Last football season, I wrote that a great center is crucial to a team's success. Sunday's Chargers-Bears game underscored my point: If the center gets manhandled by the opposing nose tackle, it's going to be a long day for the offense. San Diego's massive nose tackle Jamal Williams is, in my opinion, the Chargers' most valuable player—more valuable than even the great LaDainian Tomlinson. As LT was getting stuffed by the Bears defense (thanks to the play of interior linemen Tommie Harris and Darwin Walker), San Diego still managed to stay in the game. The Chargers' savior was Williams, who simply would not be budged by Chicago's Pro Bowl center, Olin Kreutz. Chicago couldn't kick-start its power running game, and the Bears were done for.
Jamal Williams' banner day shows that a defensive tackle can alter the course of an NFL game. But is a great defensive lineman more valuable than a dominant offensive lineman? More valuable than a cornerback? Or to put the question another way: If you could start an NFL team from scratch, which position would you lock down first? Second? Last?
One way to answer this question is to look at paychecks. Theoretically, NFL front offices should have figured out a rational pay scale—the more essential a player is to victory, the more money he'll take home each year. The most recent salary breakdown I've found is a 2005 data set (PDF) from the NFL Players Association. The figures below are in millions and represent the average salary of starting players at each position:
Running back: 3.27
Offensive tackle: 3.17
Wide receiver: 2.97
Defensive end: 2.54
Middle linebacker: 2.30
Defensive tackle: 2.06
Offensive guard: 1.94
Outside linebacker: 1.81
Tight end: 1.79
Free safety: 1.39
Strong safety: 1.27
Let's go ahead and agree that the quarterback is tops, even though a leaky line can make even the best look like an amateur. (Remember Peyton Manning's infamous quote after the Colts' loss to Pittsburgh in the 2005 playoffs: "I'm trying to be a good teammate here. Let's just say we had some problems in protection.") The reverse is true, too. A great line, like the Washington group in 1991, can give a mediocre signal caller like Mark Rypien enough time to look like a Hall of Famer. Still, it's impossible to disagree with the idea that the player who has the ball in his hands every play is the most critical to wins and losses.
While the QB has always been and will always be the most valuable player on the field, the rest of the positions vary in importance from era to era. The spread of the Cover Two (or Tampa Two) defense, a zone designed to force the offense into making short passes, has increased the value of some positions and decreased the importance of others in today's NFL. Same goes for the success of 3-4 defensive schemes and the spread offense. I'm also focusing on where it's most valuable to have an elite player rather than a replacement-level scrub. If you could have an All Pro at only one position, what would it be?
Running backs are second in line at the ATM, but their actual value is much lower. Consider the ease with which even star backs are replaced (Edgerrin James, meet Joseph Addai), runners' obvious dependence on linemen for success (Edgerrin James, meet the Arizona offensive line), the brevity of backs' careers, and the rise of the running-back-by-committee system. Despite the fact that offensive linemen contribute nothing to fantasy football, I'd certainly place centers and tackles on top of running back in our NFL pyramid. From Indy to Denver to Pittsburgh, teams have consistently proved that you can find someone to haul the mail so long as the road is well paved. I'll stick with my argument from last year that the center is the offense's second-most-important player. Tackles, of course, are responsible for protecting the quarterback—a single error can leave the most important player on the field injured and the season in ruins. Less obvious is the tackle's role in the running game, especially in wearing down the opposing ends and linebackers.
With my QB and OL taken care of, I'll go to an underappreciated defensive position: safety. No defender covers as much ground or makes as many impact plays in the backfield and deep downfield. Safeties, especially the new breed who combine linebacker size with cornerback speed (think Adrian Wilson and Sean Taylor) have to be accounted for on every snap and are the defenders most likely to create seismic events, like fumbles and interceptions returned for touchdowns. They are also the ones who, should they slip up mentally, have the highest likelihood of giving up a big play. (Think of all the times you've seen a safety chasing a receiver into the end zone.)
The evolution of the safety is the evolution of the league in microcosm. Once, a guy who was built like Wilson or Troy Polamalu would have been a linebacker. When people say the game is faster and more violent than ever, the safety is the man responsible. And with the riches earned by Ed Reed and Polamalu, as well as Bob Sanders' inevitable big contract after this season, safeties should be making a move up the earning charts to match their increasing importance on the field.
Next come Jamal Williams and the other run-stuffing monsters. The 2000 Ravens established the blueprint for dominating the game from the inside out, when nimble (if morbidly obese) JumboTrons Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams collapsed offensive lines, allowing Ray Lewis to become a superstar. Why do run stuffers rate higher than other defenders? Because they're so hard to find. Pass rushers and cornerbacks are easier to acquire than guys who weigh 350 pounds, can take on two blockers each play, and still make tackles.