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

The NFL can quickly remind teams, players, and fans how short a season can be.

Derrick Henry will have foot surgery and will be out indefinitely, the Tennessee Titans announced on Monday. Even the most hopeful scenarios would rule him out for the remainder of the regular season, if not the playoffs as well. For a Titans club that leads the AFC with a 6-2 record, his loss is a crushing blow. This season, Henry has averaging 29.6 touches per game, six more than any other running back, and is the centrepiece of Tennessee's offence.

NFL reporters and columnists have come to a consensus on who they believe is the most irreplaceable player in the NFL league.

This is what each of them answered:

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 defences 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 defences 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 can 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.