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 NFC 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)

The Cardinals never have had an identity, or at least not a positive one. Wilson embodies everything a franchise craves, within and outside the locker room. He leads. He's durable. He's a winner. He shows everyone else the work ethic necessary to succeed. And he's loyal, staying with the Cards despite opportunities to leave until he saw a Super Bowl run happen.

It's not a stretch to say that Wilson is among the most, if not the most important player in Cardinals history. He certainly is the most important since the move to Arizona in 1988.

He is underappreciated outside of Arizona. But imagine the raves and tickets to Canton that already would be punched for him if he had played in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles? Only nine players in NFL history have recorded as many as 20 sacks and 20 interceptions in a career. Wilson will become the 10th in 2009, presuming he stays healthy.

Don't get me wrong. Michael Turner is crucial to the Falcons, much like Adrian Peterson is to the Vikings. And the Falcons have an elite, young and strong-armed quarterback in Matt Ryan. This is a multidimensional team that can do a lot of things at a high level. Most often it will be Turner leading the way. Sometimes, it will be Ryan.

Thus, after an 11-5 season, the Falcons are looking to get over the hump and become the elite of the elite in the NFL. Gonzalez can help them get there.

Gonzalez has had a very nice camp, adjusting to life as a Falcon and flashing the blocking and pass-catching ability that has made him a 10-time Pro Bowler. He can add the extra dimension to the Falcons' offense that may well be enough to make this team a threat to make a Super Bowl run. At 33, staying on the field could become a problem. If he can, great things could happen.

When play-making defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu was lost for the season with an Achilles tendon injury on the first day of training camp, everything changed for Beason. For starters, as an undersized (6-foot, 237-pound) middle linebacker accustomed to having his defensive linemen take on most blockers, Beason's prospects for another Pro Bowl season suffered a hit.

Now, he's going to have to deal with much more traffic, and size coming at him. And how much of that pounding can Beason take? He's integral to the Panthers defense. He's strong, quick and always takes efficient lines to the ballcarrier. When he gets there, Beason is a sure tackler. Beason delivers a lot of sure hits. This year, he's going to take more, too.

When Harris is healthy and motivated, the Bears are a vastly better team with him on the field. It's as simple as that. He is quick and strong and can play two-gaps as a space-eater, or shoot one gap and cause trouble in the backfield.

Harris says he is motivated this year, after a subpar 2008. Healthy? That has yet to be determined. The Bears have limited his reps in camp this year, and arthroscopic knee surgery in March has not exactly inspired confidence.

The Bears certainly have got a good thing going, with Matt Forte becoming one of the league's better running backs and the acquisition of Jay Cutler at quarterback. But the Bears return to prominence depends also on the defense playing to its expected level, and if Harris cannot stay healthy, the Bears' D suffers a severe blow.

If you listen closely at Cowboys camp, there are hints and whispers of Ware reaching a Lawrence Taylor-type level. Anyone who has seen Ware develop into the most feared pass-rusher in the NFL the past four years couldn't possibly argue the point.

He has gotten better and more productive every season, going from eight sacks as a rookie, to 11.5, to 14 and then a head-spinning 20 sacks in 2008. Could 25 be on the way in 2009? With the defensive line getting better and the Cowboys drafting help at linebacker, who knows? If nothing else, everyone's better around him. He also is a leader by example, does things right and continues to work to improve his game. Losing Ware would be more deflating than losing anyone else on the team.

Tony Romo grabs the headlines and snags the famous starlets. Ware is more important. Period.

It sounds crazy calling this notorious attitude problem not even yet at the top of the depth chart as pivotal to the Detroit Lions. But it is the Lions we're talking about. And all attitude and distractions aside, when healthy and on the field, Smith can contribute a lot to Jim Schwartz' defense.

One of the key aspects of Schwartz' defense is funneling as much as possible into the middle of the defense, where the 6-2, 325-pound Smith will be.

Keep in mind also, the Lions acquired Smith on the cheap, one-year, $1 million, after he wore out his welcome in Cleveland, reportedly punching quarterback Brady Quinn in an altercation. Nevertheless, if Smith keeps his nose clean, stays healthy and plays to his regular level, the Lions were in desperate need of a gap-filler who can make plays. Smith is it.

Jennings has gone from underrated and overlooked on a national scale to quite possibly the best receiver in the game. Sure, it's probably still either the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald or the Texans' Andre Johnson that leads the way, and certainly Terrell Owens and Randy Moss would have something to say. But at 26, Jennings is in the discussion.

His rapport with Aaron Rodgers is crucial to all Packers hopes. He can bail out the offense on third-and-long, or be the go-to guy on fourth-and-3 at the goal line. Jennings set career highs in receptions and receiving yards in 2008. He only figures to get better and perhaps turn Green Bay into a pass-happy power in the NFC North. Without question, he's the last player the Packers could afford to lose.

What, did you really think I was going to say Brett Favre?

The fact is, there is enough quarterbacking depth that the Vikings could withstand an injury to Favre that keeps him out of some games. Did you forget already that the Vikes won the division in 2008 without Favre?But who else could it be that is without question, unequivocally so important, the Vikings should wrap him in bubble wrap in-between Sundays?

Peterson is the Vikings' everything.

With the Favre acquisition, numerous experts are predicting good things for him, since he won't be expected to do as much with Peterson in the backfield. But what happens if Peterson goes down? Devastation to all Vikes hopes. That's what happens. Favre could well have his worst season ever if he has to try to lead the Vikes into passing mode.

The New Orleans Saints simply cannot count on Reggie Bush being a regular contributor to the ground game. Sean Payton and the Saints may say otherwise, but with recurring swelling in his surgically repaired knee, Bush should be considered off the grid until further notice.

That means a premium now must be placed on keeping tailback Thomas on the field. Even when Bush is on the field, he likely will be used much more often as a slot back. Thomas should be the first choice running between the tackles.

Saints coaches believe Thomas could be a 1,000-yard running back, which could lead to great things offensively, considering Drew Brees' talent and the prolific passing game. Thomas even has been used as the Wildcat back in training camp this year. Big things could be in store for him. Without Thomas, the Saints' only choices would be the unproven Mike Bell and Bush, whose production between the tackles is next to nil.

Eli Manning will be scrutinized for his money. The Giants receiving corps will have to step up. The defense once again will need to make plays in the biggest games. But let's be real here. All Giants hopes begin and end with Jacobs. He is more important than any other part of the Giants' formula for success. And a premium was placed on Jacobs' health with the departure of 1,000-yard rusher Derrick Ward to Tampa in the offseason.

Game-in, game-out, the Giants have depended on a bruising one-two punch in their powerful running game. Ahmad Bradshaw has stepped in for Ward, and has looked good thus far as a complement to Jacobs. But the depth is not the same and the margin for error has shrunk. Ball-control, play-action, playmaking and wearing down opposing defenses all depends on Jacobs being the featured back.

The Eagles got a taste of what life without Westbrook is like in 2008 and it wasn't pretty. Westbrook missed a couple of games early and as the season wound to a close, saw his attempts, yards and yards per-carry dwindle. Westbrook toughed out a terrific playoff run, including making a huge play against the Vikings, but problems with his left knee and right ankle worsened.

After offseason arthroscopic surgery on the knee and having bone spurs removed from the ankle, Westbrook has been limited in the preseason. He may not even play the entire preseason.

The most interesting story in Philly may be Michael Vick, but the most important one is Westbrook. If he cannot stay on the field and return to his old self, a rookie (LeSean McCoy) and a couple of nobodies are the only other options behind Westbrook. Unless, that is, Vick lines up at tailback.

Not that Jackson is important, but the four players behind him on the depth chart have combined for 1,530 CAREER rushing yards. In 2006 alone, Jackson had 1,528.

That's the kind of dropoff it is in the backfield from Jackson, who has had four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, to the likes of Antonio Pittman, Samkon Gado, Chris Ogbonnaya and Kenneth Darby.

Sure, tweaks and new faces along the offensive line should make Rams fans feel better about keeping Jackson upright, but he's missed eight games over the past two seasons because of injury. He looks to be in terrific shape in camp this year, and an offseason that included much more weight training should help. It had better. The Rams would be virtually helpless in the running game without Jackson.

He's still just 24 and getting better, but Willis already gets that special, unspoken respect that only a few players get. Veterans come to him and ask advice or his thoughts on a defensive set or sequence. When he speaks, players on the other side of the locker room crane their necks and pay attention. Offensive players show nothing but respect.

Why? He reminds everyone of his head coach. The comparisons between Willis and Mike Singletary were going to be inevitable once Singletary became Niners head coach. But Willis has backed it up by becoming a Pro Bowler in each of his first two seasons, the first Niner to do that since Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott. Singletary already has compared Willis to Ray Lewis, and his development as a leader has been clear.

Keep Willis on the field, you keep hope alive.

Boy, could things ever get bad quickly for the Seattle offense. There may be reason for optimism as Jim Mora takes over for Mike Holmgren, but when your nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle can't go in training camp, things gets dicey.

The Seahawks need Jones' talent and experience in so many ways. The iffy running game needs his help. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, injured last year, needs his protection. The passing game, bolstered by the addition of receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, needs that rock on the left side of the line.

But Jones, who is coming off microfracture knee surgery in December and learning the new zone-blocking scheme of offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, suffered back spasms early in camp and on Thursday underwent arthroscopic surgery to get rid of loose fragments from the earlier surgery. The team isn't sure he'll be back by the season opener. They should hope he returns soon. Jones' presence on the line is pivotal.

When highly respected Derrick Brooks was released last February, the torch was passed to Ruud. The unquestioned leader of the team is Ruud. He also is the most valuable player, and a tackling machine.

Ruud has made a stunning 251 tackles over the past two seasons. Now, under defensive coordinator Jim Bates, the Bucs are going to be attacking and blitzing much more than they ever did under Monte Kiffin.That means Ruud's numbers from last season, which included 137 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions, should only go up.

He's just 26 and has been relatively injury-free in the league. If he can stay healthy, Ruud and the Tampa defense could be overwhelming.

Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth was brought in to make life miserable on opposing offenses. Haynesworth was the big offseason splash and indeed should be huge. But ask any Redskins player or coach if anyone in camp looks better, hungrier or will have a bigger impact than Samuels. The perennial Pro Bowler has lost about 12-pounds from last year and checked in at 305. He also is stronger than he's been in a few years and motivated by the fact 2008 marked the first time in five years he didn't start all 16 games at left tackle.

Life definitely gets better for Jason Campbell, Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts when Samuels is on the field. And he plans to be the left-tackle security blanket they all need to have a playoff season.

Last year a torn right triceps ended Samuels' season and he had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in the offseason. The Redskins consequently finished 2-6 down the stretch. If Samuels gets injured again, things could unravel, again.


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