A team-by-team look at the most indispensable players (non-quarterbacks) in the division.
This exercise was easy for every NFC West team but the Seattle Seahawks.
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc., writing for ESPN Insider, went with defensive lineman Brandon Mebane when putting together his Seattle choice. Mebane is a good player, but if he's in the mix as the non-quarterback Seattle can least afford to lose, the team must not have many impact players beyond Matt Hasselbeck. That is clearly the case as the Seahawks rebuild their roster.
ARIZONA CARDINALS: LARRY FITZGERALD
The Cardinals managed to win an even higher percentage of their games in recent seasons when former Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin wasn't available to them. They could always lean on Fitzgerald, one of the two or three best receivers in the league, to elevate his game as needed. Fitzgerald has 35 touchdowns over the past three regular seasons. He has nine touchdowns over the past two postseasons -- Randy Moss has 10 in his postseason career -- and has missed only one game over the past three seasons.
Fitzgerald's value has only increased now that Boldin is gone from Arizona for good. The on-field production is only part of what makes Fitzgerald so valuable. Fitzgerald also sets a standard of excellence for teammates to follow. He organizes an offseason training camp in Minnesota each summer. He constantly strives to improve the finer points of his game. This offseason, that meant working on getting better separation from receivers, something that could help him against the tougher coverages he'll likely face in the post-Boldin era.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: PATRICK WILLIS
Brett Favre's preseason debut this season lasted only four plays and Willis' violent (but clean) hit on the 40-year-old quarterback precipitated the early exit. Last season, Willis' hard (but clean) hit on Hasselbeck near the goal line left the quarterback with damaged ribs, affecting the Seahawks' overall viability.
Willis is a threat to anyone in his path on a football field. More than any other 49ers player, Willis sets the tone, making sure the team plays to the physical and emotional standards of coach Mike Singletary. The new contract Willis signed this offseason should only embolden him.
Take away Willis and the 49ers would lose some of their edge on defense. Their linebackers would suddenly look rather ordinary. Opposing quarterbacks would breathe easier (literally, in Hasselbeck's case).
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: RUSSELL OKUNG
Mebane wasn't a bad choice for Seattle, but the team's debilitating problems at left tackle last season made Okung an easy selection for me, particularly with tackle depth already thin following Ray Willis' latest knee issues.
The Seahawks fell apart last season when injuries forced them to use their projected fifth-string left tackle. Drafting Okung or another offensive tackle with the sixth overall choice bordered on being a necessity once it became clear Walter Jones' career was finished.
The ankle injury Okung suffered in the second exhibition game threatens the Seahawks more than an injury to any other non-quarterback might. Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu and left cornerback Marcus Trufant were also in my thoughts for this discussion, but this is a quarterback-driven sport and Okung's presence affects the quarterback more than the presence of any other player on the team.
ST. LOUIS RAMS: STEVEN JACKSON
The Rams have one Pro Bowl player on their roster and it's Jackson. The team lacks a proven backup at the position, heightening Jackson's value. Throw in the Rams' transition to a rookie quarterback and the team arguably needs Jackson more than before.
Jackson is so good, however, that he might still be the most indispensable non-quarterback in the division even if he played for the 49ers, Seahawks or Cardinals. The will Jackson showed in carrying the offense last season convinced me he's a special player, not just a talented one. The way Jackson ran against the 49ers last season while the Rams trailed 35-0 would have made Walter Payton proud.