Ben Roethlisberger

This shouldn’t come as shocking to anyone, but if last season proved anything for the Steelers, it proved that they stand absolutely no chance without Ben Roethlisberger. A hobbled Roethlisberger is a completely different player than he is when he’s mobile enough to escape pressure and move around the pocket.

The Steelers hope to protect Roethlisberger better with rookies David DeCastro and Mike Adams starting up front. The fate of the Steelers season will depend on how well Adams, who will start at left tackle, holds up in protecting Roethlisberger’s blind side.
Troy Polamalu

After missing 21 regular season games from 2006-2010, Polamalu didn’t miss a single game last season. The Steelers defense is not even close to the same without Polamalu and as always it will be critical that he stays healthy next season.

This one was a close call between Polamalu and either James Harrison or LaMarr Woodley. The difference is while the Steelers can at least get by on defense for a few games without one of their pass rushing outside linebackers, they really struggle without Polamalu.

Few players are as instrumental to their team’s success as Polamalu. Without him roaming the secondary, the Steelers leave themselves vulnerable when they blitz. Since Polamalu came into the league in 2003, their record without him is 12-9. If you’re thinking that that’s not too bad, realize that the Steelers are 75-29 in games that he’s started.

Ray Rice

Without Ray Rice, where would the Ravens offense be? It would be at the bottom of the league. Losing Rice would be the worst case scenario for the Ravens next season. He had the most yards from scrimmage of any player in the NFL last season with 2,068 and was the Ravens leader in receiving targets.

Rice’s total was well over a third of the Ravens entire offensive production last season. The Ravens have no experienced backups at running back. Without Rice the Ravens would surely turn over more of the offense to Joe Flacco, who is by my estimation the single most overrated player in football. Relying on Flacco is never a good thing, and would result in a disappointing season on Baltimore.
Haloti Ngata

It would be interesting to see which player on the Ravens defense would be voted best or most important in a national poll. I’m guessing it would be pretty close between Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, and Terrell Suggs. Haloti Ngata might be in the running, but I doubt he would top the list. You won’t find many players across the NFL that are more underappreciated than this guy. He’s the best interior defensive linemen in football, and is virtually unblockable.

Not only does Ngata allow Ray Lewis to look ageless flying around the field against the run, he’s also a very disruptive pass rusher. Without Ngata, the Ravens run and pass defense would drastically suffer.

A.J. Green

This one was a touch call between A.J. Green and Andy Dalton. I think at this stage in Andy Dalton’s career however, the Bengals would actually be better off losing him than A.J. Green. Green had a huge rookie year with 1,057 yards and 7 touchdowns. I expect Green to really breakout next year and establish himself as one of the best in the game. For a rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton also had a solid year.

He still has a long way to go though, and the Bengals would fare better with backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski running the offense than they would without their star receiver. If Green were to go down, the Bengals best wide receiver would probably be third-round pick Mohamed Sanu. That should be a sobering thought to all Bengals fans.
Leon Hall

He might not have a ton of name recognition, but Leon Hall is one of the top corners in football. The Bengals were shorthanded last season when Hall went down in November with an achilles injury. Their secondary recovered nicely without Hall, but it’s critical that he stays healthy next season. They won’t be able to slow down Pittsburgh’s receivers without a healthy Hall. With the addition of first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick, the Bengals might have one of the best cornerback tandems in football now.

Trent Richardson

Trent Richardson is going to have to deal with some unfair and unrealistic expectations in Cleveland. Richardson is going to be a really good running back, but he’s not Barry Sanders, Jerome Bettis, or Adrian Peterson. In other words, he’s not going to be good enough to change the fate of the Browns franchise in my opinion. Even if Richardson was on the level of Adrian Peterson, running backs just don’t change the dynamic of teams in the NFL the way they used to.

Just look at the Vikings. It will take a quarterback to do that, which they hope they have found in Brandon Weeden. Still, the Browns really can’t afford to lose Richardson. Behind him is a host of mediocrity, and Weeden is going to need a solid running game to work off of in his rookie campaign.
D’Qwell Jackson

Jackson was voted 96thby his colleagues on the NFL Network’s annual list of the top 100 players in the game, and deservedly so. Last season Jackson led the AFC with 158 tackles. Jackson also logged 3.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries, and an interception. He is clearly the best player and leader of the Browns defense. Jackson uses his athleticism very well in the running game. He lost much of 2009 and 2010 to injury.

The Browns really can’t afford for this to happen again. Even with Jackson healthy last season, the Browns run defense was still ranked near the bottom of the league, giving up 147.4 yards per game.