This isn't a list of the ten best players, but rather, a ranking of how much trouble Northwestern would be in if one of them went down; hence, the most indispensable.
Dispensability takes into account how good the player is, but also the depth behind him and his intangibles, such as leadership skills.
Check out the 10 most indispensable Wildcats of 2011.
10. Patrick Ward
Northwestern will have one of the best offensive lines in the Big Ten and it's the most experienced line in Pat Fitzgerald's tenure.
That will be key for the Wildcats, as good line play can help establish the running game and provide protection for Dan Persa as he tries to come back from a ruptured Achilles.
With a year of experience under his belt, right tackle Patrick Ward will be counted on to protect Persa and open up holes in the running game.
There is good depth along most of the offensive line, especially after Brandon Vitable's rise to the starting center position and Ben Burkett's move to guard. However, the depth at right tackle is slim.
Ward's backup, redshirt freshman Paul Jorgensen, is very inexperienced and lacks the size that Ward brings to the table. He may be a good player in the future, but isn't ready to take on a starting role right now.
9. Vince Browne
Browne returns to Northwestern with two years of starting experience and will be in the running for All-Big Ten honors at the end of the season.
He will be the leader of an experienced defensive front, one that should improve after struggling for much of last season.
While Browne is undoubtedly one of Northwestern's best players, his indispensability factor is not that high because backup Quentin Williams seems ready if given the chance to start.
Williams has played in every game for the Wildcats over the last two seasons and started twice last year. Losing Browne would obviously hurt, but it wouldn't be the end of the world.
8. Jordan Mabin
However, with a lot of experience returning, the unit should be much improved.
Mabin will return to start at corner and should compete for All-Big Ten honors at the end of the season. He should be able to shut down the left side of the field, as most teams will try to test Jeravin Matthews, the first-year starter at right corner.
Mabin's backup, Ricky Weina, is a senior, but only has special teams experience. If Mabin were to get hurt it would create a major hole in the Wildcats' secondary.
7. Jeremy Ebert
Ebert is one of the best receivers in the Big Ten and has helped maintain consistency in the Wildcats' passing game over the past few years.
He gives Persa an outstanding target in the passing game, and together they form possibly the best quarterback-receiver combination in the conference. Ebert has a good supporting cast at receiver, as well, but he is by far the go-to guy.
Ebert's backup, Venric Mark, definitely has potential and will be the Wildcats' main punt and kick returner this year. However, Mark isn't ready to step into the same role that Ebert will hold this year.
6. Jack DiNardo
DiNardo isn't as accomplished as Vince Browne, nor are his expectations as high, but with such little depth behind him at defensive tackle, he is the most indispensable player on the defensive line.
Right now, the right side of Northwestern's defensive line should be dominant. If DiNardo were to get hurt, the line's effectiveness and the entire defense's production would be hindered.
5. Al Netter
Netter has been a model of consistency for Northwestern and will be the anchor of the Wildcats' most experienced offensive line in Fitzgerald's tenure. He also has the best supporting cast that he has had during his career.
Left tackle is arguably the second-most important player on the offense because that player is responsible for protecting the quarterback. With Persa coming off injury, the offensive line will need to step up to protect him and make sure he has time to fully recover.
Backup Chuck Procelli certainly has the size and the potential to be a solid left tackle, but Netter is a leader for this offense and losing him would hurt the line and the offense as a whole.
Ebert gets most of the attention at Northwestern's offensive skill positions, but Dunsmore is just as big of a star.
The superback has started for the past two seasons and will be in contention for All-Big Ten honors at the end of the year.
Dunsmore's versatility sets him apart from most other players in the league. He's a good blocker and pass-catcher who can play as a tight end, but he can also run the ball.
That dual-threat combination is rare in football at any level.
Backup sophomore John Plasencia has a large frame and has potential, but if the Wildcats were to lose Dunsmore, pass and run production would be limited.
3. Bryce McNaul
With the loss of Quentin Davie, Northwestern will be inexperienced at linebacker this season, and while the rest of the defense should be solid, that will create a hole in the middle.
McNaul started last season and will be the Wildcats' most experienced linebacker. A senior, he'll be a leader of that unit and must perform well in order to improve the defense after last year's late-season debacle.
McNaul's backup, sophomore Tim Riley, isn't experienced enough to come in and play right now, and if McNaul is injured, Northwestern's hole at linebacker will get even bigger.
2. Brian Peters
Peters is one of the top safeties in the Big Ten and will be the leader of what should be a much-improved secondary.
He has been a contributor on the NU defense for three years, including starting five games in 2009 and every game in 2010, and will be in contention for All-Big Ten honors after the season.
The secondary has to improve if Northwestern wants to compete for a Big Ten title, and if Peters, the leader of that unit, goes down injured, the defense will suffer a major blow.
Backup Ibraheim Campbell has a bright future for the Wildcats, but he isn't ready to take over Peters' leadership role or provide the same consistency week-in and week-out.
1. Dan Persa
Could it be anyone else?
Dan Persa is the face of this team. He's a do-everything quarterback who received first-team All-Big Ten honors last season despite playing only 10 games and he could compete for the Heisman Trophy this season.
He was the team's second-leading rusher last seasons—he likely would have been the top rusher had he not been injured—and led the nation in completion percentage.
This year, with such a strong supporting cast, those numbers could be even better.
However, there are still concerns that his ruptured Achilles isn't completely healed, and if he is injured again, Northwestern will struggle to win anything.
Persa's injury affected his entire team last season. The offense sputtered, as expected, but the defense was awful, as well.
Persa makes everyone around him better, and it's hard to believe that the Wildcats can compete in the Big Ten, even with so much talent on the rest of the team.
Eventually, one of the backups—Kain Colter, Trevor Siemian or Evan Watkins—will step up—Northwestern's quarterbacks always do. But right now, none of them is ready to step into Persa's massive offensive role.
And that makes Persa Northwestern's most indispensable player.