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Like any team sport, football takes a collective effort in order to win. A team might have a generational superstar but very seldom are they able to single-handedly win championships. An NFL team could have a running back that gains 200 yards and scores 3 touchdowns per game but that team’s defense also needs to make key stops in order for them to win. The best wide receivers in the world need quarterbacks who can throw the ball to them and, likewise, star quarterbacks need receivers who aren’t constantly dropping passes.
This doesn’t mean that one single player can’t make a difference in a team’s chances of success. Quite the opposite. There are several NFL players that make a world of difference to their teams. Think of a healthy JJ Watt. Some teams that had their hopes crushed by key losses last year include Green Bay when they lost Aaron Rodgers and the Cardinals who could have been so much stronger if David Johnson didn’t get hurt.
Some teams are lucky enough to be well rounded. Pittsburgh would survive injuries to either Le’Veon Bell or Antonio Brown. Jacksonville might even be better if Blake Bortles got hurt and even Dallas went 3-3 without star running back Ezekiel Elliott on suspension. Let’s take a look at 10 critical players who, if hurt, would seriously impact their teams’ chances.
When we think of impact players, most of us tend to think about offensive players who score points. However, we are going to start off on the other side of the ball and talk about what a devastating loss defensive end Yannick Ngakoue would be.
It’s no secret that a key part of Jacksonville’s resurgence was their defense and the 23-year-old Jaguar was a huge part of that success. In his second year, Ngakoue racked up 12 sacks and also forced a league-leading six fumbles. Heck, he even scored a touchdown, which was a feat which was only accomplished by nine other defensive linemen last year. He was a very disruptive force and he is poised to be even better this season. While one could argue that Calais Campbell would be a bigger loss, we are going with the younger guy with a ton of upside.
Let’s take a look at another key piece to the Jaguar puzzle. Leonard Fournette definitely showed the Jags that he was worthy of being their number one draft pick last year when he rushed for over 1,000 yards and scored 9 rushing touchdowns. He was a workhorse who averaged over 20 carries per game which ranked him 4th in that category.
What makes him so important to Jacksonville is the fact that no other team attempted to run the ball as much as the Jags did and he answered the bell. It could be argued that his 3.9 yards per carry isn’t great but it’s hardly bad. T.J. Yeldon is a solid running back but the Jags wouldn’t find the same success with him in the backfield if Fournette went down.
Russell Wilson is a rare talent who can get it done in many ways. He led the league in touchdown passes last year with 34 and registered a 95.4 QB rating. Not only that, Wilson also finished second only to Cam Newton in quarterback rushing yards with 586. Let’s not forget that he racked up 849 rushing yards and 6 rushing touchdowns in 2014.
Seattle is going to be hard-pressed to get into the playoffs this year and things would get a whole lot tougher with the likes of Austin Davis or rookie Alex McGough playing behind the weak Seahawks offensive line.
Cam Newton is quite similar to Russell Wilson but there are differences. Newton picks up more yards and scores more touchdowns on the ground but he is not as effective through the air. The Panthers fortunes seem to be directly proportional to how well Cam Newton plays. When he’s at the top of his game like he was in 2015 then the Panthers are a team to be reckoned with. When he struggles as he did in 2016 then the whole team struggles. One thing is for sure, if Cam Newton is injured and the load falls on any of the backups, the Panthers will be in trouble.
This selection is a no-brainer as it was perfectly illustrated last year. Including the game versus Minnesota in which the star quarterback was injured, Green Bay was 4-2. After he was injured, the Packers went 3-7. Not only that, they failed to reach the 30-point plateau in any of those 10 games which is something that Rodgers and the Packers are used to doing.
Green Bay fans will shudder at the thought of having Brett Hundley at the helm again and they would be sick to see it come down to DeShone Kizer. Aaron Rodgers is the difference between Green Bay being a contender and Green Bay being a losing team.
He might be able to use senior citizen lines in the grocery store and he’s closer to being able to cash pension checks than almost anybody else in the NFL but Tom Brady continues to be among the best at his position. He led the league in passing yards in 2017 and his 32 touchdown passes versus just 8 picks put him right near the top.
If he could have only caught that pass in the Super Bowl then it’s quite possible that his team would have won yet another championship. The day will come when Tom Brady can’t play anymore but Patriots fans are probably hoping that it doesn’t happen this year with Brian Hoyer and rookie Danny Etling backing him up.
How important is Todd Gurley to the Los Angeles Rams? His 1,305 rushing yards was second-best in the NFL and his 13 rushing scores were tops. His 4.7 yards per carry average was impressive but so was his 788 yards through the air and six receiving touchdowns. He accounted for around 25% of Los Angeles’ scoring which is a pretty incredible feat. He gives the Rams an added dimension and without him, they would not have been nearly as good as they were last year. The same goes for this season.
Alright, time to go with another defensive player and this entry might stir some controversy. The Detroit Lions could do a lot better than most other teams if they lost their starting quarterback and they would still likely be fine if they were to lose running back LeGarrette Blount.
However, their defense would suffer severely if they lost Darius Slay who, at age 27, is coming off a career year and a Pro Bowl selection. Slay was a prototypical shutdown cornerback who co-led the league in interceptions and defended passes. His role cannot be underestimated and losing him to injury would severely hamper Detroit’s defense.
Aside from a few glimpses in the preseason, the world hasn’t seen what New York’s first-round pick will do. He could be a complete bust for all we know. However, just the thought of having a competent running back completely changes things for the New York Giants.
One of the biggest problems that New York has faced over the past couple of years is their lack of a running game. This was all too apparent last year. Yes, Odell Beckham Jr. is back which improves their chances of winning more than three games but without a running game, New York will likely fall back on their one-dimensional attack that has been so ineffective recently.
Like the Green Bay Packers without Aaron Rodgers, the Indianapolis Colts without Andrew Luck is not a good team. Indy is in a pretty tough division and they have no hope of competing without him as was made clear in 2017 when the Colts finished a miserable 4-12. When healthy, Luck will throw for over 4,000 yards and 30+ touchdowns.
Luck might not make them champions but they can at least be a playoff team. The Colts have gone 43-27 with Luck in the lineup and 9-16 without him. Even though the Colts have a young Jacoby Brissett backing him up, he wasn’t nearly good enough to make this team competitive.