By John Lopez
August 20, 2009

Before reading another word, knock on wood. Pray that the spate of injuries ransacking NFL training camps does not arrive at the doorstep of a crucial player near you.

Sure, injuries are just part of the game. But it also is true that some injuries are more devastating than others. Here, then, is a look at the one player each AFC team could least afford to lose to injury. Call them the "crippling" injuries when it comes to a team's hopes for 2009. And since losing a starting quarterback, obviously, would be devastating to every team, we left them out of this little exercise.


(Listed alphabetically, by franchise city)

How good would the Ravens' defense be without Ray Lewis? Sure, it would be a severe loss if Lewis went down, but the Ravens "D" still would be VERY good. Not so when it comes to the Ravens offense, second-year quarterback Joe Flacco or the backfield tandem of Ray Rice and Willis McGahee.

Mason has put together a borderline Hall of Fame career. When he decided to come back from his brief retirement, it made Flacco a better quarterback and guaranteed that opponents wouldn't stack eight defenders in the box to stop the run.

Mason is in the final year of his contract and likely will retire for keeps after the season. Keeping him on the field is crucial to virtually all Ravens hopes. Other than that, he's not important at all.

Forget Terrell Owens or Trent Edwards or any other headline-grabber for a moment. When Schobel has his health and his game, he lifts the Bills defense to higher places. Last year, he had neither, missing all but five games. And whether it was because of injury or age catching up to Schobel, he had just 7.5-sacks since 2006, after accumulating 26 sacks the previous two years.

This year, Schobel appears healthier and spry. The younger players on the defensive side, specifically linebacker Paul Posluszny and Aaron Maybin, can learn a lot from him, if he can stay healthy all year long. If not, well, you're probably looking at a second consecutive season of finishing in the bottom-five in sacks in the NFL.

Cheering for the consummately troubled Chris Henry is sort of like pulling for the Red Sea against Moses. It's just not right. There are so many other, better people wearing Bengals uniforms you could consider to be pivotal.

But Henry truly has been the biggest piece of the Bengals' offense thus far, much more so than Chad Ochocinco, in fact. In his first preseason game, Henry torched the Saints for 100-yards receiving and a pair of deep balls. You can question his style, his work ethic and even his hands. But when it's money time of late, Henry's athleticism and ability to snag a ball out of the air has proved vital.

He says he's a new man. He says his days of being in the wrong place at the wrong time are over. We can only presume he won't take himself off the field then. If injuries don't, either, the Bengals could see a big year from Henry.

There are times when Shaun Rogers plays like one of, if not the best defensive tackle in football. And then there have been times when he has taken paid leave, on the field.

After an offseason of controversy, as Rogers reportedly told teammate Shaun Smith that he wanted to be traded and missed workouts, Rogers looks fit and hungry again. It would be huge for the Browns defense and make everyone better on the defensive side of the ball if the good Rogers, all 6-4, 350-pounds of him, shows up every week.

In practices and scrimmages thus far, Rogers has dominated anyone the Browns offense has put in front of him. Without him, the rebuilding Browns defense crumbles. Rogers simply must be on the field for the Browns to have any chance. The rest of the defensive line, mostly average players or has-beens, depend on Rogers to be the anchor. And Rogers' presence is crucial to the linebackers.

Oh, boy, things are getting ugly in Denver. With Kyle Orton getting off to an atrocious start as the new starting quarterback and fans actually calling for Chris Simms, every day has been an adventure in futility.

Yes, I said Chris Simms. That's how bad it's been.

You know it's bad when the saving grace and calming influence is the guy who just beat a misdemeanor battery charge and calls himself, "The Beast." But it's true. If Marshall keeps his head and plays to his best level in this contract year, Orton (or Simms) becomes a better quarterback and Josh McDaniels a better coach.

The Denver wide receiving corps beyond Marshall and Eddie Royal is subpar at best. With his size, talent and ability to physically beat defensive backs to the ball, Marshall remaining healthy is crucial.

As much as the Texans have become a popular pick to make their first playoff appearance in 2009, the fact is they may have made a run last year if Ryans hadn't played the entire season with a shoulder and ankle injury. After the season, it was determined Ryans' injuries were much worse than anyone let on.

Ryans' production dropped in 2008 from his Pro Bowl 2007 season, and it directly affected the performance of the Texans' defense. His total tackles, solo tackles and tackles behind the line of scrimmage all fell off, although Ryans still led the Texans.

Not counting the usual bumps and bruises associated with playing the most violent position on the field, if Ryans stays healthy, the Texans will play a meaningful game in December for the first time in their existence.

Colts offensive line coach Howard Mudd characterized the offensive line's 2008 performance as mediocre. That's generous. Time and again quarterback Peyton Manning bailed out his offensive line with quick throws or smart audibles at the line that lessened the damage in 2008. The Colts line was awful, failing to pave the way for a 1,000-yard rusher for just the second time in 12-years. At the heart of the issue was the Pro Bowl center, Saturday, missing games and fighting a calf injury all year.

The 2009 campaign has begun auspiciously, too, with Manning getting sacked three times in six snaps in the Colts' first preseason game. Still, two linemen were held out and it was just a preseason game. Saturday has taken improving the line's play personally. If he stays healthy himself, things already get better.

There's little secret to the Jaguars' much hoped-for improvement in 2009. They have to go Austin Powers and get their Mo-Jo back. That is, Jones-Drew is the unquestioned leader and heart of the offense. At 5-7, he's going to take a pounding. Can his body withstand the grind of being an every-down back? That's the $31 million question in Jacksonville.

With such an investment in Jones-Drew, clearly the Jags are going to try and use Mo-Jo's talents as many ways as possible. That's a good thing, considering his explosiveness and (thus far) durability. But it could be a bad thing. I don't care how tough a man he is, or how strong he is, at 5-7, he's simply not as big as every other player in the league. Can he take 16 games of getting tackled, hit and dragged across the NFL?

This is just not a very good team. That's why there's a new GM in Scott Pioli, a new coach in Todd Haley and a new quarterback in Matt Cassel. The Chiefs are going nowhere anytime soon.

But if they want to keep things respectable, establish a new identity and maybe even surprise a team or two as they try to head back to the top of the AFC heap, Johnson could show the way. Getting LJ to play hard and be a good citizen is Haley's top priority. It would be quite the statement to everyone in the organization if Haley can get LJ to buy-in, so to speak.

So far, so good. Johnson says he's a different guy. He says he's going to be dominant. If he can stay that way, and healthy, Johnson could show the way for backups Jackie Battle and Jamaal Charles and help the Chiefs get off on the right foot.

There's a premium on pressuring the opposing quarterback in the AFC East and it is only going to be more important in 2009. The Dolphins, 11-5 a year ago -- will surprise no one in 2008; Tom Brady is back in New England; the Bills have Terrell Owens; and the Jets are feeling good about rookie Mark Sanchez.

Porter simply MUST stay on the field this year. After a monster 17.5-sack season, Porter will be reunited with Jason Taylor on the Dolphins' defense. In the attacking 3-4 of coach Tony Sparano, the combination of Taylor and Porter could wreak havoc on every team Miami faces.

Every aspect of the Dolphins defense gets better when Porter is bringing the intensity and playmaking ability. The secondary comes away with more turnovers. The defensive front sees fewer double-teams. Opposing possessions are shorter.

Without him? Not so much.

You could make a reasonable argument that Wilfork is the MVP -- Most Valuable Patriot -- not named Tom Brady.

Literally at the center of everything on the defensive side and still young at 27, the 6-2, 325-pound nose guard gives everyone around him opportunities to make plays. He can play two gaps, fill a running lane and still is nimble and athletic enough to make tackles. Wilfork finished with 66 tackles last season. For a nose guard in a 3-4 defense, that is an exceptional number of plays.

The ends on each side of him, Ty Warren and Richard Seymour, have benefited greatly from having Wilfork, as have the linebackers. And behind him in the secondary, there is virtually nothing in terms of proven talent.

The Jets have high hopes for quarterback Mark Sanchez, who has yet to disappoint either on the field or off. But opposing defenses can change all that in a heartbeat and turn Sanchez' brain into mush, if health problems persist along the offensive line.

No one is more important than Mangold, a Pro Bowl center who makes the calls and can help guide Sanchez through his rookie season. Mangold was one of three Jets linemen (Alan Faneca, Damien Woody) who missed the first preseason game because of injury. His line calls are crucial and could take a lot of weight off Sanchez' shoulders.

All three offensive linemen should be fine by opening day, but the minor injuries magnified the importance of keeping these guys upright, as the Jets hope to establish a new identity under Sanchez.

He's the best and now highest-paid defensive back in the NFL. He also plays for one of the league's worst teams. So, OK, it's not exactly a stretch saying it's crucial that Asomugha stays healthy in 2009. But there are more than the obvious reasons why Nnamdi the Magnificent must take every snap.

For starters, under new defensive coordinator John Marshall, Asomugha should shadow more opposing No. 1 receivers, rather than stay on one side of the field. Marshall wants the Raiders to make more plays. Asomugha against a No. 1 will translate into more plays.

There also is the likelihood the Raiders will blitz much more often in 2009. While Asomugha probably won't be the one blitzing, it becomes imperative that receivers don't get behind the defense on a blitz-audible. Asomugha won't let that happen.

On a team rife with professionals, playmakers and key components, none is more important than Smith. Just ask Casey Hampton, James Harrison or anyone on the Steelers' defense what Smith means to the team.

Or better yet, look what happened when he tore a biceps muscle late in the 2007 season. There were the Steelers, cruising along, perhaps headed to the Super Bowl. They gave up just 69 yards per game on the ground through 13 games. Once Smith was gone, they allowed 157 yards per game on the ground through the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs.

His age (33) and the position he plays on the defensive line would lead you to believe durability could be a concern. If he can avoid injury, Smith is one of the biggest reasons the Steelers could win another Lombardi Trophy.

To borrow from what Bum Phillips once said of Earl Campbell, LaDainian Tomlinson may not be in a class by himself, but it sure doesn't take long to call roll.

All indications thus far are that Tomlinson is on a mission to get better and prove that 30 is the new 25 in the NFL. Still, time is the only thing in the league that is undefeated.

If the Chargers say they are not worried about Tomlinson's health, they're lying. Tomlinson had career lows in yards and carries last season and has been on a steady decline since his remarkable 2006 season. The guy has still got amazing skills and is motivated more than perhaps during any other point in his career. Still, time is undefeated. The Chargers have to do everything possible to keep LT healthy.

Like DeMeco Ryans, Vanden Bosch tried to tough it out after injuring himself early-on last season. It didn't work. It was obvious Vanden Bosch was not nearly the same player he was previously in his career.

Now with Vanden Bosch on the wrong side of 30 and having already had major surgery twice on his knees, the question is, was the groin injury that hindered him in 2008 a fluke? Or was it a sign that a decaying NFL body just won't hold up anymore?

The Titans are banking on Vanden Bosch and he's looked strong thus far through camp after yet another offseason of rehabbing from surgery. Still, facts are facts. He's been beat up and injured, often. If he can't get through 2009 healthy, the Titans won't be the Super Bowl contender they hope to be.


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