New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was on a Hall of Fame track before tight end Rob Gronkowski came along in 2010, but the numbers surrounding their on-field relationship are nonetheless staggering. Take this one, for instance: Brady has been twice as likely to throw a touchdown pass when Gronkowski is on the field with him.
That statistical correlation (see chart) lines up with what any football analyst can see in the games, making Gronkowski my choice as the non-quarterback a contending team could least afford to lose. Settling on nine other players in my top-10 list required tougher decisions. An undrafted Seattle Seahawk made the list over Marshawn Lynch and Kam Chancellor, while the Dallas Cowboys' lone representative earned a spot despite having played only 34 snaps for the organization.
An important note: This is a look at non-quarterbacks deemed most valuable to their teams' specific postseason equations, not a ranking of the best non-quarterbacks on contending teams.
1. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots
Gronkowski's return to health played a leading role in jump-starting New England's offense last season. Since 2010, when Gronk arrived via the draft, Brady has produced a top-five Total QBR score with Gronkowski on the field and a top-12 version when Gronkowski was out of the game. His passer rating without Gronkowski (87.7) would rank between the ones for Matt Schaub (88.0) and Andy Dalton (87.3) among 30 qualifying quarterbacks since 2010. Brady's passer rating with Gronkowski on the field (105.5) would trail only the 110.7 forAaron Rodgers over that span. The chart below speaks loudly.
Tom Brady With Gronkowski On/Off Field
||GRONK OFF FIELD
||GRONK ON FIELD
|TD pass rate
The Broncos are one of 11 teams over the past five seasons to start 5-0. They rank last among those teams -- by far -- in points per game, expected points added per game and yards per game. The 2013 Broncos are also on that list of 5-0 teams, except they ranked first in all those offensive categories. That is how much things have changed in Denver.
Moral of the story? Denver is undefeated because of its defense, and Miller is widely regarded as the best player on that defense. He ranks first in Pro Football Focus grading for edge defenders this season, just ahead of Khalil Mack andJustin Houston. While the Broncos do have good overall talent on defense -- Chris Harris and Brandon Marshall were versatile players under consideration here -- Miller really is the driving force. The team's current formula for winning would need tweaking without him.
3. Greg Hardy, DE, Dallas Cowboys
A weak NFC East and Tony Romo's eventual return places the Cowboys into the contender category (at least for me) despite their 2-3 record. Hardy dominated against New England in his Cowboys debut, collecting two sacks and forcing a fumble. He finished that game with the highest individual PFF grade for any Cowboys defender in Week 5.
Hardy's presence helped the Cowboys hang with the Patriots for a half, despite little support from a Romo-less offense. Continued play near that level could help Dallas compete until the QB's return. And if the Cowboys can remain in the playoff picture, Hardy's presence would greatly improve Dallas' Super Bowl chances.
The case against placing Kuechly on this list is easy to make but also superficial. Yes, the Panthers are 4-0 despite getting only 32 snaps from Kuechly, including zero since Week 1. Yes, cornerback Josh Norman has been the defensive star for Carolina. But here are the starting quarterbacks the Panthers have faced this season: Blake Bortles, Ryan Mallett, Luke McCown and Jameis Winston. These are not the types of quarterbacks Carolina will have to beat if the team is still playing deep in the postseason.
In recent seasons, the Panthers have gone as far as their Kuechly-led defense could take them. They have gone 17-5 in the regular season when their defense ranked in the top five for expected points added per game (2013, 2015). They are 20-27-1 the rest of the time, when their defenses ranked between 19th and 31st. Carolina's quarterback play has been stable over that span, with QBR scores between 56.1 and 60.4.
Jared Veldheer has been a quiet linchpin on the left side for the Cardinals. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Deone Bucannon was a sleeper consideration given all he does in the Cardinals' defense. But keeping Carson Palmer healthy is the No. 1 priority for Arizona this season, and no player other than the quarterback himself figures into that equation more prominently than the Cardinals' current left tackle. Veldheer has not been at his best so far this season, but his addition before the 2014 season solved one of Arizona's most gnawing problems (so well, in fact, that Veldheer is increasingly taken for granted). Losing Veldheer would destabilize the line and complicate life for Palmer, left guard Mike Iupati and the offense in general.
Jones is the highest-rated receiver in PFF grading this season and a big part of Atlanta's high-scoring offense. On the bright side for the Falcons, quarterbackMatt Ryan had 10 touchdown passes with only one interception when Jones was off the field last season. And when injuries appeared to slow Jones over the past couple weeks, the Falcons found other ways to win. Could they do that consistently over an extended period if opponents no longer had to build their defensive game plans around containing Jones? That is debatable.
Problems on defense and/or special teams have derailed the Packers' championship chances in recent seasons. While it's true that Aaron Rodgers' presence keeps Green Bay in the playoff conversation almost by default, the Packers' expectations are higher than that, putting pressure on the defense to upgrade its performance. It's tough to envision that happening without Matthews' talent and versatility playing a key role.
There were candidates to consider from the Packers' offense, but Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy have shown an ability to produce at high levels using multiple styles and personnel combinations. Rodgers' QBR score this season is actually higher than it was in 2014, when top receiver Jordy Nelson was available and Rodgers won MVP honors.
The Seahawks aren't quite as good in their secondary thanks to personnel changes at cornerback, putting additional pressure on the defensive front. Bennett and teammate Cliff Avril are the key players from that standpoint. Both could merit spots on this list, but Bennett's versatility sets him apart.
A coach whose team has faced Bennett compared him to J.J. Watt in terms of disruptiveness. "Bennett is so quick and disruptive, and he has top-notch instincts," this coach said. "Some guys are dumbasses who wouldn't see it coming if alarm bells went off. 72 sees everything. He feels everything."
Marshawn Lynch would be another good Seahawks candidate, but backupThomas Rawls has topped 100 yards two separate times with Lynch out due to injury.
You could make a case for receiver A.J. Green representing the Bengals instead, but the numbers clearly show what Cincinnati watchers have known intuitively: Andy Dalton has thrown far too many interceptions over the years when forcing the ball to Green. For his career (counting playoffs), Dalton has 36 touchdowns with 34 interceptions targeting Green, compared to a 75/40 TD/INT split targeting everyone else.
Eifert's return to health this season gives Dalton a badly needed alternative. Eifert, who trails only Gronkowski among tight ends in PFF grading, leads all players at the position in touchdown receptions (five) while ranking third in receptions (24).
ESPN's Football Power Index gives the Jets a 72 percent shot at reaching the playoffs (for the AFC East, it's 98 percent for New England, 52 percent for Buffalo and 1 percent for Miami). That and a 3-1 record put the Jets into the "contender" category, which makes Revis an obvious candidate for consideration here.
The Jets know they can count on Revis in man coverage, which gives Todd Bowles and the defensive staff additional freedom in their blitz packages. That is key for a team that wants to win with defense and a strong ground game. Speaking of that ground game, Chris Ivory also was a consideration for this list.