NFL: The One Injury That Could Ruin Every Franchise's 2011 Season

Jake LangenkampCorrespondent IIIJune 21, 2011

NFL: The One Injury That Could Ruin Every Franchise's 2011 Season

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    Every year, there are one or two teams in the National Football League that are seemingly derailed by one key injury.  That one player was so important to the team, for one reason or another, that the team was not able to overcome the loss.

    The obvious season-killing injuries are to quarterbacks.  They are undoubtedly a football team's most important position, and losing an established starter for the season is likely to nix any hopes of the playoffs or a championship.

    Who are these indispensable players for teams today, though?  I took a look at every franchise and determined which player the team could not afford to lose.  As I pointed out, it would be easy to just say the quarterback, so I excluded the signal callers from my analysis.

    If you have thoughts or arguments, I’d love to hear them either in the comments or on Twitter (@JakeBRB).  Enjoy.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Wallace, WR

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    I was tempted to use franchised outside-linebacker LaMarr Woodley, but the Steelers have been grooming Jason Worilds to take his place. 

    Obviously, they chose to franchise Woodley for a reason, but it’s not as if they don’t have a safety net.  Wallace is the deep threat that makes the offense two dimensional. 

    Emanuel Sanders may seem like he’s cut from the same cloth as Wallace, but he doesn’t possess the mixture of incredible speed and deep receiving talent that “60 Minutes” does.

Baltimore Ravens: Haloti Ngata, DE

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    Kelly Gregg and Cory Redding do a phenomenal job setting a base for the Ravens 3-4 defense, but Ngata is the disruptive force of the defensive line. 

    His penetration allows Terrell Suggs the opportunity to rush on the edge without being double teamed on every play. 

    If Sergio Kindle can manage to stay healthy and driving sober next season, Ngata could be the linchpin of a very formidable outside-rushing tandem.

Cleveland Browns: Josh Cribbs, KR/WR

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    The obvious choice here would have been power back Peyton Hillis, not only because of his dominance last year but also the famed curse that comes with being on the cover of the Madden NFL Football video game. 

    People forget, though, that Mike Holmgren had a sizeable crush on Montario Hardesty before he tore his ACL in the preseason, which would make him the likely candidate to step in for Hillis if he went down.  Cribbs, however, is the lone explosive element for the Browns on offense and special teams.  Losing him would mean some boring games in Cleveland.

Cincinnati Bengals: Jermaine Gresham, TE

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    Gresham showed last season why he was worth a first-round selection despite missing most of his senior season at Oklahoma. 

    The then-rookie tight end tallied 52 receptions for 471 yards in 15 games, which was impressive considering the Bengals offensive woes. 

    Now it seems as if Carson Palmer is out as quarterback and rookie Andy Dalton will take the reins.

    Nothing works as a security blanket for a brand new signal caller like a talented tight end, which is exactly what Gresham will be asked to do.

New England Patriots: Devin McCourty, CB

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    It was hard to come up with one player other than Tom Brady who would make the entire Patriots machine fall apart, which is a testament to Bill Belichick

    Not everyone may be elite at their position, but it’s hard to identify centers of gravity that cast the season in doubt. 

    McCourty, though, showed brilliance as a corner in his first season, and will likely only get better. 

    His coverage ability makes average cover safeties like Brandon Meriweather and Patrick Chung focus more on other areas of the field, instantly making the entire secondary better.

New York Jets: Santonio Holmes, WR

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    It seems as if the Jets will let Braylon Edwards walk so that they may keep the speedy wide receiver that they acquired from the Steelers for a paltry fifth-round selection. 

    Holmes swung the outcomes of several games in the Jets favor with his ability such as the overtime victory over Cleveland and the last-second touchdown reception over the Texans

    By focusing on Holmes, however, the Jets are putting all their big-play receiving eggs in one basket, making Santonio extremely valuable.

Miami Dolphins: Daniel Thomas, RB

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    It’s rare to see a rookie make a list such as this, especially a non-first round selection, but Thomas will be extremely important to the Dolphins offense next season. 

    The Dolphins could very well let both Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown walk in free agency without attempting to re-sign either, and Thomas will be expected to fill that void. 

    Despite being known as a bigger back, Thomas has surprisingly good receiving skills for his size. 

    This will come in handy as the Dolphins don’t have the most vertical passing attack in the league.

Buffalo Bills: Kyle Williams, NT

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    Williams was one of the lone bright spots for an abysmal Bills defense last season. 

    The five-and-a-half sacks don’t tell the whole story of how disruptive the nose tackle was, but the 77 tackles is extremely high for the position and is indicative of how active Williams was. 

    The Bills defense is still very much a work in progress, and they’ll need Williams to keep up his high level of play if they hope to turn it around.

Indianapolis Colts: Jeff Saturday, C

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    Gone are Tom Moore and Howard Mudd, the two architects of the Colts offensive dynasty. 

    While Peyton Manning could probably be considered the offensive coordinator, Saturday is the anchor of the offensive line and is close to being a coach of the position. 

    Losing Saturday would be losing the veteran presence on a line featuring two rookie offensive tackles.

    This would lead to more Manning running around as we saw last season, which isn’t exactly a recipe for success with a 35-year-old quarterback.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Tyson Alualu, DT

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    The Jaguars seem as if they are willing to start over with rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert instead of David Garrard. 

    One thing that could make the growing pains seem less overwhelming is the quietly solid defense that the Jaguars feature. 

    Alualu is already the heart of that defensive front seven, even though Terrance Knighton was formidable as well.

    A key loss on the defensive side would put even more strain on a rookie learning how to quarterback in the pros.

Houston Texans: Mario Williams, OLB

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    Year after year, the Texans put up gaudy offensive stats and yet miss the postseason every time. 

    The reason is the defense, which Wade Phillips has been tasked with fixing.  The key to this effort is former defensive end and No. 1-overall pick Mario Williams, who will surprisingly be playing outside linebacker. 

    While Phillips’ version of a rush linebacker is much different than with most 3-4 defenses, the Texans chances still revolve around Williams' ability to get to the quarterback, just as DeMarcus Ware has in the same scheme.

Tennessee Titans: Chris Johnson, RB

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    The Titans don’t seem to have the strongest offense these days. 

    If the season started today, Rusty Smith would be competing with Jake Locker for the starting quarterback spot. 

    Star wide receiver Kenny Britt is trying to set an offseason record for arrests, which leaves talented running back Chris Johnson, the league’s unofficial fastest man.  

    Johnson still had a productive season last year, despite facing eight defenders near the line of scrimmage constantly. 

    Coincidentally, he has stated that he won’t play without a new contract, which is just as good as an injury if he doesn’t budge.

Kansas City Chiefs: Tamba Hali, OLB

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    The talented outside linebacker helped make the Chiefs 3-4 defense work in its second year with 14.5 sacks. 

    Hali was awarded a new contract for his efforts. 

    Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel doesn’t have a rusher anywhere in the front seven near Hali’s talents, however, so without the Penn State product, the defense would fall apart without a consistent ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks.

San Diego Chargers: Shaun Phillips, OLB

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    Larry English was supposed to be the next, great outside-linebacker pass-rushing specialist, but it’s starting to seem as if that won’t ever happen. 

    Now Ron Rivera has left to coach the woeful Panthers

    Shaun Phillips has been a sack machine for the last half-decade, but he will have to lead the new defense now that it has lost the man who called the shots. 

    Phillips has a larger-than-life personality, but his influence would be greatly lessened if it had to come from the sidelines.

Oakland Raiders: Stanford Routt, CB

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    It appears as though the Raiders are going to let both Nnamdi Asomugha and Michael Huff leave via free agency. 

    One of the things that made this clear was signing Routt to a fat new contract. 

    The Raiders will need Routt to prove them right by anchoring the secondary and showing that they chose the right option to retain among their defensive backs.

Denver Broncos: Ryan Clady, OT

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    Clady suffered a freak ACL tear last year while playing basketball, but still managed to play a full season.

     Clady is known as one of the best left tackles in the league, and while it is unknown whether Tim Tebow or Kyle Orton will start, it won’t matter if Clady can’t protect their blindside from Matt Shaughnessy, Shaun Phillips or Tamba Hali. 

    The Broncos offensive line is one of the few bright spots for the team that was turned over to John Fox, and Clady is a big reason why.

Chicago Bears: Julius Peppers, DE

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    Football is a team sport featuring 11 starters on both sides, so it is hard to have individuals change and entire squad. 

    Peppers did just that last year, though, proving the Bears smart for paying him so much money. 

    The 6’7” defensive end was disruptive on both defense and special teams, and helped propel Chicago to an unforeseen division title. 

    If the Bears have any hope of repeating that in a stacked NFC North, Peppers will have to be a part of it.

Green Bay Packers: Clay Matthews, OLB

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    In a Super Bowl that featured Packers defensive backs, that included the vaunted Charles Woodson, dropping like flies, Matthews made the play that likely sealed the game when he forced a fumble from Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall. 

    Matthews is the only member of the Packers front seven who supplies regular pressure, and he is the player who makes Dom Capers’ famous A-gap blitz work so well.

Detroit Lions: Calvin Johnson, WR

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    If there was a team to break my self-imposed quarterback rule for, it is the Lions

    I truly believe that if Matthew Stafford managed to stay healthy for an entire season, Detroit could contend for a Wild Card spot, if not the division title. 

    The Lions have performed admirably, however, with quarterbacks like Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton, though, and Calvin Johnson is the reason. 

    The aptly-named “Megatron” is an athletic freak who can make just about any quarterback in the NFL look good. 

    If Johnson has Stafford throwing to him all season, look out.

Minnesota Vikings: Percy Harvin, WR/KR

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    The Vikings were just in the NFC championship game two seasons ago, and now they find themselves favorites to come in last in their division. 

    They selected Christian Ponder 12th overall to be the next franchise quarterback, and he’ll likely start right away. 

    Ponder will need the dynamic Harvin to stay healthy because of all the creative things that Percy can do. 

    Along with being a slot receiver, he can also return kicks and punts as well as line up in the back field and receive screen passes. 

    Harvin just announced that he is migraine free.  We’ll have to see this year.

Philadelphia Eagles: Asante Samuel, CB

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    The Eagles defense performed poorly enough last year to see Jim Johnson-protégé Sean McDermott fired. 

    One of the biggest failings of that defense was the secondary, which had a historically hard time stopping opposing offenses on third downs. 

    Samuel may take risks too often in order to make interceptions, but he does create a ton of turnovers and he is the only elite defensive back that the Eagles possess.

New York Giants: David Diehl, OT

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    The Giants are another team that was hard to select one player for. 

    I wanted to say Justin Tuck because of his value and versatility, but a book-end tandem of Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora is not that bad. 

    In the end, the aging Diehl has the task of stopping DeMarcus Ware, Brian Orakpo and Trent Cole.

    Without him, though, Eli Manning would be spending a lot more time on his back and the Giants would not contend for a playoff spot.

Dallas Cowboys: Jay Ratliff, NT

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    Cowboys fans may love that Wade Phillips is gone, but while he was a mediocre-at-best head coach, he was a great defensive coordinator. 

    One of his talents is finding roles for players, and Ratliff is a great example of this. 

    His penetrating style makes him successful despite his small frame for nose tackles. 

    His ability to collapse pockets flushes quarterbacks out laterally, which allows for outside rushers to acquire tons of sacks. 

    Without Ratliff, Ware’s productivity would diminish significantly.

Washington Redskins: OJ Atogwe, FS

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    Atogwe was one of the few free-agent signings that took place before the lockout was imposed, and was also one of the few smart free-agent signings by the Redskins in a long time. 

    Atogwe is a great center-field-type safety, and will allow Jim Hasslett to use strong safety LaRon Landry more on blitzes and run support instead of deep coverage, which is what he is more suited for. 

    Atogwe instantly makes an OK secondary a better-than-average one.

Atlanta Falcons: John Abraham, DE

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    Abraham might be getting older, but he is still extremely productive, as evident with his 13 sacks from last year. 

    Kroy Biermann was a nice story two years ago, but he managed only three sacks last year while disappointing Jamaal Anderson only managed two. 

    If Abraham slows down or is knocked off the field all together, the pass-happy divisional rival Saints will be able to pick the Falcons apart twice and likely win the South.

New Orleans Saints: Jonathan Vilma, MLB

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    The Saints have been an offensive powerhouse since Sean Payton and Drew Brees came to town, but it was Gregg Williams and his defense that finally allowed New Orleans to win a Super Bowl. 

    The anchor of that defense is Vilma, who specializes in flying from sideline to sideline making plays.

    Vilma doesn’t blitz that often himself, but the ground that he covers allows the blitz-happy Williams to bring rushers from all angles.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ronde Barber, CB

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    The Buccaneers are a young team trying to break through in one of the league’s toughest divisions. 

    Last season, the team surprised many football analysts that commonly project the team for three or four victories. 

    One of the reasons for the Bucs’ success was Aqib Talib, who will now likely be lost for quite some time due to a shooting incident. 

    If Ronde Barber was lost as well, Tampa would be starting two brand new corners in a division with Drew Brees and Matt Ryan.

Carolina Panthers: Jon Beason, MLB

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    It was hard to watch the Panthers last season, but the defense was not the main reason that the team was so bad. 

    The offense, led by Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen, was one of the worst in the league, which, coupled with a terrible record, kept people from realizing that the defense still performed well at times, but was left on the field constantly. 

    Beason is the main pillar left over from the Fox era that Ron Rivera can start to formulate a defense around.

Seattle Seahawks: Russell Okung, OT

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    Many feel that Okung has the natural ability at left tackle to be one of the game's best at the position.

    Nagging injuries could derail that ascension, though, as they kept him out of six games last season. 

    It is unknown whether Charlie Whitehurst will be given control over the offense next year, or Matt Hasselbeck will be re-signed, but the one thing for sure is that whoever starts at quarterback will want Okung healthy.

St. Louis Rams: Steven Jackson, RB

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    Sam Bradford came on like gang busters last season and won an obvious Rookie of the Year title. 

    Even so, the Rams offense has not fully transitioned into a passing oriented one yet. 

    While Bradford continues to develop, they need one more workhorse year from Jackson, who has had one of the more underappreciated NFL careers in recent memory. 

    A Jackson injury would likely mean a large-scale regression for the Rams offense.

San Francisco 49ers: Justin Smith, DE

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    It seems as though the 49ers are willing to let nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin test the free-agent waters once the lockout is lifted, and Smith is probably what gave them the confidence to do so. 

    The defensive end had 8.5 sacks last season, which is almost unheard of from the position in a 3-4 defense. 

    If the 49ers could develop an outside rusher to follow the disruption that Smith creates, that player could wreak havoc.

Arizona Cardinals: Kevin Kolb/QB

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    OK, so I cheated with this one… twice. 

    First of all, I named a quarterback. 

    Secondly, the quarterback I named isn’t even currently with the team. 

    Kolb to Arizona seems like an obvious end state, though, and he would be the more-than-obvious choice for this list as well. 

    After all, if whoever is brought in to be quarterback goes down in Arizona, they’ll have Derek Anderson, Max Hall or John Skelton to come to their aid.  We all saw how that worked last year.