The Schein Nine  

 

NFL's most indispensable offensive players for the 2019 season

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Every offseason, I identify the nine most indispensable offensive players in the NFL. And every offseason, I explain why the list doesn't include quarterbacks. But something tells me I should spell out my rationale once again ...

Type "indispensable" into Dictionary.com, and here's the first definition that pops up: absolutely necessary, essential, or requisite. If finding players who embody those words is the goal, and I allow myself to include quarterbacks, well, then the entire list will be quarterbacks. What's the fun in that?

So, QBs are excluded from this rundown. Before you tweet me, read that sentence again. And once more.

Another thing I want to make clear: This is not a simple ranking of the best players in the game today. My aim is to spotlight the guys who are most critical to their teams' success, taking into account surrounding talent, game planning and all of the other factors that are unique to each franchise.

Additionally, I didn't include Odell Beckham Jr. or Antonio Brown. I think both can be brilliant in new situations. But both come with baggage. So I'm going to need to see how they settle in before giving them a spot on this list.

With all of that as the backdrop, here's my annual rundown of the most indispensable offensive players, Schein Nine style:

1) DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans

Plain and simple: He's the best wide receiver in the NFL. And without him, the Texans wouldn't have a chance.

Hopkins is the perfect blend of hands, size, speed and clutchness -- the guy puts it all together in electric fashion. For years, he produced in spite of Houston's lackluster quarterback play. Then last season, he finally got to play 16 games with a legit signal-caller in Deshaun Watson. And the results were 115 catches for 1,572 yards and 11 touchdowns -- robust numbers that earned Hopkins a second consecutive first-team All-Pro nod.

But here's the real reason Nuk tops this list: Who's the next-best offensive weapon on the roster? Will Fuller can't stay healthy. The tight end group's unproven/underwhelming. And Lamar Miller somehow remains RB1. Take Hopkins out of the equation, and the Texans' skill-position talent would be among the league's worst.

2) Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams

When Todd Gurley is healthy, he's a candidate for MVP (remember midway through last season?) and Offensive Player of the Year (remember the 2017 campaign?). When No. 30's firing on all cylinders, the Rams can be considered the best team in the NFL. L.A. was nearly perfect in the first three months of last season, sitting at 11-1 in early December.

When Gurley's compromised, the entire complexion of Sean McVay's team changes. A grand total of three points on Super Bowl Sunday? Yeah, I don't think that happens with a healthy Gurley.

Gurley is not only an incredible runner -- he's a security blanket for Jared Goff out of the backfield catching the football (see: ten receiving touchdowns over the past two seasons). He's the Swiss Army Knife that makes this offense go. The Rams need to do everything they can to keep that balky left knee from barking.

3) Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys

Zeke makes Dak. Never get it twisted. And Elliott makes the Cowboys a contender to go deep into the playoffs, as a game-changing back and the perfect complement to one of the best defenses in the league.

Elliott has been in the NFL for three seasons, and in each of those years, he's paced the league in rushing yards per game. He's also a potent weapon in the pass game, fresh off a season that saw him set career highs in catches (77), yards (567) and touchdowns (3). Not to mention, he stones opposing QB hunters in pass pro.

In today's NFL, committee backfields are the norm. But Elliott's a true bell cow, the motor that Dallas' entire game plan revolves around.

4) Quenton Nelson, OG, Indianapolis Colts

It was hardly a coincidence Andrew Luck -- and the Colts as a whole -- returned to prominence when Nelson entered the fray. With the No. 6 overall pick earning first-team All-Pro honors in Year 1, Luck finally had the dominant offensive lineman in front of him that the prior regime failed to bring aboard for years. Nelson gave Luck time to be sensational (the QB was sacked just 18 times, as opposed to 41 when he was last healthy in 2016), made good running backs great (Marlon Mack blossomed in Year 2) and helped bring cohesion to the entire line.

Oh, and the Colts shocked many by winning nine of their last 10 regular-season games and marching to the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

5) Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons had a down season in 2018, finishing below .500 for the first time in Dan Quinn's tenure. But don't blame Julio, who eclipsed 1,400 receiving yards for the fifth straight year (hauling in 113 balls for 1,677 yards). Through the years, some folks have dwelled on the freakish athlete's low touchdown totals, but A) that's more on Atlanta's approach in the red zone and B) Jones notched a respectable eight scores last season. And look for Julio's numbers to be even more eye-popping this fall, with Dirk Koetter back calling the plays.

Bottom line: This is a special talent. A 6-foot-3, 220-pound specimen who possesses every talent you'd want from a receiver, from run-after-catch ability to run blocking. With him, Atlanta's offense is always a threat to be a top-five unit. Without him, well, you cannot even go there mentally if you are a Falcons fan.

6) Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers

McCaffrey is one of my favorite players in the league today. He's scary great, with the kind of all-around skill set every team is looking for in a modern back. Sometimes stats lie, but McCaffrey's output in 2018 was the truth. Eclipsing 1,000 yards rushing and 100 catches in the same season? He's only the third man to achieve that feat, joining Matt Forte and LaDainian Tomlinson.

McCaffrey was the critical cog in Carolina's offense in 2018, especially with Cam Newton's shoulder issue down the back half of the season. With the Panthers undoubtedly looking to lighten the franchise quarterback's load as much as possible, McCaffrey figures to be a touch monster again in 2019.

7) Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants

The only reason he's ranked in the bottom third of this list is because I have serious doubts about these Giants racking up that many wins -- even with Barkley in the fold. Without him, though, they'd REALLY be in trouble.

Barkley has a Barry Sanders feel to him. This is the ultimate team sport, but Saquon truly changes games with his individual brilliance. The Giants might be trailing by two scores because of inept quarterback play, a porous line or leaky defense, but Barkley is always capable of breaking one. Ninety-one catches to go with his 1,307 rushing yards -- as a rookie?! I gave him my AP vote for first-team All-Pro. Barkley was truly a Giant amid chaos.

8) Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints

In theory, it's difficult to differentiate Thomas from Alvin Kamara in terms of impact on the offense. I've already listed Kamara as a dark-horse MVP candidate and I stand by that. But Thomas is everything for Drew Brees and Sean Payton in the passing attack. And the numbers he's put up in in first three seasons -- averaging 107 catches for 1,262 yards and eight touchdowns -- speak for themselves.

Jared Cook was a nice offseason edition, but it's not like this receiving corps is teeming with encouraging options beyond Thomas. Brees understandably targets Thomas at an extremely high rate, and the wide receiver certainly makes it worth the QB's while. On 147 targets last year, Thomas logged 125 catches -- that's a crazy-high catch rate of 85 percent. What would Brees and Co. do without him? Not be Super Bowl contenders, for one thing.

9) Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs

Yes, Patrick Mahomes is amazing and makes everyone better. But Kareem Hunt is gone. And who knows what's next for Tyreek Hill? Kelce is the best pass-catching tight end in the game today. Even the mighty Mahomes would have issues adjusting to life without his tight end's amazing hands, ability to get open and dominant ways on third down and in the red zone.

Kansas City's defense remains a huge question mark, so the Chiefs will have to keep scoring points in bunches. And Kelce, who just set career highs in catches (103), yards (1,336) and touchdowns (10), is absolutely critical to this attack.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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