On Thursday, we highlighted the most important players in the AFC. Now we introduce our list for the NFC. Remember, I'm not looking to identify the best player on each roster, but rather the most important -- the pivotal guy who must excel for the team to reach its full potential. Let the debate begin!
Arizona Cardinals: Larry Fitzgerald, wide receiver
OK, sometimes the most important player is also the best. That's definitely the case in Arizona. It's kind of easy to forget that Fitzgerald is one of the best receivers in the NFL, given his underwhelming production with the Cardinals' horrendous quarterbacks last year. (It's borderline absurd that he logged just 71 catches and four touchdowns.) I talked to Fitzgerald this week on SiriusXM, and he predicted a much better year after an offseason of working with Carson Palmer, his new quarterback. It had better happen, or else this team's in for another long season.
Atlanta Falcons: Steven Jackson, running back
I penned a column a few weeks ago describing how Jackson will represent the most significant transaction of this offseason -- the one that will pay the most dividends come playoff time. That's not hyperbole. Jackson still has a ton of gas left in the tank, and he'll be Atlanta's closer (something the team sorely lacked last season). He'll bring balance to the Falcons' offense, simultaneously giving the defense a break.
Carolina Panthers: Luke Kuechly, linebacker
The inside linebacker is one of my favorite players in the league. This is another collision of "best" and "most important." Kuechly's just entering his second season, but he enjoyed a dominant debut, taking home Defensive Rookie of the Year honors (and earning my vote in the process). He's not just a tackling machine; he's a leader who's wise beyond his years.
Chicago Bears: Jay Cutler, quarterback
There's no reason to think outside the box here: Cutler is everything to the Bears. Chicago hired head coach Marc Trestman to maximize Cutler's immense talent and help foster better leadership skills.
Dallas Cowboys: Tony Romo, quarterback
The problem is that Tony Romo is set up to fail. The owner is meddlesome. The head coach's seat is scorching hot. (Jason Garrett was stripped of his play-calling duties and seemed to be the last one to know about it.) The offensive line isn't good. The running back can't stay healthy. The defense is overrated, and Dallas hired a coordinator who doesn't fit the personnel.
But, somehow, Romo will get blamed.
In reality, Romo gives this band of misfits the best chance to succeed. Without him, the Cowboys would win six games.
Detroit Lions: Ndamukong Suh, defensive tackle
While I still have major questions about the back end of this defense, the Lions' D-line is talented. But at this stage of his career, Suh should be one of the best linemen in the game. He has been good, but not dominant enough. And he's still immature on the field. It's go time.
Green Bay Packers: B.J. Raji, defensive tackle
For the record, I didn't consider either of the Packers' two rookie running backs (Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin). Yes, in theory, they could provide a little balance. But in reality, coach Mike McCarthy throws the ball because he employs the best quarterback in the NFL. I support this approach.
Raji had a great run in the regular season and playoffs preceding the Packers' victory in Super Bowl XLV. Green Bay's D lost its way last year in big spots. The Packers have a great coach in defensive coordinator Dom Capers. They have good players. Raji needs to set the tone and be one of the elite defensive tackles in the NFL. And there's major incentive for him to do so in a contract year.
Minnesota Vikings: Greg Jennings, wide receiver
I applauded when general manager Rick Spielman brought in the former Green Bay wideout. Jennings is a big-time player with championship experience. He's a legit No. 1. But he has to stay healthy, something he couldn't do last year. And while, as I wrote last month, I value Christian Ponder more than others do, I'll concede that the quarterback represents a big drop-off for Jennings after years of catching passes from Aaron Rodgers. Jennings has to keep being a true pro, exhibiting patience through the learning curve with Ponder and remembering that the offense always goes through Adrian Peterson.
If Jennings can deliver in the passing game, it will loosen things up for Peterson, as teams won't be able to simply stack the box.
New Orleans Saints: Will Smith, outside linebacker
Can the longtime defensive end make the switch to outside linebacker in the 3-4? New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan needs to generate a pass rush, so he immediately needs things to click for Smith.
New York Giants: Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive end
I included the Giants defensive end on my list of the league's nine most indispensable defensive players. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that he would undergo back surgery. That's a huge deal. I don't know if JPP will be back to start the season. And even if he is, the Giants can't bank on him resembling the sack master he was in 2011, as it'll take some time for him to round back into football shape. Big Blue's linebackers are of poor quality. The defensive backs are questionable -- at best. The defense is built around the pass rush, and the pass rush is built around an injured JPP.
Philadelphia Eagles: Jason Peters, left tackle
For all of last year's talk about the Eagles' awful defense and the issues with Mike Vick's health and play, I thought the biggest group of underachievers in Philly was the offensive line. Vick can't stay healthy if he doesn't have protection. Losing Peters for the season was a crushing offseason blow last spring. For Vick and the potentially dynamic passing attack to have a chance, for LeSean McCoy to have room to run, the Eagles need stability up front. Peters' return -- and his return to greatness -- is paramount to Philadelphia's success. This should be a vastly improved line (and Eagles team) in 2013.
San Francisco 49ers: Vernon Davis, tight end
Michael Crabtree is out for the foreseeable future; in theory, that's a huge blow. But with Anquan Boldin joining the receiving corps and Davis at tight end, the injury shouldn't slash the 49ers' win total. Davis seemingly had a much better on-field rapport with Alex Smith than he did with Colin Kaepernick. Both Davis and Kaepernick chalk that up to coincidence -- and they might be right. Regardless, the freakish tight end must be a weapon in San Francisco's passing attack.
Seattle Seahawks: Percy Harvin, wide receiver
In Minnesota, he infuriated many with his cantankerous personality, feuding with both players and staff. Plus, he couldn't stay healthy. But Harvin is an amazing talent. If he can be a good guy and stay on the field, he's the perfect speed receiver to team with Russell Wilson, someone who can spread the field for Seattle. If opponents have to respect the long ball, leaving fewer defenders in the box against Marshawn Lynch, look out.
St. Louis Rams: James Laurinaitis, linebacker
This is another one of my favorite players in the entire NFL. He's the heartbeat of the Rams' underrated defense, a true leader and a 100-tackle-per-year machine.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Darrelle Revis, cornerback
I debated between Revis and Josh Freeman. Over the past two seasons, Freeman just hasn't resembled the clutch Ben Roethlisberger clone we saw in 2010. And I think this year -- a contract year -- will be his last as the Bucs' starting quarterback. I know they like rookie Mike Glennon, and rightfully so.
Despite Freeman's yo-yo play, Tampa can win games if Revis is healthy. The Bucs' pass defense was horrible last year; now, with Revis and Dashon Goldson on board, it can be a strength. Can Revis get back to the level he was playing at pre-injury, when he was the best corner in the NFL?
Washington Redskins: Brian Orakpo, outside linebacker
The Redskins' defense was leaky last season, even in a year during which they shocked the world and won the NFC East. Orakpo's season came to an abrupt end in Week 2, when he tore his left pectoral. He's a fierce pass rusher, one who totaled 28.5 sacks in his first three NFL seasons. With Robert Griffin III recovering from a serious knee injury, the 'Skins must be able to win games in other ways. They need to make plays on defense. Orakpo is vital to their success.
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