Many teams are leaning heavily on the good health of key players in 2014. Which NFL club stands to win or lose the most based on that outcome?
Chicago Bears: Jay Cutler
Having Josh McCown last year proved very beneficial for the Chicago Bears, who had to live without starter Jay Cutler for five games. This time around their good fortune may not be there. McCown departed for Tampa Bay in free agency and all the team has behind Cutler is a mix of journeymen and rookie who combined offer little starting experience. More than ever it is clear the success or failure of the Bears rides on the healthy body of the 31-year old.
New England Patriots: Rob Gronkowski
To understand the impact of having tight end Rob Gronkowski on the field, one must evaluate the New England Patriots offense with and without him. In the six games prior to his return in 2013, the Pats averaged 20.8 points per game. From weeks 7 to 14 in which he played, that number increased to 32. Suffice to say New England is a completely different ball club when the Pro Bowler is available for Tom Brady to target. Gronk has plans to play the entire NFL season this year, but there are no guarantees. What is guaranteed is the Patriots can’t replace him if he goes down.
Green Bay Packers: Eddie Lacy
Having a running game proved very timely for the Green Bay Packers who lost Aaron Rodgers for seven games due to injury. Eddie Lacy then became the steadying force the Pack, collecting over 1,000 rushing yards and scoring 11 touchdowns. His presence will help Green Bay keep pass rushes off Rodgers and the offense balanced. That’s providing he stays healthy himself because the team doesn’t have a real second option if he goes down. James Starks never lived up to his billing as a starter and DuJuan Harris has played in just nine games in two years.
Cleveland Browns: Joe Haden
Defensively, it was a good year for the Cleveland Browns in 2013 as they finished 9th overall and 8th against the pass. While several players were responsible for the success, most of it went through the individual talents of cornerback Joe Haden. His ability to lock down opposing receivers is a major asset to a defense that is otherwise devoid of proven talent. Their only other Pro Bowler from last season, safety T.J. Ward left for Denver in free agency. Were Haden to go down the team would be relying on a mix of solid but unremarkable veterans like Paul Kruger and unproven youngsters like Barkevious Mingo and Justin Gilbert. Not exactly an inspiring thought.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Gerald McCoy
Lovie Smith is one of the best defensive coaches of the past decade and is expected to get great results out of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. However, like any coach he needs a specific kind of player to make his defense run. In Smith’s case, that is a dominant presence at defensive tackle. He couldn’t ask for a better option than All-Pro Gerald McCoy who had a career high 9.5 sacks last season. However, history shows that when Smith doesn’t have that presence in the middle, his units become considerably less effective. Outside of longtime NFL reserve Clinton McDonald, the Bucs have nobody if McCoy goes down, which only increases his importance moving forward.