All-Indispensable Team (cont.)
Philadelphia Eagles, Brian Westbrook
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.
St. Louis Rams, Steven Jackson
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.
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.
San Francisco 49ers, Patrick Willis
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.
Seattle Seahawks, Walter Jones
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.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Barrett Ruud
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.
Washington Redskins, Chris Samuels
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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