Football is a team game requiring all 11 players on the field working together. But that doesn’t mean all players are created equal. Clearly, some players on a roster are more important than others. There are certain players on each team who are beyond essential to a team’s success.
If they don’t play at or near their best all season, a team’s playoff hopes take a drastic hint. Naturally, how important a player is to a particular team is up for debate, but here are our picks for the most important player on every NFL team heading into the 2019 season.
Arizona Cardinals: Kyler Murray
The Cardinals took Murray with the 1st overall pick in the draft and then traded away last year’s first-round pick Josh Rosen, so this season is all on the rookie’s shoulders. New head coach Kliff Kingsbury picked Murray as the perfect quarterback to run his offense, putting all of his eggs in Murray’s basket.
Based on Rosen’s experience last season, Murray probably won’t have a great supporting cast around him, especially on the offensive line. It’s not easy succeeding as a rookie quarterback with a strong supporting cast, and it’ll be even more difficult for Murray. There will be immense pressure on him to both live up to the hype of the 1st overall pick and carry the Cardinals.
Atlanta Falcons: Deion Jones
Jones was lost to injury in Week 1 last season and Atlanta’s defense wasn’t the same without him. By the time he returned in mid-November, it was too late to make much of a difference. In his absence, it was the defense that held the Falcons back last season, and as the middle linebacker, he’s arguably the most impactful and most important player on Atlanta’s defense.
The Falcons don’t need to worry too much about Matt Ryan and the offense, but they need the defense to do their part. When Jones had a breakout season in 2017, the Falcons had a top-10 caliber defense. If Jones can stay healthy and return to that level of play in 2019, the Atlanta defense should be good enough to put the Falcons in a position to reach the playoffs. But the team can’t afford to see their defense repeat last year’s performance.
Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton
It’s a safe bet that Carolina’s season is going to come down to the health of Newton’s shoulder. The Panthers should be solid on defense, and they can ride Christian McCaffrey a little more than most teams can ride their starting running back. But that wasn’t enough to get them to the playoffs last season with Newton struggling to throw downfield because of his bad shoulder.
The NFC South could be just as competitive this season, so the Panthers need Newton to be back at full health. The fact that the Panthers used a 3rd-round pick on quarterback Will Grier could be a sign that the team isn’t fully convinced Newton will come back 100% after off-season surgery. If he ends up having the same problems throwing the ball he did a year ago, Carolina won’t survive life in the NFC South.
Chicago Bears: Mitch Trubisky
The Bears proved last season that (outside of their kicker) they have a good supporting cast around Trubisky, both offensively and defensively. But now it’s up to the young quarterback to take the next step in his development. Chicago isn’t going to sneak up on anybody in 2019, and the Packers and Vikings (and maybe even the Lions) are going to be gunning for them.
It’s no longer enough for Chicago to win with Trubisky. Rather, the Bears need to start winning because of Trubisky. Chicago ranked 21st in passing yards per game a year ago, but they need to at least be in the top-10 or 12 if they expect to go from dark horse to legitimate contender in the NFC. He doesn’t have to be in the same category as Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers, but the Bears need him to at least bridge the gap a little.
Dallas Cowboys: Travis Frederick
With Amari Cooper onboard, the Cowboys have a rather impressive triumvirate on offense along with Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. But it’s the Dallas offensive line that has made the difference in recent years and made the offense click. While the Cowboys have a lot of talent up front, center Travis Frederick is easily the most important. He helps make the group cohesive and work together as a unit.
Unfortunately, Frederick missed all of last season after being diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome. The illness is a big deal, but Frederick has been working out during the off-season and looks poised to return to the field in 2019. The Cowboys got by without him last season, but his absence was felt. If Frederick can return to full health this season, the Cowboys will be at full strength offensively and get the best out of Prescott, Elliott, and Cooper.
Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford
There just isn’t that much help on Detroit’s roster to make things easy for Stafford. On top of that, Matt Patricia is still learning how to be a head coach. Fair or not, that puts a lot of the burden on Stafford when it comes to the Lions being successful or not this season.
In Patricia’s second season, the defense has a chance to be much-improved. However, Stafford doesn’t have much to work with on offense. The likes of Marvin Jones, Kenny Golliday, and Kerryon Johnson are all coming back from injuries heading into training camp. Meanwhile, Golden Tate is gone and was replaced with an aging Danny Amendola. In short, the season is on Stafford’s shoulders. If he can’t elevate the play of everyone around him, the Lions are going to keep pace in the NFC North.
Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers
With Mike McCarthy gone, the pressure is on Rodgers to make it work in Matt LaFleur’s system. Obviously, Rodgers is accustomed to having the burden of carrying the Packers. But if things don’t go well this season, he can’t point the finger at McCarthy.
On top of that, he doesn’t have the greatest supporting cast around him. In fact, he’s not all that familiar with his receivers now that Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb have moved on over the past couple of seasons. Rodgers has Davante Adams and an aging Jimmy Graham, but most of Green Bay’s other passing targets are largely unproven. Like most elite quarterbacks, Rodgers has to raise the level of everyone around him, and if he doesn’t, there’s little hope for Green Bay to reach the playoffs.
Houston Texans: Julién Davenport
Deshaun Watson found a way to lead the Texans to the playoffs last year despite a dreadful offensive line in front of him. But Houston can’t continue to play with fire like that. There needs to be a significant improvement in the offensive line this season. Otherwise, it’ll be too difficult for Watson to take his game to the next level and take the Texans to the next level in the process.
Obviously, it’s not all on Davenport to raise the level of the entire offensive line. But as the left tackle, he’s easily the most important player on the offensive line. He started to make some strides last season, but it’s vital that he takes another step forward in 2019. If Davenport has a bad year, the entire line will have a bad year, and if that happens, the Texans are in trouble.
Los Angeles Rams: Todd Gurley
Gurley’s health was a big question heading into the Super Bowl, and it remains a big question heading into the 2019 season. Clearly, something was wrong with him physically during the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, nothing Gurley or the Rams have said this summer should make anyone confident that his knee problems are a thing of the past.
The good news is that the Rams have a healthy offense outside of Gurley. If Cooper Kupp comes back healthy, they’ll have a trio of wide receivers that will make most teams jealous. But there’s no downplaying the impact Gurley has had during his time in the league when he’s been healthy. The Rams can be good without him, but if Gurley can somehow comeback healthy, there’s no doubt L.A. will be a bonafide Super Bowl contender.
Minnesota Vikings: Dalvin Cook
It’s safe to say that Kirk Cousins will never live up to the big-money contract that brought him to Minnesota. That doesn’t mean the Vikings can’t win with him; it just means they’ll need more out of their running game. Naturally, that will make Cook a vital part of the team’s success.
There should be no doubt that Cook has the skill-set to be one of the best rushers in the NFL. However, staying healthy has been his biggest problem over the first two years of his career. He’s played just 15 games and scored only four rushing touchdowns in two seasons. If he can stay healthy, he can be the kind of workhorse back that can dominate games and make things a lot easier for Cousins. But if injuries continue to be a problem for Cook, it doesn’t bode well for the Vikings being anything more than average in 2019.
New Orleans Saints: Marcus Davenport
No matter how good Drew Brees and the New Orleans offense looked last season, the Saints can’t rely on their offense to carry them to the Super Bowl. They need their defense to do more, and Davenport has a chance to be one of the most important figures on the New Orleans defense.
After the Saints traded two 1st-round picks to get him last year, they’re expecting big things from him. He ended up with just 4.5 sacks in 13 games. However, if he can take a big step forward and turn into an elite pass rusher, he’ll completely change the look of the New Orleans defense. Davenport could be something special, especially with Cameron Jordan on the other side of the line. If Davenport can have a breakout season, the Saints could have both a top-5 offense and a top-5 defense in 2019.
New York Giants: Sterling Shepard
To be fair, the Giants need to hope that their changes on the offensive line lead to some serious improvement. However, the bigger concern could be at wide receiver with Odell Beckham Jr. getting traded away. Without Beckham, Shepard will have an even bigger role in the offense. People will be looking for him to take on the no. 1 receiver spot, so if things don’t go well, he’ll take the heat.
The addition of Golden Tate will help, but Shepard is younger and has shown enough promise to make people think he can help to fill Beckham’s shoes. Obviously, that’s asking a lot, but the Giants have no one else they can turn to in the passing game. That makes Shepard critical to their success this season.
Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz
It’s not that there are massive questions about Wentz’s play heading into 2019, it’s more about his health. He missed the end of 2017 with a serious knee injury and wasn’t able to play a full season last year either. Without Nick Foles around to back him up, it’s even more vital for the Eagles that Wentz be able to play 16 games this year.
The fact that Wentz was sidelined late last season with a back issue is a good enough reason to be concerned about him. One bad hit or one awkward fall could cause a back issue to flare up. If Wentz stays healthy, the Eagles shouldn’t worry too much about his performance, but it’s critical that they keep him healthy.
San Francisco 49ers: Jimmy Garoppolo
There’s so much anticipation for what we hope will be Garoppolo’s first full season as a starter in the NFL. Despite coming back from a serious knee injury, the 49ers will immediately need him to carry them. Remember, he went 5-0 as a starter late in the 2017 season, and then San Francisco’s season quickly went downhill last year after he suffered that injury in Week 3.
Making Garoppolo’s return even more important is the fact that the 49ers don’t have a great supporting cast. The running game should be in good shape with Tevin Coleman joining Matt Breida and Jerick McKinnon. But the 49ers are awfully young and inexperienced at wide receiver outside of veteran Jordan Matthews, who’s been injury-prone and ineffective the last few seasons. That group will force Garoppolo to return from his injury and immediately play at a high level in order to get the 49ers moving in the right direction.
Seattle Seahawks: Bobby Wagner
Let’s face it, the Legion of Boom days in Seattle are over, with Wagner being one of the few holdovers from the Seahawks team that won the Super Bowl. Not only is Seattle’s secondary completely different from what it looked like a few years ago, but the defensive line doesn’t look as formidable after the team traded away Frank Clark.
What that means is that Wagner, as the middle linebacker and veteran leader, will have to hold the Seattle defense together. The Seahawks can lean a little on Russell Wilson and the offense, so the Seattle defense doesn’t need to be the dominant unit they once were. Nevertheless, Wagner is their best defensive player and the lifeblood of the team, making him essential to Seattle’s season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jameis Winston
Winston had trouble keeping Ryan Fitzpatrick from taking his job last season, so he’s definitely at a crossroads in his career. It’s time for him to prove that he’s a quarterback who can win games, not just put up big numbers. During his career, Winston is just 21-33 as a starter, and that’s on top of all of the off-field issues.
More importantly, most of Tampa’s success this season could hinge on Winston’s play. The Bucs were dreadful running the ball last season but failed to upgrade at running back. The jury is also out on Tampa’s defense. To put it another way, if Winston can’t avoid the kinds of turnovers that have plagued him in the past and have the best season of his career, the Buccaneers will struggle and may look to move on from him next off-season.
Washington Redskins: Ryan Kerrigan
There’s nothing the Redskins can do about their complicated quarterback situation. They just have to hope for the best and make sure they’re solid everywhere else on the field. That means a lot of the team’s success in 2019 will fall on the defense.
Kerrigan doesn’t get a lot of publicity league-wide, but he’s the unquestioned leader of Washington’s defense. Rather quietly, he’s racked up 13 sacks in each of the past two seasons. He’s also played 16 games every season since the Redskins drafted him in 2011. Kerrigan is one of the most reliable players in the NFL, which is good news for Washington because the team would be a disaster without him holding the defense together.