A team-by-team look at the most indispensable players (non-quarterbacks) in the division.
No team can win consistently without a good quarterback. That's a given. So we remove that position from the equation for an exercise designed to identify other players whose play is inextricably linked to their team's success.
The way the 2010 season is shaping up, I don't see NFC North teams winning without elite efforts from the following:
CHICAGO BEARS: LANCE BRIGGS
National observers have hashed out the arrival of defensive end Julius Peppers, the return of middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and the installation of Mike Martz's offense. But let's be clear: Briggs plays the key playmaking role in the Bears' defensive scheme and has been their best player over the past several years. He's held together the injury-riddled and aging back seven of this once-proud defense, maintaining an elite level even as the play around him has deteriorated. While Peppers offers a new level of pass rush and Urlacher calls all of the defensive signals, the Bears' hopes for a defensive resurgence this season would be crushed if Briggs weren't on the field. That makes him indispensable in my book.
DETROIT LIONS: CALVIN JOHNSON
It's true. Two of Johnson's three seasons have been limited by injury. He's never made the Pro Bowl and is known more for his freakish athletic skills than elite production. But those skills are what scare opponents into making rare adjustments and innovating exotic coverages to defend him. Consistent double coverage, with the occasional triple-bracket, is something most offenses dream of. A good coach can find all sorts of ways to capitalize on the corresponding mismatches elsewhere on the field. Without Johnson, you could defend the Lions traditionally and with modest fear. With him on the field, everything changes.
GREEN BAY PACKERS: CHARLES WOODSON
New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, who championed cornerback Darrelle Revis' candidacy for the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year award that Woodson eventually won, put it best: "Woodson would be a better safety and a better linebacker, but he's not a better corner than Darrelle Revis." Indeed, the Packers revealed Woodson's full array of skills last season in Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme, using him just as effectively as a blitzer, a quasi-safety in run support and a cornerback they trusted in single coverage against an opponent's top receiver. Capers' scheme is based on putting the same players in different looks and sub packages, and no one does that better than Woodson. Without him, the Packers would have had to delete a substantial percentage of the schemes they used last season.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS: ADRIAN PETERSON
A summer of personnel uncertainty has given tailback Adrian Peterson renewed relevance in the team's offense. Receiver Sidney Rice (hip) could miss half of the season. Slot man Percy Harvin has been sidelined most of the summer by migraines. Quarterback Brett Favre didn't arrive until last week. Peterson himself missed more than a week of training camp practices because of a hamstring injury, but he will enter the regular season as the Vikings' top offensive threat. Favre still has targets in Bernard Berrian and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, but it will be difficult for the Vikings to repeat their passing success of a year ago. That once again makes Peterson front and center in the team's offense.