It's once again time to talk about the most indispensable players in the NFL. I did it in July 2007 -- on a whim no less -- and it created enough debate that it was worth bringing back for another year of discussion. After all, the same 10 players can't always be on the list. There are simply too many factors that change over the course of a year for that to happen.
In fact, there are only three players on the 2007 list that qualified to make this year's top 10. Why? Well, some of the players on the 2007 list wound up on teams that finished with losing records (like Chicago's Brian Urlacher). Others just didn't put up the kind of numbers that made them indispensable in the first place (like Carolina's Julius Peppers). And one fellow wound up in prison because he was dumb enough to operate a dogfighting ring with his pals (Atlanta's Michael Vick).
But that doesn't mean this list is any less interesting. It just means you will have more new names to argue about when you're deciding which players mean the most to their respective teams. So, as the 2008 training camps start, here are the most indispensable players in the NFL:
1. Tom Brady, QB, New England
This one shouldn't be a shocker. Brady produced one of the greatest seasons of any quarterback in league history during 2007. Along with claiming the league's Most Valuable Player award and setting several records (including his NFL mark of 50 touchdown passes in a season), he bonded with enigmatic wide receiver Randy Moss to form the most dangerous passing combo in years. To be honest, Brady would make this list every year it comes out. But he made it to the top this time after nearly leading the Patriots to perfection last season.
2. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis
How good is Manning? Let's just say it's hard to imagine the Colts' making the playoffs last season if he wasn't the guy under center. This team was rocked with injuries throughout 2007, including one that led to the absence of Pro Bowl wide receiver Marvin Harrison for most of the season. But that barely fazed Manning. He kept firing away and his team believed it could win, even with so many players bouncing in and out of the training room.
3. Terrell Owens, WR, Dallas
Say what you will about T.O. and his controversial history, but you have to admit this much: He's the key to that high-powered offense in Dallas. We saw that much when a high ankle sprain made him ineffective in an NFC divisional playoff loss to the New York Giants. When Owens is healthy, he makes life easier on tight end Jason Witten, wide receiver Patrick Crayton and quarterback Tony Romo. When he's off the field, the Cowboys' passing game isn't nearly as scary and neither is the rest of that team.
4. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota
It's been a long time since a rookie running back raced through the NFL like this guy. Along with setting a league record for most yards in a single game (296 against San Diego), Peterson energized a Vikings offense that wasn't offering much in the way of sizzle. Now the people around Minnesota are harboring Super Bowl hopes and they're probably thinking Peterson could gain 2,000 yards if he avoids the injuries that slowed him as a rookie. But you have to remember something else about this guy -- he's a star back without a strong passing game to ease the pressure on him. That alone makes him a member of this list.
5. Antonio Gates, TE, San Diego
Like Brady and Manning, Gates is another holdover from last year's list. And as was the case in 2007, his inclusion has everything to do with his rare ability. Gates still means more to the Chargers than Pro Bowl running back LaDainian Tomlinson because it's rare for a tight end to command the kind of attention Gates requires. You're talking about a guy who's been that team's leading receiver during four of his five NFL seasons and you can bet he'll do it again this season. Before his career took off in 2004, the Chargers were arguably the worst team in the league, one that featured Tomlinson. But they've been in the playoffs three times since 2004, with a passing game built around his talents.
6. Albert Haynesworth, DT, Tennessee
Haynesworth is the lone defender on this year's list because he had the biggest impact on his team in 2007. When he served a five-game suspension and played below his potential in 2006, the Titans' defense didn't intimidate too many opponents. When Haynesworth returned last season with obvious focus and determination, the Titans' pass rush and run defense started giving teams fits. The bottom line here: When this kid has his head right, the Titans' defense can make life hell for any offense.
7. Brian Westbrook, RB, Philadelphia
Westbrook is one of two players on this list ( Joe Thomas is the other) from a team that didn't make the 2007 playoffs, but nobody can question whether he belongs. For one thing, he's one of the best all-purpose backs in the NFL. For another, I can't think of another one of the Eagles who is as reliable and explosive as Westbrook. Two years ago he helped the Eagles to the playoffs while quarterback Donovan McNabb was injured and last season he compiled 2,104 yards from scrimmage (1,333 rushing and 771 receiving). The dude is tough.
8. Joe Thomas, LT, Cleveland
Thomas makes this list because you can't talk about indispensable players without mentioning at least one offensive lineman. And while there are bigger names at the position -- such as Seattle's Walter Jones and St. Louis' Orlando Pace -- no lineman meant more to his team's success last season than Thomas. His mere presence stabilized a Browns offensive line that had been historically lousy and he made Cleveland quarterback Derek Anderson feel much better about what was happening on Anderson's blind side. It's rare for a rookie to have that much impact, and that's why Browns fans should be feeling good about that spot for the next 10 or so years.
9. Matt Hasselbeck, QB, Seattle
Yes, every quarterback is important to his team but Hasselbeck was extraordinary in 2007. The Seahawks couldn't rely on former Pro Bowl running back Shaun Alexander and they also faced multiple injuries to their receiving corps. How did Hasselbeck respond? By putting the Seahawks' offense on his shoulders and leading that team to the postseason. A performance like that deserves to be rewarded with a spot on this list.
10. Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants
Talk about a guy who came of age in a relatively short time last season. Manning started 2007 with people wondering if he could become a more effective leader and he ended it with the Lombardi Trophy in his grasp. I've now stopped wondering whether he'll ever be the prolific passer that his brother is, primarily because it doesn't matter. He's showed the world he can win in his own way and it's hard to imagine another Giant who belongs on this list over him.