All-Indispensable Team (cont.)
New England Patriots, Vince Wilfork
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.
New York Jets, Nick Mangold
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.
Oakland Raiders, Nnamdi Asomugha
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.
Pittsburgh Steelers, Aaron Smith
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.
San Diego Chargers, LaDainian Tomlinson
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.
Tennessee Titans, Kyle Vanden Bosch
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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