NFL executives form contingency plans to deal with the loss of key players during portions of the season, but some guys are just impossible to replace. These blue-chip players are not only the pillars of their respective teams' game plans, but they are absolutely indispensable in terms of production and impact.
While most quarterbacks would automatically qualify as indispensable players -- think about how much the Chicago Bears missed Jay Cutler last season -- there are a handful of non-QBs whose loss would severely cripple their respective teams' chances of succeeding. Here are five players who are simply irreplaceable:
Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions
Quarterback Matthew Stafford's health is critical to the Lions' playoff hopes, but Johnson is unquestionably Detroit's most important offensive weapon. Standing at 6-foot-5 and 236 pounds with sub-4.4 speed, Johnson is a freakish athlete with uncanny explosiveness and agility. He blows past defenders with speed and quickness on vertical routes while relying on his size, strength and athleticism to create separation on intermediate routes. Johnson is capable of executing every conceivable pattern on the route tree. This is key because the Lions deploy their top weapon at various spots, taking advantage of his ability to win against single- or double-coverage. This not only serves as an effective counter to defensive tactics, but it creates isolated matchups for Titus Young, Nate Burleson and Brandon Pettigrew, who reap the benefits by gobbling up yards and touchdowns.
Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets
At a time when the term "shutdown corner" is loosely applied to any defender assigned to cover the opponent's No. 1 receiver, Revis is head-and-shoulders above his peers at his position. He routinely snuffs out the opposition's top playmaker with little assistance from safeties or linebackers. In addition, Revis has the capacity to line up on either side of the formation or in the slot, illustrating his versatility and technical savvy. Coach Rex Ryan has built his defensive system around Revis' exceptional skills as a one-on-one pass defender, with the rest of the defense playing various zone, combination or blitz coverages around him. Revis allows the Jets to theoretically take away one half of the field; they can use the remaining 10 defenders to load up against the run or pass.
The Jets' defense has ranked first, third and fifth in total defense over the first three seasons of the Ryan era. It's safe to say Revis' remarkable skills have been a critical element of this success.
Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore Ravens
Lombardi: Best of the best
Michael Lombardi identifies blue-chip and red-chip players at every offensive position entering the 2012 campaign. **More ...**
Quarterback Joe Flacco's responsibilities increase with the Ravens incorporating more no-huddle offense in 2012, but the weight of the unit remains on the shoulders of Rice. He is the quintessential featured back in the NFL, with a game that is solid in all aspects. Rice can run effectively inside and produce explosive plays in the passing game on screens or swings; he is one of the few backs with the ability to stay on the field in any situation.
Most importantly, Rice is extremely durable, allowing him to take over games when the Ravens need him most. He became the driving force of Baltimore's offense down the stretch last year, tallying 100-plus yards from scrimmage in each of the Ravens' last five regular-season games (of which Baltimore won four). While the Ravens will put the ball in Flacco's hands to win games early in the season, you had better believe Rice will remain the focal point of the offense once it gets down to crunch time.
Charles Woodson, DB, Green Bay Packers
Mayock: Preseason observations
Mike Mayock had a busy summer, traveling from camp to camp to scout players and teams. What did he learn? Let's find out. **More ...**
Woodson is on the downside of an illustrious career, but he remains one of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL. He has mastered the nuances of playing the ball as a pass defender while developing a knack for prying the ball loose from runners. Woodson is also a terrific rusher with great instincts for squirting through cracks to reach the quarterback.
Given his diverse skill set, the Packers have utilized Woodson in a variety of roles, to put him closer to the action at all times. He flows from cornerback to nickel corner to strong safety, depending on the personnel package, making him the most versatile defender in the lineup and an irreplaceable weapon in coordinator Dom Capers' scheme.
DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Dallas Cowboys
Ware has been arguably the most dominant defender in the NFL since he entered the league in 2005. He has racked up 99.5 sacks, forced 27 fumbles and provided the Cowboys with a host of disruptive plays. Ware's success as a pass rusher stems from his explosive first-step quickness and relentless motor. He simply wears down opponents with endless energy, and his ability to routinely generate sacks based on extra effort makes quarterbacks uneasy in the pocket.
What makes Ware even more impressive is his ability to consistently get to the quarterback without having a legitimate rushing threat complementing him on the opposite side. Only once in Ware's career has another Dallas pass rusher accumulated 10-plus sacks (Greg Ellis recorded 12.5 in 2007). Ware is routinely forced to face double- and triple-teams, yet he produces at league-high levels.
Simply put, it's hard to imagine Dallas' defense being effective at all without this perennial Pro Bowler in the lineup.