Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Five Who Cannot Get Hurt in 2012
Football is a violent sport, so it comes as no surprise that injuries play a significant role in the outcome of countless contests week in and week out.
So much so, that many teams specifically game-plan around the idea of finding the opposing teams' injured players (or substitutes), and formulating schemes that best position their team to exploit weaknesses.
Like many teams, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers find themselves in a position where should they lose a handful of key players, their chances for success diminish exponentially.
Truth be told, the Bucs can ill afford to lose anyone, considering the lack of depth at several positions throughout the roster.
Nevertheless, I've compiled a list of five players that the Bucs could least afford to lose for some or all of the season.
Kicker Connor Barth
It says something about a franchise when the placekicker is considered not only important to its success, but absolutely vital.
For the Bucs, that is certainly the case. After all their placekicker, Connor Barth, is coming off a career season in 2011 in which he made 93 percent of his attempts (26 for 28), tied for the second-highest percentage in the NFL.
Couple that with the fact that the ink is still drying on Barth's new deal with the Bucs, a contract worth more than $13 million over four years.
Oh and think about this: As bad as the Bucs were offensively last season (17.9 points per game), it could have been that much worse had it not been for the consistency and accuracy of Barth's right leg.
Receiver Vincent Jackson
There are a multitude of reasons why the Bucs cannot afford to lose their newest pass-catcher, but perhaps none more important than the prevailing theory that quarterback Josh Freeman's success is inextricably linked to how well Jackson performs.
As such, if Jackson, or "V-Jax" is injured and misses game time, the offense runs the real risk of reverting to its 2011 tendencies of constant three-and-outs and turnovers.
Yes, the receiving depth appears to be better this season, but the Bucs are paying Jackson a lot of money ($13 million in 2012) to stay on the field and deliver results, which is something the receiving corps struggled with most of 2011.
That said, it would appear Jackson has good health on his side, as the only significant playing time he has missed over the previous five seasons were the 10 games he held out of during his contract dispute with the Chargers in 2010.
Still, the importance of his presence for the Bucs (and Freeman) are without question.
Cornerback Aqib Talib
Aqib Talib is hoping to put an offseason of uncertainty aside by playing out the final season of his contract and showcasing the ability that he has flashed from time to time.
After all, 2012 is a contract year and if Talib has any hopes of cashing in at season's end, not only does he have to perform, but he must also show that he can play an entire 16-game schedule—something he has yet to accomplish in his four-year career.
Outside of the free-agent dynamic for Talib, the Bucs face the harsh reality that after Talib and newcomer Eric Wright, things get pretty dicey from a depth perspective in the secondary.
Oh, and Tampa Bay allowed 30 passing touchdowns in 2011.
So, saying Talib's health and performance are important to the team would be a gross understatement.
Left Tackle Donald Penn
The importance of the left tackle position has been discussed at length—I mean heck, a movie was even made out of it.
For now, I'll spare the unnecessary hyperbole and sum it up by stating the obvious: Donald Penn's role on the offense is far-reaching and substantial, as it the case with every starting LT in the league.
As such, if Penn were to go down, it could potentially cripple the entire offensive system.
Yes, the other four (presumed) starters—Carl Nicks, Jeremy Zuttah, Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood—are fully-capable linemen in their own right, but by and large the Bucs lack any real, proven depth along the line.
Tackle Demar Dotson or guard/tackle Derek Hardman would be the likely replacement for an injured Penn (unless they moved Trueblood and filled his spot with one of the above-mentioned).
Nevertheless, how they would hold up is anyone's guess at this point.
With minimal proven depth and a yet-to-be seen offense, the Bucs cannot afford to lose Penn for any significant length of time.
Quarterback Josh Freeman
Starting quarterbacks are the faces of their respective franchises.
They're the "it" guys—the players with loads of talent who literally hold the fate (and weight) of an entire organization on their shoulders and in their hands.
Naturally, their health is of equal significance, too.
The Bucs are certainly no different, as their franchise guy, Josh Freeman, has already demonstrated his value over the past two seasons.
In 2010, Freeman threw for more than 3,400 yards, 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions on his way to leading the Bucs to a 10-6 mark and narrowly missing a playoff berth.
Last season, however, Freeman's play regressed, as he threw for nearly 3,600 yards, but managed just 16 touchdowns to go along with 22 interceptions.
Not coincidentally, the Bucs' record directly reflected that to the tune of just four wins and a Top-10 draft pick.
And while some fans may suggest—foolishly or otherwise—that Freeman is part of the problem and not necessarily the solution, the Bucs would be in a world of hurt if No. 5 is unavailable at any point this season.