers don't have a great defense, but without Matthews, it would be much worse. He makes the players around him better while making plenty of plays himself.
In Darrelle Revis' absence, Richard Sherman stepped up as the game's best cornerback. He is a bit different from Revis—Sherman picks up more interceptions and isn't quite as much of a lockdown corner as Revis—but is nearly just as dominant.
With eight interceptions last year, Sherman was among the league leaders. Unlike the rest of these leaders, however, Sherman was rarely beat in coverage and had plenty of deflections to go with his picks.
The rest of the Seattle defense is so impressive that Sherman isn't completely irreplaceable. The Seahawks would take a significant step back without him, but they wouldn't suddenly drop to below-average.
An unusually disruptive defensive tackle, Geno Atkins has the pass-rush production of a top-notch defensive end. In 2012, he picked up 12.5 sacks from Cincinnati's interior defensive line.
Atkins is also a superb run-defender, though. His use of leverage, strength and quickness allows him to either penetrate backfields or hold his ground at the point of attack. He can effortlessly accomplish either task.
Atkins' dominance against both the run and pass is rare for a defensive tackle. He is a key component of Cincinnati's defense, and there isn't another defensive tackle that could do what Atkins does.
A healthy Darrelle Revis has an enormous impact on any defense. The word "healthy" is key, of course, as Revis is returning from a torn ACL. There is no reason to think he won't make a full recovery, but anything can happen with knees.
Revis' ability to take away a top-notch wide receiver is unparalleled. Regardless of who the wideout is—Calvin Johnson doesn't count—Revis can shut him down without any help.
This ability frees up safeties to help out elsewhere while also, of course, essentially eliminating a productive player. It's difficult to overrate the impact of that.
Andre Johnson is the only wide receiver in the NFL more important than his quarterback. In 2012, a healthy Johnson caught 112 passes for 1,598 yards. He has put up numbers like this in the past, as well, despite frequent double teams.
Johnson's deep speed forces defenses to play off the line of scrimmage, opening up both Houston's rushing attack and underneath passing game. This impact is only secondary to his actual production, of course.
Without Johnson, Matt Schaub doesn't put up anything near the numbers he consistently produces. In fact, the entire Texans offense would take a noticeable step backwards.
At this point, Rob Gronkowski is Tom Brady's only real weapon. In just 11 games last year, Gronk had 790 yards and 11 touchdowns. In 2011, he was even more exceptional.
There isn't a good way of covering Gronk. He is too athletic for linebackers, and he's far too big and physical for defensive backs. Even a combination of the two doesn't seem to work. Of course, Gronk is also an outstanding run-blocker.
Gronk is a dominant red-zone presence, giving Brady an easy target in the end zone. Of course, he's also deadly everywhere else on the field, and he demands constant attention, opening up Brady's other receivers.
Perhaps the most impressive of 2012's rookie quarterbacks, Russell Wilson shocked even his most optimistic of supporters. The third-round pick started every game for the Seahawks, showing remarkable poise and talent.
Working to Wilson's benefit was a talented Seattle offense. Marshawn Lynch had an outstanding year on the ground, and the Seahawks' receivers and offensive line both helped Wilson adjust to the NFL.
No, the Seahawks didn't necessarily rely on Wilson last year, but he proved capable of carrying the team when he needed to. Still, Seattle's overall talent level makes Wilson less indespensible than other teams' quarterbacks.
As a rookie, Robert Griffin III was unbelievably efficient, completing 65.6 percent of his passes and averaging 8.14 yards per attempt. That's just through the air. On the ground, RG3 ran for 815 yards, averaging 6.8 yards per pop.
This was all without an established offense. Sure, Alfred Morris proved capable of a brilliant season, but Griffin was always the team's main offensive threat.
The one thing that raises questions about Griffin's impact is Kirk Cousins' success. When RG3 went down with a torn ACL, the fourth-round pick stepped up with a shockingly solid performance. Griffin was certainly better, but Cousins still led the Redskins without difficulty.
There isn't another player in football capable of doing what Von Miller does. A 4-3 outside linebacker, Miller somehow picked up 18.5 sacks in 2012.
Obviously an incredible pass-rusher, Miller can also defend the run and play in coverage. He is a complete player with extraordinary pass-rush ability. No other player can rival Miller's burst and flexibility off the edge.
Miller is a weapon that can be moved around with ease. He can attack in so many different ways that he is impossible for offenses to truly account for. Because Miller is so dynamic, Denver doesn't need another sack artist.
With Alex Smith at quarterback, the 49ers were one of the NFL's best teams. When Colin Kaepernick stepped in, though, they were on another level entirely.
Kaepernick is a rare physical specimen. His speed, running ability and throwing ability make him a deadly weapon. He provides San Francisco with a vertical offense and a much more varied rushing attack. The team excelled with him at the helm.
Now, Kaepernick doesn't have much experience, and he still needs to develop as a pocket passer. However, his physical ability and potential are both elite, and his versatility is rare at the quarterback position.
Going into his rookie season, Andrew Luck was receiving plenty of hype. The No. 1 overall pick in 2012 lived up to expectations, somehow leading Indianapolis to the playoffs.
On offense, Luck didn't have much talent around him. The Colts' porous offensive line often left him on his back, and Reggie Wayne was his only experienced wide receiver worth anything. The team's rushing attack was nonexistent.
Somehow, Luck still managed to play at a high level and reach the postseason. There aren't many quarterbacks that could have done that.
There isn't another player that even rivals J.J. Watt. In 2012, the 3-4 defensive end led the NFL in sacks with 20.5. That is an exceptional number for a 4-3 defensive end, much less a five-technique like Watt.
Watt isn't just a one-dimensional pass-rusher, though. As his 6'5", 290-pound size might suggest, he is also a superb run-defender whose presence is felt on every play.
Without Watt, Houston's defense wouldn't even be recognizable. It simply isn't possible for a defensive player to impact every play more than Watt does.
Despite what some might tell you, Eli Manning is not an elite quarterback. Sure, he's won two Super Bowls, but so has Charlie Batch. Quite simply, Super Bowl championships don't determine how good a player is.
Still, Manning is a crucial component of New York's success. With Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks out wide, he has talented receivers, but the Giants' lack of a dominant rushing attack doesn't do him any favors.
Manning has shown he is capable of stepping up and winning games in the crunch. He has, at the very least, played a significant role in bringing New York two Super Bowl wins.
The only wide receiver in NFL history whose sheer physical dominance has rivaled Calvin Johnson's is Randy Moss. The 6'5", 236-pound Johnson broke Jerry Rice's single-season yardage record in 2012, and he is a constant threat.
Even when double-teamed, Johnson is capable of scoring a touchdown at any moment. He is too big and athletic to truly contain. Without Johnson, Detroit's offense would be a shell of its current state.
It is difficult for any non-quarterback to make an impact on every play, but Johnson's mere presence does just that.
Often, Calvin Johnson gets most the credit for Detroit's offensive dominance. One thing is often ignored, however. Stafford is a great fit at quarterback for Megatron.
The rocket-armed Stafford loves to push the ball deep, and he isn't afraid to force the ball to his star wide receiver. Stafford isn't an elite quarterback, but his skill set enhances Johnson's numbers.
Going away from Megatron, Stafford still has to make the rest of the Lions offense work. He needs to throw to receivers other than Johnson, and he doesn't always have the best options.
Joe Flacco was the most important player on the Ravens last year, as he led the team to a Super Bowl championship. However, many other quarterbacks could have done the exact same thing.
In Baltimore, Cutler had a good wide receiver unit, a great offensive line and an excellent running back duo. He had to make his fair share of plays, no doubt, and he did, but the Ravens' overall roster was the main component of their run.
Still, Baltimore couldn't have come close without Flacco, and that counts for something.
He has fallen under a lot of criticism, but Jay Cutler is a good quarterback. Cutler's rocket arm allows him to make throws that few others can.
Without Cutler, Chicago's offense would have nothing. Matt Forte would be a good running back, and Brandon Marshall would be a good wide receiver, but nothing would tie the two together. That is what Cutler does.
For years, Cutler didn't have much of a supporting cast. He finally has a decent one, and big things are happening for the Bears.
Carolina wasn't good in 2012. But how bad would the team have been without Cam Newton?
There exists a wide range of opinions on the controversial Newton. But regardless of what anyone thinks, one thing is undeniable: He is unique. No one else in the NFL can do quite what Newton can, and this skill set is the foundation of Carolina's offense.
The Panthers rely on Newton for their passing game and their rushing attack alike. Their red-zone offense may not exist without him.
There may not be a player who does more in so many ways than Newton does.
There may not be another example in history of a running back leading his team to the playoffs like Adrian Peterson did. In one of the best rushing seasons ever, Peterson barely missed out on the single-season rushing record.
Outside of Peterson, there isn't much talent on Minnesota's offense. Christian Ponder is a dud, and the team's wide receivers are either bad or inexperienced now that Percy Harvin is gone. Peterson basically is the Vikings' offense.
It is ill-advised to place too much value on a running back, but Peterson was paramount to the Vikings' success in 2012.
It is difficult to find an offense more loaded with talent than Atlanta's. Julio Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez. What more could a quarterback want?
At the same time, though, how good would the Falcons be without Matt Ryan? Many quarterbacks could perform well with this talent, but Ryan takes it to another level.
It's one thing to have great skill players. It is another entirely to have great skill players and a great quarterback, and that is exactly what Atlanta has.
Under Peyton Manning in 2012, Denver's offense took a giant leap forward. It wasn't bad in 2011 by any means, but Manning's presence made a huge difference.
Between Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker, the Broncos have some weapons. Manning, however, takes advantage of them like few quarterbacks can, spreading the ball around with ease.
This isn't as much about how much Denver's roster needs an elite passer—many quarterbacks could win with Denver's talent—but how incredible Manning is.
Besides Ben Roethlisberger, what do the Steelers have on offense? Sure, they have a couple good wide receivers in Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, but the team's other skill players are lacking. There isn't a legitimate running back to speak of.
Now, Pittsburgh's offense isn't typically amazing by any stretch, but it is always pretty good. And it is Roethlisberger who makes that happen. Between his ability to throw deep and keep plays alive with his feet, Roethlisberger creates huge plays like few can.
There are two constants for the Patriots: Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Only one of them is a player.
No matter how talented the team is, Brady is consistently excellent. Right now, New England has a better run game than it has in years, but Brady's other weapons are lacking. Rog Gronkowski is the team's only receiving threat.
With Brady under center, there is never any doubt that the Patriots can compete. He single-handedly wins games, and between a bad defense and below-average receiving corps, he needs to do so more often than the Patriots would like.
New Orleans went from having a loaded roster to a pretty bland one. Save for Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham, there isn't a star player on this roster.
Of the two stars, Brees is clearly the more important one. The star quarterback has put up incredible numbers—he has the single-season record for passing yards—without all that much talent around him. New Orleans' rushing attack certainly hasn't done him any favors.
Between the Saints' lackluster rushing attack and awful defense, it is clear just what is powering them into contention year after year.
The Packers are a team that, in 2012, had almost no run game and a bad defense. Yet they were still one of the NFL's premier teams, thanks to Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers is the most talented quarterback in the NFL, and Green Bay would be a bad team without him. That's not to say there isn't any talent on the Packers' roster—Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb are both great wide receivers—but this team wouldn't be relevant without Rodgers.
Every year, Rodgers powers the Green Bay offense, and the Green Bay offense in turns powers the Packers.