Who are the NFL’s 32 Most Important Players?
Every NFL Team's Most Important Player
For the most part, it’s pretty easy to point out who is the best player from each NFL team. Whether it’s attributed to on-field performance or the stat sheet, we don’t need Madden ratings to tell us which players have the most talent.
But which 32 players are the most important to their respective teams?
These players might not be the best or most-talented players on the roster, and they might not blow up the box scores with overwhelming stats. They might not break NFL records on a weekly basis, either. Instead, what they do is make an undeniable impact that helps their team succeed week in and week out.
Especially in today’s pass happy NFL, the majority of these impact players fit the description of “quarterback,” which makes sense. For most teams, how could the quarterback not be the single most important player on the roster? Well, for several franchises, the quarterback’s play is only part of the equation when it comes to calculating success.
Whether it’s a running back who carries the offense or a linebacker whose fearless leadership has paved the way for a dominant defense, these players have made their marks for their respective clubs. Their performances dictate the outcome and overall output, which means that the win-loss columns hinge largely on the footprint that they leave.
Starting with the AFC and ending with the NFC, here’s a look at the most important player from each team in the NFL and what makes their presence so crucial.
Baltimore Ravens – Ray Lewis
The prototypical NFL middle linebacker, Lewis has been the face of the Baltimore Ravens’ dominant defense for more than a decade. Although he’s nearing the end of his career, Lewis is still making plays and intimidating offensive players who are forced to match up with him each and every week. Much like another certain defender on a rival AFC North team, the impact that Lewis’ departure will have will be felt for years.
Cleveland Browns – Joe Thomas
With so many young, high-pick players making up the nucleus of the Cleveland Browns offense, their protection is as important as their production heading forward. That’s where Thomas comes in. Easily one of the league’s best left tackles, Thomas has earned a Pro Bowl nod in each of his first five seasons in the NFL. If the Browns’ young cast of stars succeeds anytime in the near future, it’ll be because of Thomas and his elite blocking.
Cincinnati Bengals – Andy Dalton
To the surprise of most, Dalton turned out to be much more effective than the Cincinnati Bengals could have ever hoped for. With the help of 2011 first-rounder A.J. Green, Dalton immediately turned the Bengals into a passing attack worth respecting. Although he might not be one of the greatest quarterbacks in the NFL, Dalton has made a huge impact for the Bengals since he was drafted and has the potential to turn the franchise around.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Troy Polamalu
Put simply, Polamalu is the heart and soul of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense. Bringing a veteran presence and physical force to the secondary that few teams can parallel, Polamalu is a pure difference-maker when he’s in the lineup. To top it all off, he has a phenomenal mane. Whenever Polamalu decides to hang up his cleats, it will take some time for the Steelers to rebound. He’s that special.
Houston Texans – J.J. Watt
Who knew when the Houston Texans drafted Watt in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft that we’d already be talking about a player with Hall of Fame caliber talent. Whether it’s against the run or pass, Watt has a way of making an impact that 99.9 percent of other players couldn’t fathom. He’s immediately asserted himself as one of the league’s best defenders and has even inserted his name into the 2012 NFL MVP talk. The Houston defense is outstanding; Watt is the driving force behind their success.
Indianapolis Colts – Andrew Luck
Considered by many to be the next elite NFL quarterback, Luck has already done wonders for the Indianapolis Colts. Helping usher the team into the post-Manning era, Luck has all of the tools to be among the best passers to ever play the game. On top of his tremendous football IQ, he brings sneaky athleticism and an uncanny feel for the position that few have ever displayed. If the Colts can provide him with a strong supporting cast moving forward, Luck can take the team to a level they’ve never seen.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Daryl Smith
Who knows how much longer Maurice Jones-Drew will be in a Jacksonville Jaguars uniform and Blaine Gabbert might not last long either. Smith, however, is the exception. One of the most underrated linebackers in the NFL, Smith has been making his presence felt in Jacksonville since he first arrived nine seasons ago. He’s the leader of the Jaguars defense, and has been missed dearly while sitting out the first five games due to a groin injury. Once he returns to the lineup, he’ll upgrade the defense immensely.
Tennessee Titans – Chris Johnson
The artist formerly known as CJ2K has gotten off to a miserable start in 2012, and his Tennessee Titans have followed him along for the ride. With an inexperienced quarterback at the helm and a league-worst defense, Tennessee was hoping to ride Johnson to some wins this season. Their 1-4 record, however, makes sense considering that he’s only had one impressive outing thus far. If the Titans have any hopes of being competitive during the 2012 campaign, Johnson will have to return to 2010 form.
Denver Broncos – Peyton Manning
With all of the time and dollars that the Denver Broncos and owner John Elway put into landing Manning, he better put them in the win column more often than not. He’s already considered one of the best passers to ever grace the football field, but is still hurting as he attempts to bounce back from four neck surgeries. If Manning can’t overcome his health concerns, the Broncos’ gamble on the aging quarterback will set them back at least a couple seasons.
Kansas City Chiefs – Jamaal Charles
While the passing attack continues to struggle with inconsistency at the quarterback spot, the Kansas City Chiefs’ ground game has thrived due to the dynamic running of Charles. With blazing speed and elite elusiveness, Charles has done a tremendous job of bouncing back from a 2011 ACL tear and is leading the league in rushing yards. Assuming he can stay healthy, Charles will keep the Chiefs relevant with his phenomenal abilities as a game-breaking back.
Oakland Raiders – Richard Seymour
The leader of the Black and Silver defense, Seymour has done a terrific job of being the go-to guy for the Oakland Raiders. While using his veteran experience to help usher young talent into their NFL careers, Seymour has taken on the leadership role and become the driving force behind the defense. Regardless of how much longer he’ll be in the league, Seymour will continue to be a key piece to the Raiders’ puzzle until his time is up.
San Diego Chargers – Philip Rivers
Especially with the overwhelming inconsistency that has plagued Ryan Mathews, it’s apparent that the San Diego Chargers live and die by how Rivers performs. When the quarterback suffered from a down year in 2011, the Chargers did the same, failing to make the playoffs despite high expectations. Rivers has shown in the past that he’s capable of turning an average offense into an explosive one. He has the weapons to go far, but needs to do a better job of utilizing them.
Buffalo Bills – Mario Williams
When the Buffalo Bills acquired Williams via free agency this past offseason, they put a lot of their assets into him in hopes of landing themselves a top-tier defender and pass-rusher. Unfortunately, the gamble hasn’t worked out too well at this point as Williams struggles to produce. Whether it’s due to injury or unfamiliarity, Williams hasn’t been the same type of difference-maker he was in Houston. Depending on how Williams pans out for the Bills, they could end up on either side of the success spectrum.
Miami Dolphins – Reggie Bush
It’s no secret that Bush was a bust for the Saints; that’s why he ended up with the Miami Dolphins. Now that he’s in a feature back role, though, he’s excelling in ways that justify his standing as a former No. 2 overall pick. As the Dolphins break in a rookie quarterback, Bush has taken the bull by the horns and is making the most of his opportunities as a full-time starter. He’s displaying the spark that made him an elite talent in college and should continue to carry the Miami offense.
New England Patriots – Tom Brady
If it wasn’t for Brady, the New England Patriots wouldn’t be where they are today. The elite passer has helped lift his team to heights they never thought possible, winning numerous Super Bowls and breaking several NFL records in the process. Until Brady steps down and hands the reins to his successor, the Patriots will continue to reap the rewards of one of the biggest steals in NFL Draft history.
New York Jets – Darrelle Revis
The New York Jets made a big mistake in scheming their entire defense around Revis, because now he’s out for the season and their defense is out of whack. When he’s healthy, though, there’s no better shutdown cornerback in the NFL. Revis locks down the best wide receivers the league has to offer and is the key to the Jets’ coverage. Rex Ryan and Co. will have to figure out how to survive without their best player; the coping process hasn’t been pretty so far.
Chicago Bears – Lance Briggs
It’s become obvious that Brian Urlacher is nearing the end of his NFL career, which means that someone will have to inherit the role as the Chicago Bears’ defensive leader. That’s where Briggs comes into the picture. Throughout his career, Briggs has emerged as a force to be reckoned with within the Bears linebacking corps. Once Urlacher hangs up his cleats, he’ll pass the baton to Briggs. Can he carry on the tradition of a dominant Chicago defense?
Detroit Lions – Ndamukong Suh
Suh has the potential to be one of the most dominant defenders in the NFL. The problem is his inability to control his temper, which has gotten him into hot water numerous times throughout his short NFL career. The Detroit Lions boast an explosive offense when Matt Stafford is healthy, but the defense needs to do a better job of keeping opposing offenses in check. When Suh is playing at his best, he upgrades the defense tenfold.
Green Bay Packers – Aaron Rodgers
I would think that this one is pretty self-explanatory. The Green Bay Packers’ fearless leader has elevated the team to new heights since taking over for Brett Favre back in 2008. Whether it’s winning a Super Bowl or choreographing a 15-1 regular season record in 2011, Rodgers always seems to make big things happen when he’s under center. As long as the keys are in his hands, the Packers will be a contender.
Minnesota Vikings – Percy Harvin
Most people would just assume that Adrian Peterson is the most important piece to the puzzle for the Minnesota Vikings, but Harvin makes the biggest overall impact in the Twin Cities. Serving as a triple threat for the Vikings as a runner, receiver and returner, Harvin has the explosiveness that few players in the NFL can parallel. Whenever the ball is in his hands, Harvin has the ability to go the distance and that’s why the Vikings are off to a great start in 2012.
Atlanta Falcons – Julio Jones
Yes, we all know how important Matt Ryan is for the Atlanta Falcons. The biggest future impact, however, will be decided by how Jones fares as he matures as an NFL player. The potential is there for Jones to evolve into one of the league’s best pass catchers, especially across from Roddy White. If he does, however, suffer a setback, it’ll hurt the franchise for years. The Falcons gambled way too much to get Jones during the 2011 NFL Draft to have him not be an annual Pro Bowler.
Carolina Panthers – Cam Newton
When Newton succeeds, the Carolina Panthers succeed; it’s as simple as that. Their dynamic quarterback took the NFL by storm in his rookie season and proved that he has the potential to turn a struggling franchise around. That potential is being put to the test in 2012, though, as the sophomore slump is doing everything it can to hinder Newton’s maturation. The former Heisman Trophy winner will make or break the future of this Panthers team.
New Orleans Saints – Drew Brees
The savior of the New Orleans Saints and their city, Brees has worked miracles since landing in Louisiana back in 2006. While adding a Super Bowl victory and numerous NFL records to his list of accolades, Brees has engraved his name among the league's top-tier passers. As long as Brees is taking snaps for the Saints, the team and city will flourish.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Mason Foster
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a young team and Foster is the epitome of the talented youth that floods their roster. Although he still has yet to hit his peak and reach his full potential, Foster has shown the ability to be a difference-maker for the Buccaneers. As he continues to grow into his role as Tampa Bay’s defensive leader, Foster will also inherit the role as their top defensive playmaker who should turn out to be one of the top linebacking talents in the league.
Arizona Cardinals – Daryl Washington
Although you could make an argument for Larry Fitzgerald, the baton has been passed from the Arizona Cardinals offense to their defense over the past couple of seasons. One of the main reasons that the defense has succeed as of late is Washington, a play-making linebacker that has made a name for himself as a tackle machine. He’s quickly becoming a leader of the Cardinals defense and is the prime example of the young talent that the Arizona defense currently boasts.
St. Louis Rams – Greg Zuerlein
Who knew a rookie kicker could be so paramount to the success of an NFL team? In five games, Zuerlein has already broken records and asserted himself as one of the St. Louis Rams’ most crucial components. The rookie is kicking lights out, proving that he has the leg strength, accuracy and composure to stand in and make the big kick. The Rams already know they got a steal in Zuerlein, and he’s just barely getting started.
San Francisco 49ers – Alex Smith
The future success (or lack thereof) in San Francisco depends largely on whether or not Smith can maintain the impressive growth that he underwent with Jim Harbaugh at the helm. The San Francisco 49ers have remained patient with Smith despite a lackluster first few years, providing him with plenty of firepower in the process. If he can continue to improve and earn his standing as a former No. 1 overall pick, he can cement the 49ers as an annual contender.
Seattle Seahawks – Marshawn Lynch
When Lynch is on his game, he’s arguably one of the best running backs in the NFL. He possesses an unwillingness to go down that few can boast and has the physical tools to consistently pile up 100-plus yards on game day. Especially with a developing passing game led by rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, the Seattle Seahawks will need Lynch to be a consistent workhorse for their offense. Overall, his game-breaking abilities make him the most important cog in Seattle’s plans.
Dallas Cowboys – Tony Romo
No matter how much he struggles, the Dallas Cowboys and owner Jerry Jones are resilient in sticking with Romo as their starting quarterback. That choice to keep him under center will either save or doom their franchise in the near future. Romo has proven throughout his NFL career that he’s capable of being an elite passer, but never manages to capitalize when big opportunities arise. Their inability to move on from Romo could keep the Cowboys from ever becoming true contenders.
New York Giants – Eli Manning
No player has been more important to the New York Giants' recent success, including their victory in Super Bowl XLVI, than Manning. As he continues to evolve as a quarterback, he has broken into the ranks of the elite NFL passers and surpassed his brother as the best Manning in the league. With him at the helm, the Giants are capable of winning on a weekly basis and will remain contenders until he calls it quits.
Philadelphia Eagles – LeSean McCoy
Arguably the most elusive player in the NFL, McCoy has made a massive impact since joining the Philadelphia Eagles. Even though the offense revolves around Michael Vick and the passing game, McCoy’s influence on the ground has helped pave the way towards a brighter future in Philadelphia. As long as the Eagles can find ways to get the ball into his hands early and often, McCoy will remain one of the NFL’s best playmakers.
Washington Redskins – Robert Griffin III
The Washington Redskins’ future hinges on whether or not Griffin can pan out as an NFL-caliber quarterback. They put a lot of chips in the RG3 basket, which has paid dividends for the most part since his debut. He’s a dynamic passer with the ability to hurt defenses with his arm and his legs, and the Redskins are doing everything they can to cultivate an offense that fits his skills. If he struggles with maturation or injuries, though, the mediocrity in D.C. could continue.