The Schein Nine  

 

NFL's most indispensable offensive players: Ezekiel Elliott on top

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Indispensable. It's an adjective describing something that's "absolutely necessary."

So, who are the most indispensable offensive players in the NFL? I'm really glad you/I asked.

But first, a few ground rules ...

1) I OMITTED QUARTERBACKS FROM CONSIDERATION. QB IS THE MOST IMPORTANT POSITION IN TEAM SPORTS. AND I DIDN'T WANT TO MAKE THIS LIST A STRAIGHT QUARTERBACK RANKING. WE HAVE ENOUGH OF THOSE IN THIS WORLD. THUS, YOU WILL NOT FIND ANY QBS BELOW. DON'T @ ME.

2) THIS IS NOT A PLAYER RANKING. IT'S ABOUT WHO IS MOST IMPERATIVE AND INVALUABLE TO HIS OWN ROSTER. WHO CARRIES THE MOST WEIGHT IN DECIDING HIS TEAM'S 2018 FATE? SO, YES, I DO THINK JULIO JONES IS A BETTER WIDE RECEIVER THAN JOSH GORDON, DESPITE WHAT THE ORDER BELOW SAYS.

Sorry for yelling. But I provide this list in the dog days of summer every offseason, and reader comprehension -- particularly when it comes to the ground rules -- is an annual problem. Maybe incorporating all caps, bold and ital will help.

So, here we go!

Remember: It's not a player ranking ... and quarterbacks are ineligible ... but here are the nine most indispensable offensive players in the NFL today:

1) Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys

In the walk-up to the 2016 NFL Draft, I lobbied hard for Dallas to pick Zeke at No. 4 overall. I called it a move that would give the Cowboys the NFC East. And it did -- even after Tony Romo was hurt in the preseason.

Last year, Elliott's impending six-game suspension -- which ended up actually taking place in November/December -- cast a dark shadow over the entire season. In a related story, Dallas missed the playoffs.

Elliott makes Dak Prescott, not the other way around. Elliott controls the clock and preserves Dallas' defense. As a rookie, Elliott carved up the opposition for a league-high 1,631 rushing yards and scored 16 times. In Year 2, he averaged an NFL-best 98.3 rushing yards per game over 10 contests. He's special. And absolutely necessary to this imperfect Cowboys bunch.

With Zeke covering up areas of deficiency, double-digit wins is the expectation in Dallas. Without him, the Cowboys will be watching football in January.

2) David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals

Like Elliott in Dallas, Johnson's value to Arizona became quite clear during his abbreviated campaign last fall.

In 2016, Johnson led the NFL in scrimmage yards (2,118) and touchdowns (20), while the Cardinals ranked sixth in scoring and ninth in total offense. In 2017, Johnson missed nearly the entire season with a wrist injury, and Arizona dropped to 25th in scoring and 22nd in total offense. No coincidence there.

Johnson is a Swiss Army Knife superstar. Earlier this offseason on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein On Sports," the Cards back said he expects 1,500 yards running and 1,000 receiving. I'm not going to bet against him.

Johnson's presence in the backfield will allow Arizona to break in rookie QB Josh Rosen. And simply put, David Johnson puts the Cardinals in the conversation.

3) Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots

Sure, by the end of last season, Gronkowski seemed beat up physically and mentally. But make no mistake: He is not only a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but still the best tight end in the NFL. And with Danny Amendola in Miami, Brandin Cooks on the Rams and Julian Edelman suspended for the first four games, Tom Brady needs Gronk more than ever.

There's a lot of stuff swirling around Foxborough right now: a reported cooling of the Brady-Belichick relationship, the Alex Guerrero drama, potential trader's remorse with Jimmy Garoppolo, the Malcolm Butler Super Bowl mystery. But one thing remains undeniably true: When No. 87's right, he's a force of nature who has no equal in the NFL today. The Pats need that in 2018.

4) DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans

"Nuk" remains underrated on the national stage, but he's certainly not underappreciated by the Texans or their fans. Through his first five NFL seasons, Hopkins has averaged the following per-year figures: 83 catches for 1,173 yards and seven touchdowns. Those numbers are impressive enough on their own -- but then you think of the Clown Car O' Quarterbacks Houston has rolled out during that span, and that stat line becomes eye-popping.

Yes, Hopkins finally did get stability at the position last season in the form of Deshaun Watson, but it was only temporary, thanks to Watson's torn ACL. In Watson's last five starts, though, Hopkins notched seven of his NFL-high 13 touchdown grabs. (Yes, Hopkins did lead the league in receiving touchdowns -- did you know that?)

Hopefully, 2018 is the start of something special on a full-time basis, with Hopkins and Watson teaming up to terrify defenses. Hopkins lets the young QB show off his talent. Hopkins lifts the Texans' offense -- and the team, as a whole.

5) Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams

Jared Goff deserves all the credit in the world for his growth in Year 2. Head coach Sean McVay deserves all the credit in the world for being a brilliant offensive guru.

But Gurley's the motor here.

The 2017 Offensive Player of the Year barreled his way to 1,305 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground, while also adding 64 receptions for 788 yards and six more scores. Talk about an all-purpose back!

6) Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

I always struggle putting a Steeler on this list, because it's very difficult to separate Brown and Le'Veon Bell. Each has a legit claim to being the best NFL player at his position. But Brown has been the model of consistency and domination. Just look at these last five seasons of work:

2013: 110 catches, 1,499 yards, 8 TDs.
2014: 129 catches, 1,698 yards, 13 TDs.
2015: 136 catches, 1,834 yards, 10 TDs.
2016: 106 catches, 1,284 yards, 12 TDs.
2017: 101 catches, 1,533 yards, 9 TDs.

Those are video-game numbers. And last year, he legitimately thrust himself into the MVP conversation -- as a wide receiver! -- with his out-of-this-universe play in the fourth quarter.

7) Josh Gordon, WR, Cleveland Browns

Now, before your head explodes, read my intro again. Review what indispensable means to me. That's Josh Gordon.

If Gordon stays on the right path and plays 16 games, the Browns are in the playoff hunt and finish second in the AFC North. If he doesn't, they are the Browns.

When he's on the field, Gordon makes everyone's life easier on offense: from the quarterback to the running backs to the receivers to the tight ends. He's a fundamental piece. Yes, his All-Pro season of 2013 came a half-decade ago. But remember what he did last season? Remember when he returned in December for his first NFL action since 2014? In his first game back, he snagged four balls for 85 yards. In his second game, he scored. And in the season finale, he piled up 115 yards on four catches. The 27-year-old's still got it.

8) Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons

He's a star and an absolute freak. But Jones scored just three touchdowns last season. Also, the Falcons did draft Calvin Ridley, and they do have one of the game's best backfield duos in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. So, Julio's spot on this list is a tad lower than in prior years.

All that said, the Falcons have a fair and simple goal this season: Hosting Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta. That cannot happen sans Jones.

9) Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints

Mark Ingram's suspension cemented the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year's place on this list. New Orleans is a team with the highest of hopes in 2018, so a good start to the season is crucial. And given that Drew Brees isn't getting any younger, Kamara will get a healthy workload early -- and throughout the season.

This cat does it all, in and out of the backfield, as evidenced by his 728 rushing yards and 826 receiving yards in Year 1. He averaged a whopping 6.1 yards per carry as a rookie and graded out as Pro Football Focus' No. 2 running back (behind only Gurley).

ADDITIONAL NOTES

-- Leonard Fournette was No. 10.

-- I don't know if Odell Beckham Jr. is healthy, and I don't consider the Giants a playoff team. So that kinda skews the indispensability. Not to mention, Saquon Barkley is a huge value for the Giants.

-- I love Le'Veon Bell. I wish he had received a long-term deal. Now? Who knows when he's going to show up ...

-- I don't think there's an offensive lineman worthy of placement above.

-- A.J. Green fell off the list for the first time in years, because I don't think Cincy is going anywhere. So the indispensability is null and void.

-- I couldn't separate Travis Kelce from Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill in K.C.

-- I bet Christian McCaffrey finds his way onto this list next year.

-- I love Keenan Allen, but he ran into a receiver logjam.

-- Mike Evans is special. I'm not buying the Bucs.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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