• Take the quarterback out of the equation for a moment: Which AFC East players are the most vital to their teams' success?
By The SI Staff
June 06, 2017

A quality quarterback can carry a team a long way in the NFL, but teams carry 53 players for a reason—QBs can’t do it alone. So, with the draft and the heart of free agency in the rearview mirror, we’re asking the question: Who are the 10 most important non-quarterbacks on each NFL roster?

We polled writers from SI and The MMQB to find some answers. Each writer was assigned to a conference and asked to rank each roster’s most important players, 1 through 10. Those players then were given points consistent with their positioning—a first-place vote was worth 10 points, second-place was worth nine and so on. Then we circled back to hear the writers out when their ballots went against the grain.

The AFC East leads us off, with the following pollsters weighing in: Ben Baskin, Chris Burke, Robert Klemko, Bette Marston and Eric Single.

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1. RB LeSean McCoy (45 votes)
2. WR Sammy Watkins (44)
3. CB Ronald Darby (25)
4. LB Jerry Hughes (19)
T-5. DT Marcell Dareus (18)
T-5. G Richie Incognito (18)
7. DE Shaq Lawson (17)
T-8. T Cordy Glenn (15)
T-8. CB Tre’Davious White (15)
T-10. LB Lorenzo Alexander (10)
T-10. S Micah Hyde (10)
T-10. TE Charles Clay (10)

Very little dissension when it came time to pick the Bills’ most important players. McCoy took three first-place votes (Burke, Baskin, Single), while Watkins had one of his own (Klemko). The Marston ballot was the lone spot where both McCoy and Watkins did not rank top three, and that’s because Watkins came in fourth there.

The board grew quite a bit more unsettled beyond spots 1 and 2, though, with Darby clocking in third and then nine players finishing between 10 and 19 points. The players most all over the map were Incognito and Dareus, both of whom landed No. 3 once (Baskin for Incognito, Burke for Dareus), but also off two other boards.

That’s nothing compared to Alexander. He failed to crack the top 10 on four of five ballots, yet ranked No. 1 on the fifth.

Vetting the Votes: Bette Marston defends her first-place vote for Lorenzo Alexander — Alexander earns the No. 1 spot for the Bills because of the way he unexpectedly stepped up to lead the team in sacks in 2016—finishing third in the NFL behind Vic Beasley and Von Miller—an unexpected positive from Rex Ryan’s rocky tenure as the Bills’ head coach. He may see a drop-off in stats when the team shifts defensive schemes, but Alexander remains vital to Buffalo’s defensive success no matter where he plays.

Other Bills receiving votes: DT Kyle Williams (nine votes); LB Reggie Ragland (eight); WR Zay Jones, LB Preston Brown (four); S Jordan Poyer (three); CB Shareece Wright (one).

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1. LT Laremy Tunsil (38 points)
2. DT Ndamukong Suh (35)
3. DE Cameron Wake (24)
4. RB Jay Ajayi (23)
5. WR Jarvis Landry (22)
6. LB Kiko Alonso (20)
T-7. TE Julius Thomas (16)
T-7. C Mike Pouncey (16)
9. CB Xavien Howard (14)
10. CB Byron Maxwell (13)

Landry did not generate as complete a split in voting as did Buffalo’s Lorenzo Alexander, but he, too, pulled the odd combo of a No. 1 ranking and a complete omission from multiple ballots. He grabbed the top spot for Baskin (more below), while the Burke and Klemko polls turned elsewhere. Projected starting guard Jermon Bushrod fell just one slot away from following suit, garnering a No. 2 vote (Klemko) and four absences.

The other first-place votes were split between Tunsil (Klemko and Single), Suh (Burke) and Kiko Alonso (Marston). If there was a running theme from the top on down throughout the Dolphins’ ranks, it’s that the voters had an uncertain view of the offense aside from Tunsil and Landry. Only Ajayi (twice) and Pouncey (once) crawled into any top-five slots.

Vetting the Votes: Ben Baskin defends his first-place vote for Jarvis Landry — Granted, I likely lend more importance on the psychological aspect of football than others, but ask anyone on the Dolphins roster who the emotional leader of that team is and to a man the answer you will get is Jarvis Landry. If the Dolphins ever want to be better than the Patriots, the first thing they have to do is think they are better than the Patriots. That all starts with Jarvis Landry.

Other Dolphins receiving votes: WR Kenny Stills (10 points); G Jermon Bushrod (nine); LB Lawrence Timmons, WR DeVante Parker, S Reshad Jones (eight); S Nate Allen (seven); OT Ja’Wuan James, DE Charles Harris (two).

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1. TE Rob Gronkowski (36 points)
2. WR Julian Edelman (32)
T3. LB Dont'a Hightower (25)
T3. CB Stephon Gilmore (25)
5. CB Devin McCourty (21)
6. CB Malcolm Butler (20)
7. LT Nate Solder (17)
T-8. DE Trey Flowers (16)
T-8. RT Marcus Cannon (16)
T-8. S Patrick Chung (16)

Last off-season, Gronkowski might have been New England’s runaway winner. After the Patriots captured a Super Bowl with him sidelined by injury, though, there is a little wiggle room for discussion. He claimed the top spot nonethless, due mainly to a first-place vote (Marston) and second-place vote (Single). Edelman gave Gronk a run for his money, and he actually topped his teammate in first-place votes, with two (Baskin and Single).

The pair of remaining first-place votes were split between Hightower (Burke) and Chung (Klemko)—the latter missed out entirely on three ballots.

Despite his rumored spot on the trade block this off-season, Butler had no trouble making it into the top 10. He even landed a No. 2 ranking (Baskin); fellow cornerback Gilmore ranked as high as No. 3 (Single).

Vetting the Votes: Eric Single defends his first-place vote for Julian Edelman — The Patriots have been forced to prove their offense can still run at its lethal best without Gronk on multiple occasions, so I threw the weight of my ballot behind a slightly more durable Tom Brady target. To be sure, Edelman is an interchangeable part himself, with guys like Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan capable of approximating his role, but “approximating” is the operative word—Edelman is a uniquely gifted route-runner who stepped up as the primary chains-mover when Gronk went down last season.

Other Patriots receiving votes: DE Kony Ealy (14 votes); LB Rob Ninkovich (nine); CB Eric Rowe (six); WR Brandin Cooks, CB Duron Harmon (five); WR Brandin Cooks (four); DT Alan Branch (three); RB Dion Lewis, WR Chris Hogan (two); C David Andrews (one).

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1. DE Muhammad Wilkerson (45 points)
2. DE Leonard Williams (40)
3. S Jamal Adams (29)
4. T Kelvin Beachum (27)
5. WR Eric Decker (22) [The Jets released Decker on June 6.]
T-5. LB Sheldon Richardson (19)
T-5. CB Morris Claiborne (19)
7. LB Darron Lee (12)
8. RB Bilal Powell (11)
9. LB Lorenzo Mauldin (9)

No pressure, Jamal Adams, but our poll serves further reminder the expectations being heaped on the Jets’ rookie safety. Adams ranked sixth or higher on all of the AFC ballots, with a top landing spot of No. 3 (Burke). As far as the East divisions are concerned, that’s by far the best finish for any of the 2017 rookies.

Kelvin Beachum counted as one of the Jets’ biggest non-draft splashes this off-season. He’ll have to be a standout from the left tackle spot, a responsibility represented in his fourth-place finish. The Baskin ballot pushed him all the way to the No. 2 spot, but he also scored two other top-five spots (Burke and Klemko).

The main reason that quarterbacks were excluded from this exercise was because the majority of them would have been easy No. 1s. That’s not the case here. Josh McCown probably would have been a top-10 vote-getter, but he still may not have ascended all the way up the list. 

Other Jets receiving votes: WR Quincy Enunwa (eight points), WR Quinton Patton (eight), T Ben Ijalana (seven), NT Steve McLendon (five), CB Buster Skrine (four), OT Brandon Shell (four), S Marcus Maye (three), G James Carpenter (two), TE Jordan Leggett (one).

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