As it happens, I was so struck by number 16 and the whole idea of the piece that I decided to post some thoughts on it here.
To begin with, Kercheval is framing this every bit as much as a "how screwed would these guys' teams be if they got hurt, huh?" list as he is acknowledging unique players across the league. That's interesting, but it's not quite the same as making a list of players that are just really unique and interesting because of their own skill sets.
For instance, last year Dante Barnett was clearly one of the most irreplaceable guys in the league because Kansas State totally failed to replace him. Was he even a 1st team All-B12 player though? Maybe, maybe not.
Nothing wrong with that, just a different way of doing the list that I think skews overly towards picking QBs.
Anyways here's some notables from the list:
16. De'Veon Smith, Michigan RB
Having seen my share of Michigan games and been to some of their open practices, scrimmages, I think this is total rubbish. Smith is a solid back who can lower his shoulders and get what's there but little more. They have at least two other who are like him or better.
14. Dakota Prukop, Oregon QB
The idea here is basically that Jeff Lockie is terrible, therefore Prukop is essential to Oregon's success. That might be true, though I think Lockie gets a bad rap. Dude started almost every play against TCU trying to catch footballs rifled at his ankles. Since much of their offense next year will be about throwing swing passes to Charles Nelson I'm not sure how big a deal this will really be. It may be that Prukop is really good though, in which case he might even need to go higher.
13. Malik Jefferson, Texas LB
Should be higher.
10. Calvin Ridley, Alabama WR
Good pull here as Kercheval notes that Kiffin is absolutely going to make Ridley a big part of the Bama offense and a go-to weapon on his "TD plays." Kiffin really does have TD plays that he's set up and prepared to catch the defense and get points and they often involve his best players.
You can probably pencil Ridley in for at least 1k receiving yards next year.
7. Desmond King, Iowa CB
Another good pull, King was awesome last year and a big part of a very good Iowa defense. I tend to think the Hawkeyes are going to surprise this year. They were legitimately good (if not great) last year and now return most all of their best players. Everyone wants to count them out and say that now that they have a good schedule they'll fold, me I'm not so sure. There are some NFL talents on this team including King and the QB.
6. Greg Ward Jr, Houston QB
Interesting choice. I don't know if I'd go this high for Ward but he's got some juice to make stuff happen when things break down and he's skilled both in their passing game and running game. When a QB is solid at a lot of things it opens up a lot of possibilities for your offense.
5. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State QB
I'm assuming the tOSU offensive identity will be largely based on what Barrett brings to the table, but that said I think they had a higher ceiling with Cardale Jones and it's possible RFR Joe Burrow will be better down the line. To me if you have Barrett top 5 you're basically saying that tOSU is a potential playoff team with him and not without him.
I don't know if I have enough faith in Urban Meyer to make the playoffs out of the B1G this year with a totally rebuilt team. Maybe I should. I'd better list the rest of the top 5 now.
4. Leonard Fournette, LSU RB
I think Fournette is as special a back as you'll find in college football but LSU is going to pound people with the running game whether he plays a down or not. The SEC doesn't really have irreplaceable backs, each year there are a handful of freakish athletes entering the league at that position and LSU usually has at least one of them.
3. Deshaun Watson, Clemson QB
No doubt. He should probably be no. 1 or 2.
2. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma QB
Understandable for all the good reasons Kercheval gives, Mayfield bring a ton to the table and the depth chart behind him doesn't look very good right now. Spare me the excitement about Kendall Austin and his 8-17 for 52 yards spring game. I'm pretty sure articles like this were already written before that scrimmage took place.
Down the line I think OU will be fine with either Austin, Murray, or someone else, but in 2016 they need another big year from Mayfield.
1. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford RB
McCaffrey is the rare RB that's actually very unique and hard to replace because of his skills as a receiver. He brings enough to the table that I'm pretty confident Stanford is going to be good on offense again next year despite losing several key seniors and then I'm hoping and praying that McCaffrey ends up in New England to start his NFL career.
Kercheval ended up rolling with a ton of QBs that are returning starters (too easy Ben, come on!) and not as many unique players that have truly difficult to replace skill sets. Some guys I probably would have mentioned:
Jake Butt, Michigan TE
Michigan has tons of backs that can do good work for them if they get good blocking this year, but Butt is a match-up nightmare in the middle of the field and essential to much of Harbaugh's passing game.
Jordan Leggett, Clemson TE
Reasonably good blocker, excellent WR, big part of the Clemson formula and their link to dancing back and forth between a wide open spread-option attack and a more smashmouth-spread approach.
Kavontae Turpin, TCU RB/WR
This dude is all kinds of explosive and versatile. He's like Jakeem Grant, Tavon Austin, or the legend himself, Percy Harvin. Turpin can go deep and beat teams down the field, he can execute the quick passing game, he's a nightmare on screens, and he can run the ball some as well.
Guys who play defense
Derwin James, Jamal Adams, Tim Williams, Jonathan Allen, there are tons of guys on defense that will be pretty essential for their teams next year.