- Take the quarterback out of the equation for a moment: Which NFC East players are the most vital to their teams' success?
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 next division up is the NFC East, with the following pollsters weighing in: Jacob Feldman, Emily Kaplan, Jonathan Jones, Eric Single and Jenny Vrentas.
1. RB Ezekiel Elliott (47 points)
2. LB Sean Lee (36)
3. LT Tyron Smith (35)
4. WR Dez Bryant (26)
5. C Travis Frederick (24)
6. G Zack Martin (18)
T-8. TE Jason Witten (13)
T-8. DE Taco Charlton (13)
T-8. G/T La'el Collins (13)
10. DT Maliek Collins (9)
Elliott and the Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. were as close to unanimous vote-getters as there was in the East divisions—the lowest Zeke finished on any ballot was third (Vrentas), and he notched three first-place votes. No surprise, considering his impact on the Cowboys’ 2016 season.
A minor upset in that second slot, though. This is a roster built around its dominant offensive line, led by all-world tackle Tyron Smith, so it speaks to Lee’s value that he placed above Smith, Frederick and Martin (plus Bryant). Last season, Lee finally managed to dodge the injury bug again and landed a first-team All-Pro nod as the lead of Dallas’s defense. No one ranked Lee No. 1, but the veteran linebacker earned a No. 2 vote (Feldman) and did not drop lower than sixth elsewhere.
Byron Jones fell at the opposite end of the voting spectrum. Four of our five voters left him off their ballots, with only Emily Kaplan placing him in the top 10 (ninth).
Vetting the Votes: Emily Kaplan defends her top-10 selection of Byron Jones — Defense has always been the weaker link for the Cowboys, and there’s been huge turnover in the secondary. Dallas drafted four DBs in 2017 to compensate for the four it lost in free agency (Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox, who have combined for 224 starts). That promotes free safety Byron Jones, with all of 27 starts over two years, into an important leadership role.
Other Cowboys receiving votes: Tyrone Crawford (eight points), Orlando Scandrick (seven), Jaylon Smith (six), Chidobe Awuzie (five), Nolan Carroll (five), Anthony Brown (three), Byron Jones (two), Demarcus Lawrence (two), Cole Beasley (two), Dan Bailey (one).
1. WR Odell Beckham Jr. (48 points)
2. LT Ereck Flowers (38)
3. DE Jason Pierre-Paul (35)
4. S Landon Collins (30)
5. CB Janoris Jenkins (19)
6. DE Olivier Vernon (18)
7. DT Damon Harrison (17)
8. RB Paul Perkins (16)
9. WR Brandon Marshall (12)
10. CB Eli Apple (8)
It would appear, at least based on our voting, that the only thing preventing Odell Beckham Jr. from unanimous top billing is the omnipresent question of whether or not Eli Manning will have enough time to throw. Beckham ranked No. 1 on three of five ballots (Kaplan, Single, Vrentas); on the other two he landed second, behind only Flowers.
The only outlier in the Flowers debate came from Kaplan’s ballot, which skipped over the Giants’ presumed starting left tackle. There was very little love for the Giants’ O-line beyond Flowers—Weston Richburg and Bobby Hart ranked fifth and sixth, respectively, on the Vrentas ballot, but neither scored enough to make it into the top 10.
Vetting the Voters: Eric Single defends his third-place vote for Damon Harrison — Harrison isn’t the first or second name that gets mentioned from the Giants’ 2016 free agency shopping spree, but he became an integral part of Steve Spagnuolo’s defense faster than any of the other splashy signings. All the hulking nose tackle did in the first season of his five-year, $46.5 million deal was defend his title as Pro Football Focus’s top run-stuffer and vault the New York run defense from the bottom third of the league in yards per carry to the top two. For me, his steady play is the cornerstone of that unit, freeing up the Giants’ playmakers at every level to maximize their opportunities.
Other Giants receiving votes: C Weston Richburg, TE Evan Engram, LB Jonathan Casillas, RT Bobby Hart (six points); G Justin Pugh, DT Dalvin Tomlinson (four); WR Sterling Shepard (two).
1. WR Alshon Jeffery (44 points)
2. DE Fletcher Cox (35)
3. LB Jordan Hicks (27)
4. CB Malcolm Jenkins (26)
5. RT Lane Johnson (24)
6. TE Zach Ertz (18)
7. LT Jason Peters (17)
8. DE Brandon Graham (17)
9. RB LeGarrette Blount (16)
T-10. CB Jalen Mills (eight)
T-10. DT Timmy Jernigan (eight)
Alshon Jeffery has a lot riding on this season, and the Eagles in turn are putting a lot of faith in him. The ex-Bears receiver is on a one-year contract in Philadelphia, meaning he could hit free agency again next off-season, and obviously he would prefer to do so with a huge 2017 at his back. And the Eagles are banking on Jeffery to fill their No. 1 WR role, while serving as a go-to option for QB Carson Wentz. Three of our NFC voters (Feldman, Jones, Kaplan) had him atop their Eagles board.
Feldman also placed Jernigan No. 3, good on its own for eight points and a spot in the top 10, just ahead of Patrick Robinson, Torrey Smith and Darren Sproles. The Feldman bump also propelled LeGarrette Blount, who received a second-place vote on that ballot but was no higher than seventh elsewhere and failed to make one ballot (Jones) entirely.
It was Lane Johnson, not nine-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro Jason Peters, who was deemed the most important member of Philadelphia’s O-line for 2017. Much of that finish is thanks to a first-place vote on the Vrentas ballot.
Vetting the Votes: Jonathan Jones defends his second-place vote for Zach Ertz — I think he’s important to protecting Wentz and being the bridge from his short passing game to his field-stretchers Jeffery and Smith. And Ertz had the most yards from scrimmage of anyone other than Sproles last year.
Other Eagles receiving votes: CB Patrick Robinson, WR Torrey Smith, RB Darren Sproles (seven points); WR Jordan Matthews (five); DE Vinny Curry, RB Ryan Mathews (three); C Jason Kelce (two); G Brandon Brooks (one).
1. TE Jordan Reed (41 points)
2. CB Josh Norman (37)
3. LT Trent Williams (35)
4. OLB Ryan Kerrigan (31)
5. WR Terrelle Pryor (20)
6. WR Jamison Crowder (17)
7. DT Jonathan Allen (15)
8. LB Zach Brown (14)
T-10. RT Morgan Moses (11)
T-10. S D.J. Swearinger (11)
T-10. G Brandon Scherff (11)
T-10. RB Rob Kelley (11)
In past seasons Washington’s offense has imploded with Jordan Reed out of the lineup, as was the case in 2015—the Redskins averaged 369 yards in 14 games with Reed, 247.5 in two games without him. That drop-off wasn’t as painful last season, but even so, Kirk Cousins is now just 2–7 as a starter sans his top tight end. With the tweaks to Washington’s WR depth chart this off-season, Reed’s presence becomes even more important. His team-high voting total in our poll included a pair of first-place votes (Feldman and Single) and a second-place vote (Kaplan).
Two other pass-catchers cracked the Washington top 10: Pryor, voted as high as No. 3 (Feldman); and Crowder, as high as No. 4 (Jones). Joining them in the middle of the pack was rookie Jonathan Allen, who squeezed his way onto just three of a possible five ballots. That’s one ballot more than saw Rob Kelley, but he received a first-place vote. More on that here:
Vetting the Votes: Jacob Feldman defends his first-place vote for Fat Rob — After Washington’s Week 9 bye, the Skins were 4–1 when Kelley averaged 3.5 yards and 0–3 when he didn’t. It’s generally accepted that Kirk Cousins needs weapons around him, and a consistent backfield-mate is critical as he adjusts to an altered crop of wideouts.
Other Redskins receiving votes: S Su'a Cravens (nine points), CB Bashaud Breeland (eight), LB Mason Foster (three), WR Josh Doctson (one).