Eight in the Box: Can't-lose players

Other than the quarterback, which player could each NFC West team least afford to lose to injury? Here's a look:

Arizona: Receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Given the expected emergence of Michael Floyd -- and I do expect Floyd to develop into a big-time receiver -- I was tempted to pick Calais Campbell as the Cardinals’ most indispensable non-quarterback. But this offense is going to be built around Fitzgerald, who is the best wide receiver Bruce Arians has ever worked with, including Reggie Wayne. Despite a dreadful season in 2012, which wasn’t his fault, Fitzgerald remains as dangerous as any receiver in the league. The offense is changing to feature him more prominently. Arians insists on moving his best weapon around the formation, so Fitzgerald has been practicing and learning every wide receiver position to better generate favorable coverages. With newly found versatility, far better quarterback play and what should be better pass protection, expect Fitzgerald to put up some giant numbers in 2013.

San Francisco: Defensive tackle Justin Smith. The 49ers have plenty of great players, but this was an easy decision for me. Just look at how much different the 49ers’ defense was for the majority of last season when Smith was healthy and destroying offensive schemes as opposed to late in the season and throughout the playoffs when he was either out of the lineup or clearly playing injured. Smith does it all, and he does it all on every snap. He is a great pass-rusher with a variety of moves that can penetrate from an interior or outside alignment. He is a superb run-defender who plays with power, leverage and great hand technique. Most of all, he makes San Francisco’s other defensive players better on every snap and demands extra attention from opposing offenses in their blocking schemes. The Niners recently extended this great player because they understand his immense value. It is surprising that every fan of the game doesn’t understand what a top-notch performer Smith truly is.

Seattle: Safety Earl Thomas. I was torn between Thomas and Richard Sherman for this distinction, but because Seattle added Antoine Winfield in free agency, I believe the Seahawks would be better equipped to deal with the loss of Sherman than Thomas, although both are among the very best players at their positions. In fact, when I projected the top safeties for 2016, Thomas’ name was at the very top of that list. Thomas is best as a center field player in the Ed Reed mold, because he reads quarterbacks and breaks on the ball very well. He also has superb overall range. But don’t mistake Thomas as a finesse player. He is quick to fill in the run game, is a rocket coming downhill and is a flat-out striker who can separate ball from receiver. Thomas really doesn’t have any noticeable holes to his game, and he might be getting better. He is the defensive player Seattle can least afford to lose.

St. Louis: Defensive tackle Michael Brockers. There isn’t just one name that stood out to me for the Rams. Chris Long came to mind, as did Cortland Finnegan and James Laurinaitis. St. Louis has so many offensive weapons now that I believe it can afford to lose one or two. Jake Long also crossed my mind, but I think people forget that Long really didn’t play very well in 2012. I expect Alec Ogletree to make a huge immediate impact on St. Louis’ defense, but he is an unproven rookie. Few know it, but Brockers is an animal -- and on the verge of stardom. Few rookies last season improved as dramatically as Brockers did during the course of the season, and this guy is simply loaded with talent. I am expecting Brockers to assert himself as a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive tackle and the best player on the Rams defense during the 2013 season. For that reason, he will be truly indispensable.