NFL roundtable: Who is most irreplaceable player in league right now?

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The NFL can swiftly remind teams, players and fans how fragile a season can be.

On Monday, the Tennessee Titans announced that Derrick Henry would undergo foot surgery and be out indefinitely. Even many of the most optimistic timelines would have him out for almost all of the rest of the regular season, if not the playoffs as well. His loss is a brutal blow for a Titans team that leads the AFC with a 6-2 record. Henry has averaged 29.6 touches per game this year - six more than any other running back - and serves as the focal point of Tennessee's offense.

With news of his injury still fresh, USA TODAY Sports asked its NFL reporters and columnists:

Who is the NFL's most irreplaceable player right now?

Their answers:

Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates a rushing touchdown by Devonta Freeman #33 during the first half in the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium on October 24, 2021 in Baltimore, Maryland.
Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates a rushing touchdown by Devonta Freeman #33 during the first half in the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium on October 24, 2021 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Jarrett Bell

Lamar Jackson. Of course, you can make the case for so many. Tom Brady. Kyler Murray. Joe Burrow. Even Matthew Stafford. And obviously, Dak Prescott, given how the Cowboys collapsed last season. That Dallas won a game last weekend with Dak's fill-in, Cooper Rush, may lessen the argument for Prescott. But only slightly. And temporarily. It helps, too, that Dallas has rebuilt its defense this year into something that, unlike last year, resembles a real NFL unit. In any event, I give Jackson the nod in this roundtable because this season he's accounted for more of the Ravens offensive production than at any point in his brilliant career, which has kept afloat a team that has already lost so many pieces this season, due to injuries. They need Jackson -- the team's heartbeat, miracle comeback artist and leading rusher -- in the worst way.

We're talking quarterbacks here, for sure, but specifically, it's also about backup quarterbacks. Jackson's second-year backup, Tyler Huntley, has thrown 16 NFL passes. At least Burrow's backup, Brandon Allen, has the experience of five starts last year after Burrow went down and three starts in 2019. The backups for Brady (Blaine Gabbert) and Murray (Colt McCoy) obviously won't replace the stars they support, but at least they are former NFL starters who, like Trevor Siemian in New Orleans last week, might keep things afloat in an emergency. Then again, with Henry likely done for the season, the irreplaceable meter for Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill has gone through the roof.

Jori Epstein

With all due respect to former Longhorn Colt McCoy, former Sooner Kyler Murray is the NFL’s most irreplaceable player right now. The good news for the Cardinals: Murray hasn’t missed a start in 40 pro chances. The bad news: He’s battling a bum ankle, so the full-throttle irreplaceable Murray is unlikely to face San Francisco this week.

When choosing Murray, I began with position. Despite the powerful impact a running back, receiver, pass rusher or shutdown corner can have, the NFL as currently structured depends so heavily on quarterback play that they’re nearly always the most valuable players on their teams. The NFL also never seems to have 32 healthy, productive starters; the limited supply bolsters the demand. Then I considered unique ability: Murray’s athleticism and dual-threat capabilities pose similar value to the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, but Mahomes has proven human this season while Murray, when healthy, appears to be peaking as a pocket passer and offensive leader.

Murray has 20 total touchdowns to seven turnovers, wearing down defenses with his ability to extend plays and creating something from nothing on plenty of opportunities. His connection with head coach Kliff Kingsbury would be difficult to replicate; and Murray’s accuracy, despite a game-deciding interception vs. Green Bay last week, has impressed. Pairing the athleticism that vaunted Murray to the top overall draft pick, with the system command that has blossomed this season, has been powerful. Here’s to Murray’s ankle fully healing over the team’s Thanksgiving bye, so NFL fans – and no doubt a hoard of eager fantasy GMs – can see Murray’s full capabilities in late-season matchups with NFC contenders like the Rams and Cowboys, and into the postseason.

Mike Freeman

I’m going in sort of a weird direction, but I remain amazed at what he’s doing, and in many ways his remarkable season remains underplayed. The answer is Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp.

Kupp leads the NFL in targets, receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. According to NFL Research, he’s the first player in the Super Bowl era with 900 yards receiving and 10 receiving touchdowns in the first eight games.

One of the true metrics of a great player is when a team dedicates numerous resources to stop the player, and it still can’t. That was the case with Derrick Henry and it’s the case with Kupp. Yes, he’s part of an explosive offense, but few receivers right now scare defenses the way he does.

Without Kupp, the Rams’ offense would be solid. With him, it’s often unstoppable.

Mike Jones

I guess I’ll say Tom Brady. If he were to get injured, the Bucs would have to turn to Blaine Gabbert, who has a career record of 13-35 and hasn't started a game since 2018. The Bucs would return to the ranks of the league's basement dwellers, just as they were before Brady left New England.

Lorenzo Reyes

My pick is going to be, perhaps, a surprising one because he has struggled at times. But I think it has to be Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs. Yes, Kansas City (4-4) has struggled with several issues on offense: pass protection, ball security, slow starts. But think about just how lost this team might be if it wasn’t for Mahomes. In unison with coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy — two of the most gifted offensive minds in the NFL — Mahomes hasn’t quite been able to mask Kansas City’s deficiencies this year, but he has at least been able to lessen them.

That’s not to say that Mahomes isn’t above criticism. He needs to perform better when teams drop back two deep safeties and he also needs to avoid making critical mistakes and forced throws; despite ranking fourth in the NFL in passing touchdowns (19), he also leads the league with 10 interceptions. And while the Chiefs are loaded with talented skill position players, Mahomes still has the ability to put his teammates in position to score on any given play. That, so far, has been enough to keep Kansas City from succumbing to a lost season.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' NFL coverage on Twitter @usatodaynfl.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL's most irreplaceable player: Lamar Jackson? Tom Brady?