In the National Football League, some players just simply cannot be swapped out. It can be because of their willingness to play an undesirable role on their team, it can be because of their leadership presence in the locker room, or it can be because they are flat-out superstars.
In this article, we are going to look at 11 players who we feel are the most irreplaceable players in the league based off of their 2015 performances. As was the case when we did this a year ago, we will again be excluding the quarterback position from consideration for the simple fact that it is the most important position in football. If we opted to include quarterbacks here, this article would quickly turn into a feature on the elite quarterbacks around the league such as Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Tom Brady, and Carson Palmer. Instead, this list will feature 11 offensive and defensive players whose performances were head and shoulders above their peers’ in 2015. Without further ado, here is a look at the 11 most irreplaceable players in the NFL.
* Note: In putting together this list, we used the player grades from Pro Football Focus (PFF) to avoid as much subjectivity as possible.
1. Luke Kuechly, inside linebacker, Carolina Panthers
- PFF Grade: 99.1
Not only did PFF grade Kuechly as the best inside linebacker in the game, they also gave him the highest grade of any player in the league. The 24-year-old Boston College product has the ability to take games over in a way few players at his position ever have, and is one of the main reasons the Panthers won this year’s NFC title. In 2015, Kuechly made his third-straight All-Pro team, and came in third in the NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting (he won the award in 2013). If he can stay healthy, Kuechly is well on his way to having a Hall of Fame caliber career.
2. Julio Jones, wide receiver, Atlanta Falcons
- PFF Grade: 96.0
Jones was one of the few bright spots for the Falcons in 2015. The 27-year-old wide receiver put up career-highs in receptions (136) and receiving yards (1,871), and as a result, he earned a spot on the NFL All-Pro team for the first time in his career. At 6-foot-4 and 220-pounds with world-class speed, Jones is a matchup nightmare for opposing defensive backs. Players like him simply do not come around very often.
3. Aaron Donald, defensive tackle, St. Louis Rams
- PFF Grade: 99.0
Very few people truly understand how dominant Donald is. The 24-year-old defensive tackle finished second in the voting for the 2015 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, and graded out ahead of every player in the league other than Kuechly. At this point in time, Donald ranks as the best defensive tackle in the NFL – ahead of guys like Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy – and the scary part is that 2015 was only his second professional season. If he stays healthy, Donald is going to make life miserable for opposing offenses for most of the next decade.
4. Rob Gronkowski, tight end, New England Patriots
- PFF Grade: 96.7
This one was a no-brainer. Gronkowski is currently the best tight end in the league (by a fairly wide margin), and has a legitimate chance at solidifying himself as the best to ever play the position at the NFL level if he can stay healthy. Needless to say, the Patriots are a far more beatable team when Gronkowski isn’t in their lineup.
5. Khalil Mack, outside linebacker, Oakland Raiders
- PFF Grade: 95.8
Mack established himself as one of the best defensive players in the league in 2015 when he became the first player in NFL history to earn first-team All-Pro honors at two different positions in the same year. He has the versatility to play multiple positions in the Raiders’ hybrid defensive scheme, and is one of the main reasons why the future is finally starting to look bright in Oakland for the first time in a long time.
6. Von Miller, outside linebacker, Denver Broncos
- PFF Grade: 94.0
As we all learned during this year’s AFC Championship Game as well as during Super Bowl 50, when Miller is at the top of his game he may be the best defensive player in the league. There are times when he is practically un-blockable – both as a pass rusher and against the run – and his relentless motor and lightning fast first step make him a once in a generation type of player.
7. Joe Thomas, offensive tackle, Cleveland Browns
- PFF Grade: 94.3
In the spirit of honesty, it felt somewhat wrong to include a player from the Browns on this list. However, Thomas continues to be too dominant to ignore. If you don’t agree, just consider the fact that in 2015 he made his sixth career All-Pro team and saw PFF grade him as the best offensive tackle in the league. Needless to say, Thomas has a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame waiting for him when he retires.
8. Antonio Brown, wide receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers
- PFF Grade: 96.5
In our opinion, Brown is the best wide receiver in the league. In fact, had the Steelers had Ben Roethlisberger in their lineup all season, Brown likely would have had a record-breaking season in 2015. PFF graded Brown as the best wide receiver in the league this year, and to the surprise of few, the 27-year-old wideout made his third-straight All-Pro team.
9. Marshal Yanda, offensive guard, Baltimore Ravens
- PFF Grade: 92.5
Many people do not know who Yanda is because of the fact that he plays one of the most unheralded positions in football. Well, it’s time to start taking notice. Over the last few seasons, the 31-year-old has solidified his place as the premier offensive guard in the league, and we are expecting that trend to continue into the 2016 season.
10. J.J. Watt, defensive end, Houston Texans
- PFF Grade: 95.7
There is no way that our list of irreplaceable players could not include Watt. The 26-year-old defensive end has won three of the past four NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards, and is arguably the best overall player in the league. He led the NFL in sacks in 2015, despite playing a position (3-4 defensive end) that does not traditionally put up high sack totals, and is equally as dominant against the run. If he can keep up his current pace, Watt has an excellent chance at going down as the greatest defensive player in NFL history.
11. Tyron Smith, offensive tackle, Dallas Cowboys
- PFF Grade: 93.3
Smith is one of the main reasons that the Cowboys have the best offensive line in the league. The three-time All-Pro out of USC may be the best run blocking offensive tackle in the league, and is almost equally as dominant in pass protection. Given that he is just 25-years-old, Smith is going to be a pillar for the Cowboys for several years to come.