The Schein Nine  

 

Julio Jones heads NFL's most indispensable offensive players

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It's summertime. We're months away from real, live football games. So I'm here to supply something that we need. Well, actually, something NFL teams need.

It's time for my annual rundown of indispensable players.

To jog your memory, let's review the meaning of the word indispensable. According to Dictionary.com, it means "absolutely necessary, essential, or requisite." In NFL terms, it's those players teams simply cannot live without.

Now, let me remind you of a couple things about this particular list of mine:

1) THIS IS NOT A LIST OF THE NFL'S BEST PLAYERS. AGAIN, IT'S THE MOST INDISPENSABLE.

2) AS USUAL, I DIDN'T INCLUDE QUARTERBACKS ON THE OFFENSIVE SIDE OF THINGS. OTHERWISE THAT POSITION WOULD OWN THE ENTIRE LIST.

Please re-read those two caveats before you @ me on Twitter with your complaints. Dez Bryant is a star. He's not on this list.

With all that as the backdrop, here's my annual list of indispensable offensive players, Schein Nine style.

1) Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons

Jones is a freak. This 6-foot-3, 220-pound marvel can't be contained. He's everything to reigning MVP Matt Ryan. Jones cannot be covered by one corner because, well, he's not a mortal man. Need proof? You don't need to travel too far back in time. How about this past season's playoffs?

Over three games against the league's top competition (after all, that's what the postseason is), Jones racked up 19 catches for 334 yards and three touchdowns. Remember that spectacular, fourth-quarter grab in the Super Bowl? Standard fare for Jones, who makes the extraordinary ordinary.

Jones makes everyone around him better, from Mohamed Sanu to Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. And the guy under center certainly benefits from his presence. Ryan is an elite quarterback, but the skill and sheer presence of Jones takes the quarterback's game to the next level. I believe the Falcons, as I wrote last month, can avoid the infamous Super Bowl hangover -- and the Ryan-Jones connection is the main reason why.

2) Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys

I thought Zeke -- not his teammate, Dak Prescott -- deserved Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, and I had the running back in my top four for league MVP. He defines indispensable. Zeke changed everything for the Cowboys last season, controlling the clock and moving the ball -- greatly impacting the offense and preserving the defense simultaneously. The Cowboys morphed from a punchline (4-12 in 2015) to a powerhouse (13-3 in '16) with Elliott.

And he's only getting better. Look at how he progressed over the course of his rookie season. In three September games, Elliott averaged a modest 3.9 yards per carry and scored a total of two touchdowns. Over the next 12 games, he averaged 5.4 a pop and notched 14 scores. Despite sitting out Week 17 to rest (the Cowboys had already locked up the No. 1 seed), the rookie back led the league in rushing by 313 yards! Just think what he's going to do in Year 2 ...

3) Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants

It's not hyperbole to call Beckham the Giants' offense. At least not with what we've seen so far. Beckham's numbers, three years into his professional career, are eye-popping: 288 catches for 4,122 yards and 35 touchdowns. Andre Johnson never hit double-digit touchdowns in a season during his fabulous career; Beckham's already done so three times.

Eli Manning and the Giants would fall apart without the dominating play of No. 13. Yes, Brandon Marshall and Evan Engram were nice offseason additions. Yes, Sterling Shepard is fresh off a promising rookie season. It doesn't matter. OBJ is clearly the straw that stirs Big Blue's drink. Which is why, as I wrote last week, it is so important for the fourth-year pro to get it in every sense.

The Giants' offensive line and run game are suspect. Odell Beckham Jr. puts the Giants in the conversation for everything in 2017. It's that simple.

4) David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals

Johnson didn't make this list in 2016. Now, having proven last season that he's a bona fide star and one of the most well-rounded players in the entire league, Johnson earns a top-tier slot.

Arizona can survive a Carson Palmer injury or a Carson Palmer skid, with Johnson dazzling and dominating like he does. Johnson posted 100 yards from scrimmage in each of the first 15 games of last season -- an astounding NFL record. You could make the case that he's the best runner and receiving target on the 2017 Cardinals. I know I would.

5) Jordy Nelson, WR, Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers' security blanket returned to action after missing the entire 2015 campaign due to a torn ACL. And once Jordy returned to Full Nelson mode, getting his legs and chemistry back, Rodgers and the Packers took off, winning their final six regular-season games and then two playoff games (before falling to the Falcons in the NFC title bout).

Nelson finished with 97 catches and an NFL-high 14 touchdowns. He stretched the field for Green Bay and kept the other receivers in their more suitable place on the depth chart.

Heading toward the 2017 season, the backfield has question marks. The offensive line has regressed. General manager Ted Thompson's shortcomings have made it more about Aaron Rodgers than ever before. Which means Nelson is more indispensable than ever before.

6) A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Oftentimes, this list is filled with players on winning teams. But Green is the exception. He is everything to Andy Dalton and the Bengals -- particularly if they are looking to overachieve in 2017. Tyler Eifert's health issues continue to compromise the talented tight end. And the team is still looking for consistent targets to replace the free agency casualties of last offseason (Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones). First-round pick John Ross could help, but he carries injury concerns into the NFL. Thus, the offensive burden is placed squarely on Green's shoulders.

Fortunately for Cincy, Green's a transcendent talent. He eclipsed 1,000 yards in each of his first five seasons and was putting together his best campaign yet in 2016 ... before he injured his hamstring in Week 11. Still, 964 yards in 10 games? Not too shabby.

7) Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

I've been reluctant to place a Steeler on this list in the past, because how do you separate Brown and Le'Veon Bell? Well, I just did. Brown has proven to be the most important Steeler not named Ben Roethlisberger.

In the past four seasons, Brown has averaged 120 catches for 1,579 yards and 11 touchdowns. That's just crazy.

8) Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots

There is a case to be made against Gronk, since the Patriots just won a Super Bowl without him. So I dropped him from No. 2 on last year's list to No. 8.

That said, the Patriots lost Martellus Bennett to free agency. And, by and large, Gronk is just so crucial to Tom Brady's overall success. The numbers tell the story: No. 12 is a different quarterback when No. 87 is on the field.

9) Kelechi Osemele, OG, Oakland Raiders

The first-team All-Pro guard is a stud. And when a kidney stone forced him to miss last December's game against the Chiefs, everything changed for the Raiders, with Oakland losing, 21-13. I picked Oakland to win that game. If I had known KO had been KO'd, I would've changed the pick. It's that simple.

Osemele protects Derek Carr -- and with Carr coming off injury, that's a huge deal. Now he will blow open holes for Marshawn Lynch. Buckle up!

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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