- Take the quarterback out of the equation for a moment: Which NFC West 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 West, with the following pollsters weighing in: Jacob Feldman, Emily Kaplan, Jonathan Jones, Eric Single and Jenny Vrentas.
1. RB David Johnson (47 points)
2. S Tyrann Mathieu (46)
3. CB Patrick Peterson (39)
4. LB Chandler Jones (30)
5. WR Larry Fitzgerald (29)
6. T Jared Veldheer (18)
7. LB Deone Bucannon (17)
8. T DJ Humphries (14)
9. WR John Brown (11)
10 DE Robert Nkemdiche (eight)
The debate up top in the desert mainly boiled down to David Johnson and Tyrann Mathieu. Both players ranked within the top three on every ballot, and they split the first-place votes—Mathieu received three (Feldman, Jones and Vrentas); Johnson, two (Kaplan and Single).
Consistent support for Larry Fitzgerald, who ranked either fifth or sixth on 80% of the ballots. The lone exception (Single) had him at No. 3. Single’s ballot trended the other direction when it came to Jared Veldheer, as that was the lone top 10 where the offensive tackle did not make an appearance.
Eric Single defends his third-place vote for Larry Fitzgerald: This may look like a legacy vote, but the Cardinals made it clear last year that Fitzgerald will be an integral part of their offense as long as he is able to play. He’s just as valuable in the slot as he once was outside.
Other Cardinals receiving votes: Brandon Williams (four points), Corey Peters (three), Jermaine Gresham (three), Antoine Bethea (three), Haasan Reddick (two), Andre Ellington (one)
1. DE Aaron Donald (46 points)
T-1. RB Todd Gurley (46)
3. T Andrew Whitworth (37)
4. LB Robert Quinn (28)
5. WR Tavon Austin (20)
6. CB Trumaine Johnson (19)
7. LB Alec Ogletree (16)
8. WR Robert Woods (13)
T-9. DT Connor Barwin (9)
T-9. John Sullivan (9)
Like the Cardinals’ Johnson-Mathieu clash, Los Angeles featured a two-man race to the top. Todd Gurley scored three first-place votes (Jones, Kaplan and Vrentas), with a low landing spot of No. 4 (Single); Aaron Donald took home the other two first-place votes (Feldman and Single), with a low point of No. 3 (Jones).
The voters still believe in Tavon Austin, apparently, or at least are not yet sold on the potential impact from the Rams’ rookies. Austin even cracked the top three on Feldman’s ballot, behind only the Donald-Gurley duo.
Jacob Feldman defends his third-place vote for Tavon Austin: Both Sean McVay and OC Matt LaFleur have worked with small wideouts in the past (namely Taylor Gabriel and DeSean Jackson). If they can turn Austin into something between those players, it'll do wonders for Jared Goff.
Other Rams receiving votes: LB Mark Barron (eight points), NT Michael Brockers (eight), T Rob Havenstein (five), CB EJ Gaines (four), TE Gerald Everett (three), TE Tyler Higbee (two), S Lamarcus Joyner (one), WR Cooper Kupp (one)
1. LB NaVorro Bowman (44 points)
2. T Joe Staley (43)
3. RB Carlos Hyde (31)
4. WR Pierre Garcon (29)
5. DE DeForest Buckner (27)
6. DE Arik Armstead (18)
7. DT Solomon Thomas (16)
8. S Eric Reid (14)
9. S Jimmie Ward (11)
10. C Jeremy Zuttah (10)
A lot of unknowns in San Francisco this year, which may be why two members of the old guard, NaVorro Bowman and Joe Staley, topped the rankings. (Granted, Bowman’s health is an unknown, too.) Staley received just one first-place vote (Single), but he ranked No. 3 or higher on all five ballots. Bowman claimed a pair of first-place votes (Feldman and Vrentas).
The remaining No. 1 slots belonged to DeForest Buckner (Kaplan) and Carlos Hyde (Jones). The opinions on Hyde ranged from the top position to No. 9, but he appeared on every single NFC West ballot.
That was not the case for rookie Solomon Thomas, who was snubbed by Feldman and only climbed into the top five on Kaplan’s ballot.
Emily Kaplan defends her ballot: The 49ers are rebuilding, and that means they need young talent to construct the roster around. Buckner may have been drafted by the previous regime, but if he breaks out in 2017 (as many predict he will) the defensive lineman will set the tone for the Lynch-Shanahan era.
Other 49ers receiving votes: FB Kyle Juszczyk (six points), LB Reuben Foster (six), LB Malcolm Smith (five), TE Vance McDonald (five), LB Ahmad Brooks (four), RB Joe Williams (two), WR Marquise Goodwin (one)
1. S Earl Thomas (40 points)
2. DE Michael Bennett (31)
3. CB Richard Sherman (30)
4. T Luke Joeckel (29)
5. LB Bobby Wagner (27)
6. WR Doug Baldwin (20)
7. S Kam Chancellor (19)
8. RB Eddie Lacy (12)
T-9. TE Jimmy Graham (11)
T-9. C Justin Britt (11)
Earl Thomas claimed four of the Seahawks’ first-place votes. The fifth: Luke Joeckel, who led off a fascinating ballot (Jones) that featured offensive linemen in spots one through five. After Joeckel, Jones ranked, in order, George Fant, Justin Britt, Germain Ifedi and Mark Glowinski as the keys to Seattle’s season.
Joeckel also nabbed a second- (Feldman) and third-place vote (Single), but the rest of the O-line struggled to crack the ballots. Only Ifedi, with a pair of 10th-place votes, earned a nod from multiple voters aside from Jones.
Jonathan Jones defends his top-five vote for Joeckel: I listed the entire Seahawks offensive line in my top-five because you can’t ask the defense to hold every team to 0 points. Joeckel is most important because he’s the left tackle who’s not a former basketball player trying to make it at that position.
Other Seahawks receiving votes: DE Cliff Avril (nine points), G Germain Ifedi (nine), T George Fant (nine), G Mark Glowinski (six), RB Thomas Rawls (five), LB KJ Wright (four), T Oday Aboushi (two), WR Tyler Lockett (one)