What's the most important thing an NFL team should accomplish in the preseason?
Finding a rhythm on offense? That would be nice. Implementing a defense that will stop other teams? That would be great, too. Finding the right personnel, or creating team chemistry, or getting in the best condition possible? Sure, all those things need to be hammered out at some point, but one thing trumps them all: Staying healthy.
As the old NFL saying goes, the best ability is availability. The primary goal for most regulars is to make it through training camp and the preseason schedule without getting hurt.
The Bucs have been unable to do that. They started camp without defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, who tore an Achilles tendon in May. They've gone through most of the preseason without wide receiver Arrelious Benn, who has a sprained MCL.
But their catastrophic crash came last week when guard Davin Joseph was lost for the season with a knee injury, sustained against the Patriots on Friday. You could make a case that few players on the roster are more valuable than Joseph. He's a two-time Pro Bowl player, only 28 and was heading into his seventh season. He is young enough to be at the top of his game physically and experienced enough to know what he is doing. He is a star just hitting his prime.
Not to jinx the remaining healthy Bucs, but whom can they least afford to lose to injury the rest of this year? Here are choices for the top five:
1. Josh Freeman, quarterback
Obviously. The NFL has become a quarterback league. If you have a lousy quarterback, you probably have a lousy team. Simple as that. No team can afford to lose its starting quarterback, even one coming off a 16-touchdown, 22-interception bummer of a season. There aren't enough starting quarterbacks for all 32 teams, or enough quarterbacks to serve as backups. Freeman is one of, oh, 25 or so legitimate starting quarterbacks. Losing him would be disastrous. This isn't meant to knock second-stringer Dan Orlovsky. But let's face it, if Orlovsky was good enough to start somewhere else, he would be starting somewhere else.
2. Carl Nicks, guard
Nicks is regarded by some as the NFL's best guard. He would be on this list regardless of what happened this preseason. But he moves higher on it, and is even more critical to the Bucs, because of the injury to Davin Joseph. If there is one position after quarterback at which teams cannot afford to have injuries pile up, it's on the offensive line. Many good teams — last year's Steelers, for instance — have had seasons ruined because of offensive line issues. The Bucs are not deep on their line, but don't blame them. No team is. Losing Joseph handicaps this line. Losing another lineman, especially one as talented and reliable as Nicks, would devastate it.
3. Vincent Jackson, wide receiver
Jackson hasn't played a regular-season game in a Bucs uniform and already there is talk he is the best receiver this franchise has had. He is the deep-ball threat the Bucs haven't had in some time and a weapon quarterback Josh Freeman has never had. But Jackson's value is more than what he brings to the field; it's the effect he has on others. Mike Williams has had a superb preseason, and a big reason is because he is now the No. 2 guy, free from the double-teams and special attention of opponents. If Jackson was to go down, Williams would be thrust back into the No. 1 role, something he appears incapable of handling. Jackson makes everyone better.
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4. Aqib Talib, cornerback
Say what you want about Talib's shenanigans off the field. Say what you want about his maturity, selfishness or self-entitlement. But while you're at it, you also have to say this: He is one heck of a player. Pound for pound, he has my vote for the best player on the team. Yeah, I get it, he has to be in the lineup to be effective. For now, it is fair to wonder if he can be counted on. But there's no question the defense is better with him than without him. He is a shutdown corner who can defend anyone without help. That allows the Bucs to blitz more, and that's something they need to do considering they recorded only 23 sacks last season and 26 in 2010.
5. Gerald McCoy, defensive tackle
The first four spots on this list went to arguably the four best players on the team. McCoy is not the fifth-best player on the team. Putting him in the fifth spot says more about the Bucs' severe lack of depth on the defensive line than it does about McCoy. McCoy, 24 and entering his third season, is still feeling his way and has miles to go before becoming the type of player a No. 3 overall draft pick is expected to be. But the Bucs are so thin up front, especially with Da'Quan Bowers out, they can't afford another loss, particularly to someone with McCoy's talent, as untapped as it might be.