• The Las Vegas Raiders' offense runs through Josh Jacobs: His 1,653 yards, 91.9 rushing grade and 90 forced missed tackles all led the NFL in 2022.
• Speed, speed and more speed in Miami: The Dolphins don't lack non-quarterback playmakers, but it's Hill’s game-changing talent that pushes the team to a new level.
• A healthy T.J. Watt elevates the entire Steelers' roster: Without him in 2022, they went 1-6 with a 56.3 team defense grade.
Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes
Quarterback is the most valuable position in football by a wide margin. Every team, though, has a few players who are nearly as crucial to its success.
Here, we’ll highlight one of those players for every team in the AFC, arguing that they are their respective team’s most important non-quarterback.
JUMP TO A TEAM:
Smith’s midseason arrival last year in Baltimore was a revelation. From Week 9 through the end of the season, only Bobby Wagner carried a higher overall grade than Smith’s 85.9 mark. Over that same span, the Ravens were the only team to earn both a run-defense grade and coverage grade of at least 80.0.
Smith played arguably the best stretch of football of his career for Baltimore. He, along with the emergence of Patrick Queen and Kyle Hamilton, is the reason that their defense is a potentially elite unit. Much of the spotlight has been on Baltimore’s revamped passing game, but if the team is to make a deep postseason run, Smith and an elite defense will be just as important.
Buffalo Bills: EDGE Von Miller
Early in 2022, the Bills looked like the NFL’s best team following the addition of Miller’s Hall-of-Fame-worthy pass-rush skills. He tore his ACL on Thanksgiving Day and, despite the team continuing to win games, the team’s defense wasn’t quite the same.
Miller was Buffalo’s highest-graded defender last season, at 85.8 overall. Through Week 12, when Miller was active, the Bills ranked third in team pass-rush grade. From Week 13 onward, they ranked just 13th and their pressure percentage dropped precipitously. He was also the Bills’ only defensive lineman who finished with a 70.0-plus run-defense grade. The Bills have to be better in the trenches if they want to make a Super Bowl run. It starts with a healthy Von Miller.
There are certainly more notable players that could occupy this spot — Ja’Marr Chase and Trey Hendrickson chief among them — but the reason Joe Burrow and the Bengals don’t have two rings already is poor pass protection. The Bengals went with a quantity-over-quality approach last season, and it started to work before injuries set things awry.
This season, the Bengals bring in a Super Bowl champion left tackle in Orlando Brown Jr. He is durable (more than 1,100 snaps in four straight years) and productive (73.0-plus overall grade in four straight years). He was at his best from Week 11 onward, boasting an 85.0 pass-blocking grade that ranked seventh among qualifying tackles. Cincinnati will be hoping Brown is the final piece that can bring them their first championship.
Garrett is the NFL’s highest-graded edge defender over the past two seasons, posting at least a 92.0 overall grade each year. Only Aaron Donald is ahead of him among defensive players. Garrett’s 94.2 pass-rush grade also leads the NFL, and he can single-handedly wreck any game against any opponent.
Meanwhile, the 2022 Browns did not have another qualifying defensive player grade out above 76.0. Simply put, their defense would not work without Garrett. Better injury luck and the development of young talent should improve the unit, but regardless, Garrett is a perennial contender for Defensive Player of the Year.
Denver’s secondary kept the team in most games last season despite offensive struggles. Patrick Surtain II is the best player among that group.
One of the best young players in the NFL, Surtain posted an 86.8 overall grade last year, ranking second in the NFL among qualified cornerbacks. He may have finished on top if not for one rough showing against Davante Adams. Surtain is generally terrific, though, and gave up 35 yards or fewer in 14 of 17 games last year. He is the Broncos' best player, and their defense succeeds primarily because of his ability to shut down top receivers.
Houston’s long-term success will strongly correlate with C.J. Stroud‘s development. However, new head coach DeMeco Ryans cuts his teeth on the defensive side of the ball. He will be looking for playmakers to improve the second-lowest-graded defense in the NFL.
Derek Stingley Jr. is a prime, yet confounding, talent. He has all the tools to be an elite cornerback, but he’s suffered through several injuries and we haven’t seen consistent elite play since his freshman year at LSU in 2019. Stingley finished his rookie season with a sub-50.0 overall grade in 2022. Significant improvement from him would greatly accelerate the Texans’ rebuild.
Nelson was the best guard in the NFL across his first three seasons. He was the only guard who carried at least a 90.0 run-blocking grade. He seemed to be on his way to all-time greatness.
The past two seasons have brought some injuries and struggles. His 69.7 overall grade isn’t terrible by any means, but it’s certainly not up to his lofty standards. As a result, the Colts' offensive production has cratered. It’s not all on Nelson, as the team has gone through numerous quarterbacks, as well. He remains, though, and with Jonathan Taylor and Anthony Richardson in tow, the running game will be the Colts’ offensive foundation. Nelson’s return to elite form would be an immense help.
Trevor Lawrence showed the league what he is capable of late last season. The Jaguars have an excellent back in Travis Etienne. Christian Kirk and Evan Engram are good route runners who can win over the middle. Jacksonville just needed a dynamic receiver who can win outside.
Calvin Ridley can be that guy. He showed as much during 2020 when he posted an 84.7 receiving grade while racking up more than 1,300 yards, both top-15 marks at the position. During his first three years in the league, Ridley recorded an 82.0 receiving grade when lined up on the outside. Jaguars receivers lined up outside posted a receiving grade of just 67.6, tied for 22nd in the NFL. The team needed a legitimate outside threat, and Ridley is the right man to fill the void.
In almost any other situation, Chris Jones would be the answer here. But it’s too hard to ignore arguably the greatest tight end ever. The Chiefs traded Tyreek Hill and still won a Super Bowl — because Kelce is simply unstoppable.
Kelce easily paced all tight ends in receiving grade in 2022. In fact, his 91.6 receiving grade finished behind only Christian McCaffrey and Tyreek Hill among all players. Kelce owns three of the five highest single-season receiving totals of all time for a tight end. As long as Kelce continues to be the best tight end in the NFL, the Chiefs will be in Super Bowl contention.
Jacobs had an incredible year as the focal point of the Raiders’ offense in 2022. His 1,653 yards, 91.9 rushing grade and 90 forced missed tackles all led the NFL. It wasn’t all volume, either, as Jacobs' 4.9 yards per carry was a top-10 mark among backs with at least 150 carries.
Jacobs’ production is the key to a Raiders offense still trying to find its way under Josh McDaniels.
It seems every year that the Chargers have an elite team on paper. Their roster is littered with talent at nearly every spot and, in theory, they should be in championship contention. The best, and most important, player on their team, when healthy, is Joey Bosa.
Bosa has a long track record of elite success. He has posted 85.0-plus overall grades in five of his seven NFL seasons. Due to injury, he played in just six games and logged 203 total snaps in 2022. Consequently, the Chargers finished the season with the second-lowest-graded defensive line in the league. The plan in Los Angeles was for Khalil Mack to create more opportunities for Bosa. Ideally, that would allow Bosa a chance to have a 15-to-20-sack season. Anything less takes the Chargers out of Super Bowl contention.
2022 was Hill’s best campaign, posting a career-high and NFL-best 92.1 overall grade. Including the postseason, he racked up a career-high 1,779 receiving yards despite playing with backup quarterbacks for a significant portion of the season. His ability to make plays after the catch is a perfect fit for Miami’s offense. As long as Hill is around, the Dolphins could score 35-plus points any week.
Stevenson became the engine of the Patriots’ offense in 2022. The team’s quarterback instability and Damien Harris’ injury allowed him to do so. And he took full advantage.
He was the Patriots’ highest-graded qualifying offensive player. Among players with at least 100 carries, his 84.3 rushing grade ranked 13th and his 3.81 yards after contact per attempt was the best mark in the NFL. He is an incredibly physical presence who also showcased his receiving ability with 69 catches. The Patriots will ride Stevenson until they can clean up the passing game.
There are certainly options here who carry more star power, including rookies of the year Sauce Gardner and Garrett Wilson. The X-factor for the Jets, however, will be their offensive line, and they have a versatile stud in Alijah Vera-Tucker.
Vera-Tucker suffered a season-ending injury in Week 7 last season, as did Breece Hall. The Jets were 5-2 when Vera-Tucker played and 2-8 when he didn’t. Despite playing just seven games at three different positions, he finished the year as the Jets’ highest-graded offensive lineman. He has Pro Bowl potential, especially in the run game, and a breakout this season could set the tone for an offensive line searching for answers at a few spots.
Pittsburgh Steelers: EDGE T.J. Watt
The Steelers just don’t function the same when T.J. Watt is off the field. Watt missed Weeks 2-9 in 2022 due to injury, and the contrast in success was stark. When he played, Pittsburgh went 8-2 with a 79.0 team defense grade. Without him, they went 1-6 with a 56.3 team defense grade — the fourth-worst mark in the NFL in that span.
Watt is the second-highest-graded edge defender over the past four seasons. He is a former Defensive Player of the Year and tied the single-season sack record in 2021. His credentials speak for themselves and he is, by far, the most indispensable player on the Steelers' roster.
Henry spent 2022 carrying the Titans again as the circumstances around him keep getting tougher. Their offensive line and receiving corps continue to wither away. Ryan Tannehill battled through injury, yet Henry kept the Titans afloat for as long as he could.
Henry’s 1,534 rushing yards were second most in the NFL, while his 86.7 rushing grade ranked seventh. Even more astounding is that his league-leading 1,257 yards after contact would rank eighth among all rushers in total rushing yards. Henry doesn’t have much help in Tennessee. The Titans were the fifth-lowest-scoring team in the NFL last year. It’s fair to wonder if they would be dead last without Henry.