Putting together my list of the nine most indispensable defenders on Tuesday was fun and a great challenge. But executing this task on the offensive side of the ball was even more interesting -- because of a twist ...
No quarterbacks allowed.
In 2015, the QB is the most important player on the team. That's indisputable. So instead of just providing a "Captain Obvious" list -- chock full o' no-brainer signal-callers like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning -- I excluded the position from consideration in an attempt to keep things interesting.
Still, just like with the defensive list, there were some very tough omissions.
This column is called "The Schein Nine." Of course, if my last name rhymed with "ten," Demaryius Thomas would've made it. The Broncos wideout was the most difficult player to leave on the cutting room floor. I also truly agonized over not highlighting the ultra-talented Matt Forte. But I couldn't justify his inclusion because I think the 2015 Bears would struggle with or without their most versatile weapon.
Initially, my gut instinct was to include Zack Martin. I'm just so damn impressed with the Cowboys' second-year guard. But then my editor and I got into a nasty, heated exchange ... OK, fine, it was one polite email where he reminded me that I not only voted for Martin on my first-team All-Pro ballot last season, but also included two more Cowboys from the best offensive line in football (Travis Frederick and Tyron Smith). Plus, Dallas added talented rookie La'el Collins this offseason. All of that disqualifies Martin from being indispensable.
I toyed with the idea of spotlighting Kelvin Benjamin, but ultimately decided not to, partly because I believe Carolina is missing the playoffs regardless of who's lined up out wide. I think Green Bay needs Eddie Lacy for supreme balance and to win a Super Bowl. But then again, Aaron Rodgers is Aaron Rodgers. Lastly, Calvin Johnson is quite a presence, but he was the second-best receiver on his own team last year.
Remember, this is not a list of the best offensive players, but the most indispensable (sans quarterbacks). And like with the defenders, surrounding rosters and individual effects on the win-loss record are taken into account.
So after major debate, here's the list, Schein Nine style:
1) Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
Peterson's a bona fide star in this league, a generational talent who impacts everything. With him, the Vikings can win games in the playoffs. Without him, they can't make the playoffs. No other non-quarterback on an NFL offense has that kind of impact. Last year's team showed promise, but with Peterson logging just one game (a season-opening road win), the Vikes didn't make the playoffs. No coincidence there.
Yes, Peterson just turned 30 this offseason, but a) this guy isn't your typical physical specimen, and b) he's well-rested after basically having a year off. Peterson's imposing presence will take the pressure off second-year QB Teddy Bridgewater while also keeping Minnesota's defense fresh.
2) Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots
With Tom Brady's four-game suspension still looming (pending the results of his forthcoming appeal), Gronk's game-changing ability becomes even more crucial in the opening month of the 2015 campaign. Fill-in QB Jimmy Garoppolo will definitely lean heavily on the mismatch nightmare -- because, after all, that's exactly what Brady himself does.
Brady might be the greatest quarterback of all time. But in recent years, Batman hasn't been the same without Robin. That's what Gronk has come to represent for his all-world quarterback. He's an unstoppable force at tight end. You can't cover him. You can't tackle him. You can't contain him. When Gronkowski's healthy, the Pats' offense puts points on the board. When he isn't? All bets are off.
Outside of Julian Edelman, New England's wide receivers are far from special. Gronk gives the Pats a terrifying threat in the red zone and over the middle. He's unique and flat-out amazing.
3) Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons
When Julio's hurt, Atlanta can't compete. It's just that simple.
4) Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants
This cat is a freak. The Giants are flawed, with major questions all over the place, but they possess one of the most enticing young stars in the NFL today. With Beckham, they have a chance to compete. Without him, hope dies.
In his neophyte campaign, Beckham was absolutely majestic, routinely making incredible catches that elicited oohs and aahs from sports fans across the country. He drew the admiration of everyone, including a pretty good sportsman by the name of LeBron James. In just 12 games, Beckham posted an eye-popping stat line: 91 catches for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Of course, the reason he only played 12 games was that he missed the first month of the season with a nagging hamstring injury. And therein lies the only concern with this transcendent wideout: health. Beckham is currently being treated for another hamstring ailment and might not return to action until training camp. For the sake of Giants fans (and, really, football fans), here's hoping OBJ's body doesn't thwart his immense talent.
5) Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
I love stats, but in putting together a list like this, I also think it's important to gauge feel and factor in the eyeball test. And these days, the Steelers' offense just looks different with Bell in the backfield.
After Bell suffered a hyperextended knee in Week 17, I predicted the Ravens would march into Pittsburgh and knock off their hated rivals in the wild-card round. I felt Bell was just that important. And the game played out as expected, with Baltimore winning by multiple scores.
With Bell facing a three-game suspension to start the season, we'll again see the impact of his absence. I think the Steelers could get off to a rough start. Once he gets back on the field, though, watch out.
6) Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
Over his seven pro seasons, Charles has averaged 5.5 yards per carry. That's the second-highest career average by a running back in NFL history. And the guy's not too shabby as a receiver out of the backfield, either. While Chiefs wideouts infamously recorded zero touchdown receptions in 2014, Charles notched five -- and that's two less than he recorded in 2013.
Bottom line: This guy's everything for Andy Reid's offense. I'm an Alex Smith fan and supporter, but I'm not naïve when it comes to his limitations. Charles, who somehow remains underrated, is the straw that stirs the drink for Kansas City.
7) A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
Credit Green, who might not get enough praise for being flat-out brilliant; he's clearly the best player on a team that's become a playoff regular during his tenure. Four years, four 1,000-yard campaigns, four Pro Bowl nods -- this guy's consistently spectacular. Who knows where this team would be without him?
8) Joe Thomas, LT, Cleveland Browns
He's the rock and the leader of a Browns team that, for years, was so desperate for a rock and a leader. And he still tops the charts among franchise left tackles.
Since entering the league in 2007, he's started 128 straight games and made the Pro Bowl every season (compiling five first-team All-Pro nods, as well). Quite simply, the most indispensable offensive lineman in the game today.
9) Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seattle Seahawks
Yes, Seattle has a fantastic defense and a young quarterback (Russell Wilson) who has everything you want at the position. But could you actually imagine the Seahawks being dominant sans Lynch? "Beast Mode" has been the definitive hammer in Seattle's rise under Pete Carroll, averaging 1,339 yards and 12 touchdowns over the past four seasons.
And that is why I still can't believe the 'Hawks didn't feed him the football with the Lombardi on the line!