• A rookie at the forefront: Atlanta's run-heavy scheme will lean on rookie running back Bijan Robinson in 2023 and beyond, making him the team's most important non-quarterback.
• A new, and important, WR in Chicago: D.J. Moore is Justin Fields' new top wideout and should help the young signal-caller develop as a passer.
• Chase Young stands out among a stable of top pass rushers: Washington's vaunted defensive line will look for Young to return to form in 2023 — in a contract year, no less.
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 NFC, arguing that they are their respective team’s most important non-quarterback.
JUMP TO A TEAM:
New Cardinals head coach Jonathan Gannon has a ton of work to do on Arizona’s defense, so their best chance to win games will be the return of Kyler Murray and a revitalized passing attack. Marquise Brown stands as the top option after DeAndre Hopkins’ departure.
Brown was a 2019 first-round of the Ravens, acquired by Arizona in a 2022 draft-night trade. He has just one 1,000-yard season and has yet to tally a season-long receiving grade over 75.0. He shows flashes — his 140-yard performance against the Rams last season sticks out — but injuries and inconsistency have hampered him. A breakout coinciding with a healthy Murray would be welcomed in Arizona.
It may seem odd for the rookie out of Texas to be Atlanta’s most important player, but there are few better places he could’ve landed. Arthur Smith’s philosophy, the Falcons’ offensive line and Robinson’s talent are a match made in heaven. He could lead the NFL in rushing in his rookie season.
Atlanta’s defense likely won’t be great, and the team has major questions at quarterback. The Falcons will cause many problems in the run game, though. Robinson is a missed-tackle machine (104 forced last season) and has enough speed at 215 pounds to score on any play. If Atlanta’s offensive line repeats last year’s performance, Robinson’s ability will be fully showcased and give the Falcons a legitimate shot at a division title.
Ekwonu had a decent rookie season, playing every snap at left tackle and grading out at 65.3 overall. He had a couple of rough games in protection but also showed flashes of his massive talent, posting an 80.0-plus pass-blocking grade in four games. He was also occasionally dominant as a run blocker, demonstrated in part by his 96.1 run-blocking grade against San Francisco. Ekwonu could be one of the breakout stars in the NFL this year.
As tempting as it was to pick Tremaine Edmunds for this spot, the Bears’ future depends on Justin Fields’ development. They made a brilliant trade with Carolina that netted them a new starting right tackle, a 2024 first-rounder, several other picks and stud receiver D.J. Moore.
The Bears have simply lacked a top-flight receiver in recent seasons. Moore posted three straight 1,100-yard seasons before last year, amid Carolina’s atrocious quarterback play. He still managed to put up nearly 900 yards and a career-high seven touchdowns. He’s carried at least a 76.2 receiving grade in each of his past four seasons. His arrival allows Darnell Mooney to move to a more comfortable position in the slot and gives Fields a receiver who can win in one-on-one situations.
The Cowboys are loaded with talent. Stars such as Micah Parsons, CeeDee Lamb, and Zack Martin give them an incredibly high floor. Their primary issue last season was being unable to replace Amari Cooper as a legitimate threat to complement Lamb.
Dallas acquired Brandin Cooks this offseason to be that guy. Cooks is a consistent performer, posting six 1,000-yard seasons with four different teams. He had a down year in 2022, mostly due to his circumstances in Houston. He’ll begin this season at just 29 years old and is still a legitimate deep threat, the perfect complement for Lamb to work his magic underneath.
St. Brown’s 90.7 overall grade in 2022 wasn’t just the second-best mark among qualified receivers. It was the second-best grade in franchise history, behind Calvin Johnson in 2011 (91.2). St. Brown has become nearly impossible to cover in the slot. He is excellent after the catch and dropped only four passes last season.
His importance will continue to rise as Jameson Williams misses time due to suspension. Detroit’s skill players otherwise are Marvin Jones Jr., Josh Reynolds and multiple rookies. St. Brown is currently the only elite player of the bunch. As Jared Goff’s primary safety net, St. Brown will need to have another big season if Detroit hopes to end its playoff drought.
Green Bay Packers: EDGE Rashan Gary
Before Gary suffered a torn ACL in Week 9 last season, the Packers were one of football’s best pass-rushing teams. In Weeks 1-9, Green Bay’s 77.0 pass-rush grade was tied for sixth best in the NFL. From Week 10 onward, they posted a 62.0 pass-rush grade, sixth worst in the league. Gary’s impact speaks for itself.
Gary has become an elite player over the past two seasons. His 90.1 overall grade in that span ranks sixth among all edge defenders. He is an elite pass rusher and Green Bay’s best run defender, the latter of which was sorely missed when he was out of the lineup. The Packers will have to win with their defense and running game this year, and Gary will be at the forefront of any team success.
Simply put, the Rams do not have another dynamic playmaker like Cooper Kupp on offense. His 2021 campaign was arguably the greatest season, including the postseason, that a receiver has ever had. He appeared to be well on his way to another stellar season in 2022, hauling in 72 catches for 813 yards with a 90.0 receiving grade in his first eight games.
But an ankle injury ended his year in Week 10, spiraling the Rams' season into the doldrums. Things look bleak in Los Angeles as the team endures severe roster turnover, but healthy versions of Matthew Stafford and Kupp at least give the Rams a chance to win games.
There may not be a more important non-quarterback to their team’s success than Justin Jefferson. He is arguably the best receiver in football and owns the third-highest receiving grade (92.5) in the NFL since he was drafted.
The Vikings don’t have much to offer on defense, and their running game will likely take a hit with the release of Dalvin Cook. Jefferson can single-handedly take games over, but that seems to be the only surefire way Minnesota wins games. Jefferson posted fewer than 50 receiving yards in four of the team's five losses last year. Covering him is impossible at times, but doing so makes the Vikings much less formidable. They wouldn’t win many games without him.
The Saints are loaded with name recognition. Alvin Kamara, Marshon Lattimore, Cam Jordan and Michael Thomas are chief among them. But their most important, and best, player is Demario Davis. He is their defensive leader and their most irreplaceable player.
Davis had another spectacular year in 2022, posting an 82.7 grade that ranked fourth among qualified linebackers. He had a career-high nine sacks along with an interception and four pass breakups, which still sells his impact short. He was one of just three qualified linebackers to grade above 73.0 in run defense, coverage and pass rush. He’s also consistent, grading out as the third-best linebacker in the NFL since he arrived in New Orleans in 2018. Davis is the glue that holds the Saints together.
The New York spotlight shone heavily on Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley last season, but the emergence of left tackle Andrew Thomas shouldn’t go unnoticed. Thomas was, by far, the Giants' best offensive player.
Ranked third in the NFL with a 90.3 overall grade, Thomas was one of only three tackles with 80.0-plus grades in both run blocking and pass protection. He is the anchor of the Giants’ offensive line. He could soon lead an elite unit if Evan Neal and John Michael Schmitz live up to their pre-draft hype.
The Eagles are loaded with star power, yet Jason Kelce is still their best player. In fact, he is the greatest run-blocking center in the PFF era (95.2 grade). His 92.3 overall grade ranks fourth best all time, and he is showing no signs of slowing down.
Kelce’s 89.4 grade in 2022 ranked second in the NFL. He was the only center in the NFL to play 400 snaps and not allow a hit or a sack. He posted a 90.0 run-blocking grade for the second time in his career. The Eagles were easily the league’s most efficient team running to either side of their center. At age 35, Kelce was still an elite player who, with his athleticism, allowed Philadelphia to deploy schemes offensively that other teams aren’t capable of. He’s not the flashiest player, but he is the heart and soul of the Eagles' offense.
The 49ers are known for high-level trench play. There are some question marks along the offensive line this year, making Trent Williams’ dominance at left tackle more important than ever.
Williams has led all NFL tackles in overall grading for three straight seasons. He is the second-highest-graded tackle in the PFF era, behind Joe Thomas (minimum 1,000 snaps). The problem for the 49ers is that they have no other incumbent offensive lineman who graded above 68.0 last season. They need to piece together the rest of the line. If Williams suffers an injury or endures a sudden drop-off in play, things could get catastrophic up front.
Seattle’s success last season was obviously buoyed by Geno Smith’s sudden ascent to a Pro Bowl passer. A closer look at what actually won or lost them games shows their defensive front as the difference. When the Seahawks graded out at 61.0 or higher in run defense, they went 7-2. When they graded out below 61.0, they went 2-7.
What better way to solve that problem than by reacquiring the best linebacker in football? Bobby Wagner returns to add leadership to a front seven that badly needs it. Wagner is coming off an incredible year in Los Angeles in which he led all linebackers in overall grade (90.7) and run-defense grade (91.1) while missing only four tackles all year. Anything close to that performance would be a massive improvement to the Seahawks’ defense.
Wirfs’ consistency is unbelievable. As Tampa Bay’s offensive line crumbled around him in 2022, Wirfs had another stellar season, putting up a top-10 overall grade (83.1). Amazingly, he allowed just six pressures all season. He is the NFL’s highest-graded right tackle since he entered the league in 2020.
Wirfs will switch to left tackle for 2023, a spot he has not played in the NFL and only sparingly occupied in college. A smooth transition is paramount to the Bucs’ success this year. They are incredibly young up front and are switching the position of their only constant on the offensive line. It’s a line that struggled to jell last year, weathering several injuries in the process. They won’t succeed if things are similarly difficult there this year.
If the Commanders are going to make a playoff push this season, their talented defense will be the primary reason. Young, the most talented player of the group, needs to bounce back after returning from a knee injury late last season.
Young has all the tools to be a great pass rusher. He showed as much in his only full season in 2020, parlaying an 87.4 overall grade into a Defensive Rookie of the Year award. His injury derailed his ascent to elite status, but he’s still just 24 years old. He has the talent to get there and turn Washington’s defense into an elite unit. The Commanders have a slew of solid pass rushers. A healthy Chase Young should be better than all of them.