Injuries are a part of the game, no doubt. Training camp is critical, because not only are you trying to discern your starters, but you are also trying to establish quality depth. At some point or another, to varying degrees, every NFL team has to cover on the field for an injury.
Some years are worse than others. The Packers, it seems, are on a three-year cycle of crippling injuries. In 2002, the team finished with a basketball team of starters on injured reserve. In 2005, the Packers had perhaps their worst season for injuries in franchise history. And last year, 2008, while the Packers didn't have the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" injuries they had three years previous, critical injuries to Nick Barnett, Cullen Jenkins, Al Harris, and Atari Bigby set the defense back considerably.
If you are a little superstitious (like me), you are going to follow the trend and see our next snakebit year should be in 2011...a long ways away.
But, the odds are very high that a Packer player is going to be placed on season-ending IR in the first half of the season. What makes for interesting discussion is which players we can least afford to have working on the stationary bike until 2010.
In order, here are my top five players the Packers can least afford to lose to injury in 2009:
#5 Charles Woodson
As the Packers make their transition to a 3-4 defense, the responsibilities of the secondary changes also. Our cornerbacks, long regarded as perhaps the best tandem in the NFL, have built their reputation on tough, bump-and-run man coverage. Al Harris, the other corner, has always excelled at that, but Charles Woodson, a former first-round pick, has proven his athletic ability will allow him to play zone as well.
Harris has gotten some flack in the Packer Blogosphere and in the media that not only might he be average (at best) in zone coverage, but that he has lost a step with age and may be better served in the nickel role. While I don't quite buy that (yet), the fact that Tramon Williams has shown the ability to be a serviceable starter last season (despite his quiet training camp) allows for some insurance for Harris.
But the loss of Woodson to injury this season would place Williams in a starting spot, and leave Harris at the other. The lack of progress of the other corners behind them (Pat Lee hasn't blossomed quite as much as many of us had hoped) would already weaken a secondary that relies on many DB's to substitute and even play linebacking roles in the 3-4 nickel and dime.
#4 Chad Clifton
Clifton, you say? The old guy is on his last legs, you say? He may be a creaky old veteran, but he and Daryn Colledge are presently the only two offensive linemen who are already pencilled in to a starting spot along the line. No, Clifton isn't the stalwart he once was, but he is a crafty veteran who is invaluable in protecting the quarterback's blind side at left tackle.
I'm still not sold on a lot of the young talent we have on the offensive line. Many of them may develop into solid starters someday, but right now, no one appears to be stepping forward and commanding the other three starting spots (and Colledge himself is nowhere near Pro Bowl level yet, either). There's a lot of average talent along the line.
In many ways, Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy have benefitted from having two veteran bookends on the offensive line for many years. But with the loss of Mark Tauscher on the right side, Clifton stands as the lone bookend remaining. Since the other offensive line positions are all still entertaining auditions, the thought of adding a fourth open spot would likely be less a competition as much as sticking bodies into the spot and hoping something sticks. That doesn't bode well for Aaron Rodgers' blind side.
#3 Nick Collins
I've certainly given Collins his share of criticism over the years, his summer holdout not adding to the love. But when Atari Bigby went out in the first game of 2008, a revolving door of average players tried to fill his place. The constant was Nick Collins, who played at a Pro Bowl level and turned into a legitimate playmaker.
While I am excited to see Bigby come back and hopefully return the form he was showing before he was hurt last year, Collins offers the ability to help cover for his absence better than Bibgy might the other way around. I've often said that our safety corps are made up of strong safety types, mostly hard-hitting run stoppers who struggle in coverage. Collins came of age last year and showed he was able to play the free safety position more than adequately.
I don't know if the Packers have another free safety on the roster. Bigby is a good run stopper, and Rouse also fits that strong safety mold. Could Anthony Smith come in and fill Collins' spot? Chances are, nowhere near as well.
#2 Ryan Pickett or Cullen Jenkins
I cite both of these guys at #2 because either of them are critical to the development of the 3-4 defense this year. Pickett is considered the only body type on the roster suitable to play nose tackle, other than late-signee BJ Raji. And the effects of the loss of Jenkins last year to injury was immediate and palpable.
The Packers simply don't have a lot of developed talent along the defensive line. Michael Montgomery and Johnny Jolly are ideally your non-starters who work in the rotation, but we've seen the defensive line struggle when those players are forced to start and the rotation depth is limited. While I have high hopes for BJ Raji, counting on him to have the same impact as Jenkins or Pickett (without having them alongside him) is pretty everly-optimistic for a rookie.
Justin Harrell appears on his way to again being a non-factor this season, and that leaves Alfred Malone and a bunch of undrafted free agents to fill in the gaps. Not a positive position to be in. Not having Harrell developed in 2009 has really hurt the Packers' depth this year.
#1 Aaron Rodgers
Of all the players on the roster, no injury would cause a more drastic impact on their side of the ball than that of Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers has demonstrated his ability to lead the team and play through pain. He has incredible accuracy and has developed pocket maturity. He is the defacto leader on offense.
And, there's literally no one proven behind him. If we were to lose Aaron Rodgers in Week 1 with a season-ending injury, a la Atari Bigby last year, the onus would fall on young Matt Flynn. While Flynn has developed over his rookie season efforts and has has more poise in the pocket, he does not possess Rodgers' arm strength or the ability to make the difficult NFL throws. In fact, he's a bit of a scrambler that would open himself up to hard hits.
Again, he may develop the skills needed to be a starter in the NFL in time, but in 2009 he isn't there yet. Even more concerning is the lack of development of fellow second-year quarterback Brian Brohm, who is simply not ready for prime time. It is likely the offensive game plan would have to be modified to give the replacement QB shorter, higher-percentage throws to make instead of the wide-open game that Rodgers enjoys and does well with.
The lack of quality depth behind Aaron Rodgers makes his injury status the most critical for 2009. Trust me, every hard hit he takes will come with a cringe from Packer fans, as well as Packer coaches.
Do you agree? Is there another player that you think should be on this list?