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.
Lewis and his fellow inside linebackers come next. They make the lion's share of tackles and are responsible for short–to-medium-range pass coverage. A decade ago, the middle linebacker was the unquestioned defensive quarterback. While that description still fits Ray Lewis and a few others, the position is increasingly reliant on the big boys up front to occupy linemen.
Now the running backs finally appear, followed closely by the offensive line grunts, the guards. As Steve Hutchinson and Eric Steinbach's mammoth contracts show, mobile, strong guards are getting more respect from front offices around the league, and with good reason—Hutchinson can both create a crater inside and pull to open running lanes outside. Next come the edge pass rushers, specialists like Dwight Freeney who can be schemed against but require special attention—nothing destroys a drive like a sack on third down. It's close, but I'd rather have a player who consistently holds down the running attack rather than a guy who occasionally terrorizes the quarterback from the perimeter.
Whither the wideouts? They are the loudest players on the roster, always insisting on the damn ball. But in the grand scheme, a team with a great quarterback but average receivers is in much better shape than the reverse—witness the Patriots last year. I'd also argue that the best linemen and defenders have much more impact than the top receivers—they simply don't have stats that quantify that impact. Call it the fantasy football effect: Like the best running backs, big-time receivers get money and status far in excess of their effect on the final score. (I'd place receiving tight ends, like Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark, and Tony Gonzalez, in with this group as well—they're valuable downfield threats, but they are rarely called upon to block and struggle to do so effectively.)
As a special-teams enthusiast, one of my pet peeves is the constant ridicule of kickers and punters as goofy nerds. Kicking miscues cost Cincinnati and Dallas dearly last season; in contrast, Jason Elam showed Brady-esque poise and skill in banging home a field goal at the gun on Sunday to lift Denver over Buffalo. Call it parity or mediocrity, the closeness in talent in today's NFL puts a premium on field position. Tilting the field with consistent punting or deep kickoffs is essential, despite what all the ex-linemen and quarterbacks on the pregame shows tell you.
Now comes the controversial placing: the cornerback. While Champ Bailey continues to excel, the phrase "shutdown corner" isn't heard much these days. You can chalk that up to the sport's copycat nature. The goal of the Tampa Two defense is to prevent deep passes. Cornerbacks aren't required to blanket receivers across the field. Rather, they're encouraged to keep receivers in front of them, allowing underneath passes for short gains rather than risk getting beat by the deep ball. That's a vital task, but one that's less dependent on individual talent than on sticking to a scheme. As the Colts showed last year, it's possible to win the Super Bowl with replacement-level corners. Indy lost both of its starting DBs in the offseason, slotted in some in-house replacements, and the team's pass defense has never looked better.
That puts fullbacks, followed by blocking tight ends, at the bottom of the list—every player is important but someone has to be last.
Here's my final list by position:
Wide receiver/receiving tight end
Blocking tight end
Now, if only Joe Nedney could get a piece of that Nate Clements contract …