A team-by-team look at the most indispensable players (non-quarterbacks) in the division.
The most crucial player isn't necessarily the most skilled or most popular. In some cases, he might not even be the best player within his unit.
When you factor all the circumstances -- position, strength of his backup, importance to the team dynamic -- a player's worth sometimes can exceed his status.
Keep that in mind as you consider the AFC East's most indispensable players. The aim of this project is to focus on non-quarterbacks because of their inherent importance to a team, but Tom Brady is the only one in the division who would rank atop his roster even if quarterbacks were included.
It's difficult to propose any member of the Bills as indispensable. Their competitive expectations are the same with a full roster as they are without any single player. But their most talented player is receiver Lee Evans. No other position on Buffalo's roster has a bigger drop-off in skill and experience from its best player to the next-best.
Although many observers will become enamored with rookie running back C.J. Spiller's jaw-dropping moves, the Bills do have other quality backs. Without Evans' presence as a downfield threat, defenses will load the box and suffocate any semblance of a run game the Bills hope to mount. Even if Evans doesn't produce, he keeps defenses somewhat honest.
There's a temptation to go with receiver Brandon Marshall here because he's the sexy offseason acquisition. But we can't be certain how much he's going to alter the Dolphins' run-dominant offense. In 2008, they won the AFC East without a great receiver. In 2009, they were respectable because they're so great at running the ball.
The main reason for that is left tackle Jake Long, who has established himself as an elite offensive lineman with two Pro Bowl selections in as many seasons. Long is a 6-foot-7, 317-pound mountain. He paves the way for Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams and makes the Wildcat possible. It also can be argued that Long is a more important teammate to Chad Henne than Marshall will be. With Long protecting his blind side, Henne has peace of mind.
Based on the way the Patriots' offense sputtered without Wes Welker in the playoffs last year, he'd be a good choice. Or you could go with the transcendent abilities of Randy Moss. But the Patriots have an emerging group of young receivers, and Brady won three Super Bowls with a hodgepodge of targets.
That's why nose tackle Vince Wilfork is the Patriots' most indispensable non-quarterback. Wilfork is, by far, their most important defensive player. He absorbs multiple blockers on any given play, allowing the players around him to make plays. Remove him from the field, and the Patriots' defense gets pretty ordinary.
Darrelle Revis is their best player, but the Jets believe they can win without their all-galaxy cornerback because they still have Antonio Cromartie, Kyle Wilson and Dwight Lowery. Nose tackle Kris Jenkins is important, but the Jets managed to have the top-rated defense without him for the past 10 games of the 2009 season. Nick Mangold is the NFL's best center and crucial to the offensive line.
But the most indispensable Jet is left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Remove him from the field and the run game suffers. Minus Ferguson, a quarterback with knee problems and not known for making the best decisions under duress has edge-rushers chasing him around. I'm fairly certain the Jets would rather not entrust Mark Sanchez's continued health to Wayne Hunter, an eight-year pro with one career start.