2022 NFL season: Non-QBs each team can’t afford to lose, from Chiefs’ Travis Kelce to Cowboys’ Micah Parsons

The 2022 NFL season will feature all kinds of drama thanks to a frenetic offseason, where dozens of big names swapped teams and a handful of blockbuster quarterback trades potentially shook up the hierarchy of contenders. Speaking of QBs, no position is more important in football, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t critical contributors at other positions across the league.

With that in mind, here’s a look at one non-QB each of the NFL’s 32 teams can least afford to lose in 2022:

The supporting cast around QB Justin Fields is already iffy both up front and out wide, so there isn’t much star power to lose. Smith, on the other hand, is the beating heart of a defense now run by Matt Eberflus. If he goes down, they’ll be especially dependent on the pass rush and a young secondary.

There are lots of good candidates here, namely Ja’Marr Chase and Jessie Bates III, who headline their respective units. But WR is deep, with both Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd in tow, and Cincy’s defense probably has the front four to help offset Bates’ absence. Williams, meanwhile, has emerged as a legit left tackle with the most important job on the team: protecting Joe Burrow.

Losing LT Dion Dawkins, who broke out with a Pro Bowl in 2021, wouldn’t be fun. But few players are as vital to Josh Allen’s stardom as Diggs, who’s drawn 330 targets from the QB in their two years together, not including playoffs. Gabriel Davis is emerging out wide, too, but Diggs remains the route-running catalyst of their offensive juggernaut.

Russell Wilson’s supporting cast is relatively deep at the skill spots, and Randy Gregory’s addition off the edge should take some pressure off Bradley Chubb, but the last thing Denver wants to do is give its new star QB shoddy protection. Losing Bolles would be a big blow, considering the former first-rounder has settled in as a Pro Bowl-caliber blind-side starter.

Cleveland might already be without its QB thanks to Deshaun Watson’s legal issues. Offensively, Amari Cooper would be a major loss since they’re still lacking WR depth, but Garrett is an even bigger presence in the lineup. Besides being a top-three edge rusher in the game, his absence would leave them heavily dependent on Jadeveon Clowney and mid-tier backups.

Tom Brady can make just about any WR corps productive, and even with Chris Godwin sidelined, they’ve got solid depth out wide. Defensively, they’ve also got good reserves at every level. One thing Tampa Bay can’t afford, however, is to have Brady under steady duress, and Wirfs is already a perennial All-Pro protecting his right side.

Hopkins is already suspended six games for a violation of the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy, which is one reason it’s fair to be concerned about their rough 2022 schedule. Yes, Marquise Brown should bring speed, but A.J. Green is a shell of his former self and Rondale Moore is still growing. QB Kyler Murray needs a reliable No. 1 to thrive during a contract year.

L.A. has plenty of star power: Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack, etc. The list goes on. Being the top blocker for QB Justin Herbert, Slater simply carries a ton of positional value, and his phenomenal 2021 debut as an All-Pro starter only makes the potential drop-off more significant. You’ve gotta keep your signal-caller upright.

Even before Tyreek Hill’s abrupt departure via trade, Kelce would’ve been a safe choice here. Since Patrick Mahomes’ emergence in 2018, the Pro Bowl pass catcher has never been targeted fewer than 130 times. With new names headlining Mahomes’ WR group, Kelce should be an even bigger safety valve for Mahomes in the passing game.

RB Jonathan Taylor is their offensive centerpiece, but their line can probably support Nyheim Hines and/or Phillip Lindsay in an emergency. Defensive cogs like DeForest Buckner, Darius Leonard and Stephon Gilmore are also vital. Pittman, on the other hand, is basically the only proven receiver for new QB Matt Ryan.

Losing one of Ron Rivera’s defensive pillars, like pass rusher Chase Young (again), would be tough. But they’ve got enough Pro Bowl-caliber talent along the front four to survive a big-name absence. Offensively, can you imagine asking Carson Wentz to settle in and solve their QB woes with only Curtis Samuel, Jahan Dotson and … Dyami Brown (?) at receiver?

Their WR/TE depth could likely withstand the absence of star No. 1 CeeDee Lamb, and QB Dak Prescott has already weathered injuries up front. But what would their defense be without the manic production of Parsons, whose play-making range is capable of masking issues at every level? Take him out of the middle, and they’d become even more of a boom-or-bust unit.

You can have all the shiny new toys in the world, but if QB Tua Tagovailoa isn’t comfortable in the pocket under new coach Mike McDaniel, it’s all for naught. Armstead was paid big bucks this offseason to be the new anchor of their line, and the emergency fill-ins (Liam Eichenberg, Austin Jackson) did not fare so well in 2021.

Losing new WR A.J. Brown would be a hard pill to swallow, perhaps forcing the Eagles to revert to more of a run-first attack, but the team is deep at most key spots. Either way, they win in the trenches first, and Mailata is the headliner alongside Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson. Backup Andre Dillard is so-so, but Mailata’s combo of size, strength and speed is on another level.

Losing TE Kyle Pitts would hurt their offense, but that unit is already short on talent at every level. Terrell, at just 23, represents the biggest building block on “D,” where he’s emerged as a potential lock-down cover man.

So much of the Giants’ 2022 season depends on the development of QB Daniel Jones, who has a new coach in Brian Daboll. And while Thomas isn’t yet an elite lineman, his growth as a second-year starter confirms he’s got Pro Bowl upside. As the chief blind-side protector of Jones, his loss would force rookie RT Evan Neal into a high-pressure job.

On defense, pass rusher Josh Allen is an underrated piece whose loss would put added pressure on No. 1 pick Travon Walker. But nothing is more important than getting QB Trevor Lawrence on the right track, and Scherff instantly became the club’s top blocker when he arrived via Washington this offseason. When he’s healthy, he knows how to shore up an interior.

By himself, Fant isn’t necessarily a must-have left tackle. But he was mostly solid for QB Zach Wilson’s rookie year, and the fact is, the Jets just don’t have a ton of depth on the edges of their front, with boom-or-bust RT Mekhi Becton on the other side. Like the Jags, their top priority is developing the young man under center, so the line’s stability is invaluable.

Center Frank Ragnow is a solid alternative, though Detroit managed without him for all but four games in 2021. Sewell, meanwhile, offers versatility as a left/right tackle tasked with keeping QB Jared Goff comfortable in the pocket. You might be tempted to go defense here, considering they need all the help they can get, but Goff requires a cozy setup more than most.

Aaron Rodgers’ left tackle, David Bakhtiari, might seem like the easy answer, but Green Bay played almost all of 2021 without him. Ditto for star corner Jaire Alexander. Still, protecting A-Rod is priority No. 1, and Jenkins, despite missing half of last year with his own injury, has the athleticism to suit up at any position on a dime.

D.J. Moore might be more irreplaceable than Christian McCaffrey on their offense, especially with Robby Anderson apparently flirting with retirement. You’d also hate to lose defensive standouts like Brian Burns and Jeremy Chinn. But Carolina doesn’t stand a chance if its QB (Sam Darnold? Matt Corral?) can’t get better protection, and RT Taylor Moton can’t do it alone.

New England re-signed Brown this offseason after he graded out as one of their top blockers in 2021, and now he’s on track to be QB Mac Jones’ starting left tackle after Isaiah Wynn moved to the right side in minicamp. In the Patriots’ offense, where the RB room is deep and the WRs are equally so-so, the O-line is especially vital to Jones’ development as an efficient arm.

Las Vegas is going all in on Derek Carr by paying a premium to reunite the QB with his old college teammate. And while OT Kolton Miller’s absence would potentially leave an iffy line in shambles, Adams is the only big-time play-maker out wide alongside slot machine Hunter Renfrow. Yes, Darren Waller’s still here, too, but Adams alone could keep them in the wild-card mix.

WR Cooper Kupp is the offensive MVP, but Matthew Stafford could still thrive with Allen Robinson, Van Jefferson, etc. under Sean McVay. Donald, on the other hand, is the force of the Rams’ defense, always forcing opponents to scheme around him up front. CB Jalen Ramsey would be a big loss, too, but Donald is a more immediate influence as a constant threat in the trenches.

He’s played just seven games the last two years, so that’s a major concern. But his absence was felt throughout 2021, when QB Lamar Jackson posted career-worst numbers before going down. Getting him back into the lineup — and keeping him there — could be key to Jackson playing loose in a contract year, with Baltimore seemingly doubling down on a run-first approach.

Losing defensive stalwarts like Cameron Jordan or Demario Davis would really test the “D,” now run by co-defensive coordinators under Dennis Allen, but the real questions lie under center, where QB Jameis Winston finds himself behind a line already without Terron Armstead. If Ramczyk’s All-Pro blocking were to exit, too, New Orleans could be in deep trouble.

Even if DK Metcalf works through his contract issues and suits up as the imposing No. 1, Lockett is Mr. Reliable when it comes to the receiving group, which could have a tall task in 2022 working with either Drew Lock or Geno Smith at QB. Besides Metcalf and Lockett, Seattle’s WR room is “headlined” by Freddie Swain, Dee Eskridge and Marquise Goodwin.

Pittsburgh runs on its defense, and while there are certainly other veterans who could help make up for Watt’s potential loss (i.e. Cameron Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick), few NFL edge rushers are as consistently threatening. Watt is working toward a fifth straight 13-sack season and hasn’t logged fewer than 35 QB hits since 2018.

Houston’s roster is devoid of much star talent, but if the new regime wants any chance of developing Davis Mills as the actual QB of the future, the Pro Bowl left tackle will likely be key to keeping him upright after missing all but five games in 2021.

There are other good candidates here, including new No. 1 WR Robert Woods and emerging star D-lineman Jeffery Simmons. But King Henry runs their hard-nosed offense. Yes, Dontrell Hilliard fared well as a replacement late in 2021, but in a make-or-break year for QB Ryan Tannehill, few players are as important to him playing comfortably than his bulldozing counterpart.

He changes the offense. It’s that simple. Dalvin Cook is similarly explosive, but you can get solid RB output from Alexander Mattison, too. Jefferson, meanwhile, is the play-maker of a WR group otherwise led by the aging Adam Thielen and reserve K.J. Osborn. On defense, Za’Darius Smith’s arrival could help take some pressure off pass rusher Danielle Hunter.

Leave a Comment