Everyone would agree that the quarterback is the most important player on an NFL team. They certainly get paid like it. As such, the majority of NFL teams would be in big trouble if their starting quarterback went down with an injury.
Master of the scheme: Troy Polamalu, S, Steelers
Take a look at the mighty Steelers defense when Polamalu isn't on the field or even when he isn't 100 percent. It's not the same. The opposing QB doesn't have to locate Polamalu's replacement the same way he does Polamalu. Quarterbacks, offensive linemen, running backs and receivers all have to figure out just what Polamalu is up to on every play.
The super leader: Ray Lewis, LB, Ravens
Not everyone can play defense for the Ravens. Lewis sets the standard, and everyone else follows. He may have lost a step, but he still leads by example and preparation. There is simply no one in the NFL who commands a huddle like Lewis.
Protection setter: DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Cowboys
He's called an outside linebacker, but every quarterback and left tackle thinks of him as the ultimate pass rusher. As one QB said, "We would love to see him drop into coverage more often, but we treat him as a premier rusher every play of every game we play against him." At no time do teams ignore him or leave their tackle alone to handle the rush.
Running machines: Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings; Chris Johnson, RB, Titans
It's no secret that teams play the run every down Peterson and Johnson are in the game until they clear the ball. Translation: As long as those two are in the backfield, the linebackers aren't going anywhere. No defensive coordinator would think of calling a defense that didn't put an extra defender in the box when these guys are in the backfield. Johnson makes defenders miss, and Peterson will run over an extra defender. Without these backs, there is no running game in Minnesota or Tennessee, and there isn't a play-action pass threat either.
Blitz creator: Darrelle Revis, CB, Jets
Rex Ryan wants to blitz more than any coach in the NFL. He believes in pressure, pressure, pressure. But when you bring too many defenders at the quarterback, it leaves your cornerbacks isolated on wide receivers and the chance of getting burned increases immensely. So without Revis Island taking away the best receiver by himself, Ryan's scheme wouldn't work.
Coverage beaters: Andre Johnson, WR, Texans; Calvin Johnson, WR, Lions
Both Johnsons defy the logic of double coverage. If their quarterback came off these receivers because of double coverage, they would never throw to them. The Johnsons can beat two defenders when they have to. The quarterbacks will force in a ball when they want, but they also know they get great looks at other receivers because of their presence and the attention they draw from opposing defenses.
Lonely man: Joe Thomas, OT, Browns
Thomas once told me he never gets any help from a tight end or a back and is just fine on an island taking care of business by himself. With all the quarterbacks who have gone through Cleveland -- some holding the ball too long, some leaving the launch point, some just lost -- Thomas takes the best pass rusher every play and shuts him down.