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5 Players Who Hold The Keys To the 2011 NFL Season



It's almost impossible for one person to change a game in the NFL. There are no isolation plays, like in basketball. There's no one with the ability to make an impact like a dominant pitcher in baseball or a hot goalie in hockey. Quarterback may be the most important position in sports, but just ask Dan Marino: One quarterback can't do it alone.

So yes, every championship caliber team needs a lot -- cover corners, pass rushers, a dominant offensive line and solid special teams. But that can't diminish the importance of some individuals. For some NFL teams, they do have one player who can turn their fortunes this season, depending on how they perform. These players could mean the difference between a disappointing season or a playoff berth or more.

And in the case of these five players below, they are in the unique position to not only affect their teams, but affect their division and conference races. In fact, these five players may be able to upset the balance of power in the NFL more than any other player on any football field (yes, we know how important Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are to their respective teams, but we focussed on guys who are just below the superstars):

New York Jets QB Mark Sanchez
Two straight trips to the AFC championship game has proven that the Jets have a brilliant coach, a powerful running game and a stifling defense. The jury, though, remains out on their 25-year-old quarterback. Sanchez has ranged from struggling to good, and has definitely been good enough in the playoffs. But his numbers from last year were middling – a completion percentage of 54.8, 3,291 yards, 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. If the Jets are emerging as a dominant team in the AFC with their leader putting up numbers like that, imagine how good they will be if he leaps into the top half of NFL quarterbacks. He has the offensive line and the weapons at his disposal. It’s up to him.

Houston Texans RB Arian Foster
The neck injury to Colts QB Peyton Manning just might open a small window in the AFC South for another team to step in. And hasn’t it seemed like we’ve been waiting for the Texans to do that for years? Yes, much of their fortunes will turn on the arm of QB Matt Schaub. But the key to their shot at the Colts’ crown might just be Foster, an out-of-nowhere sensation last year who rushed for 1,616 yards and caught 66 passes for 604 more. His 2,220 total yards and 18 touchdowns made him the engine that makes the Texans go. If that was only the beginning, then look out. If he’s a one-year wonder, then the Colts will have smooth sailing as long as Manning plays at some point during the year.

San Francisco 49ers QB Alex Smith
The NFL’s biggest disappointments one year ago were the 49ers – a team everyone thought was about to win the weak NFC West and emerge as a force in the conference. Whether or not this will be the year they emerge from that sorry division depends on whether Jim Harbaugh can fix whatever is wrong with Alex Smith. Entering his seventh NFL season, the former No. 1 overall pick has been laughably bad, never topping 2,900 yards or 18 touchdown passes and only once starting all 16 games. He has plenty of weapons around him and now he has a good offensive-minded coach. If Smith is fixable, the 49ers can make the playoffs and maybe even catch a few NFC giants by surprise. If he’s not, it’ll be a long year in San Francisco as the Colin Kaepernick Era begins.

New Orleans Saints RB Darren Sproles
Reggie Bush never really lived up to his billing in New Orleans. His presence made defenses open their eyes, but his performance rarely made them blink. Now he’s gone and Sproles is in his place and there’s a chance the 5-6, 190-pound back could turn out to be even better. He’ll be part of a backfield team with Pierre Thomas and rookie Mark Ingram, but if he can have the kind of production Bush never did, it’ll add another dangerous dimension to an offense that’s already one of the most dangerous in the NFL. The Saints were outstanding last year, but they lost their division to Atlanta and then were shocked in the playoffs in Seattle. They still have the core of their Super Bowl team from two years ago. If Sproles is what they expect, they could be back there again.

Oakland Raiders QB Jason Campbell
His five years in Washington were viewed as such a disaster it’s hard to remember his completion percentage was better than 60 percent and that in his last year there (2009) he threw for more than 3,600 yards with 20 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Those aren’t bad numbers at all. He still has a strong arm, good command in the pocket, and now he has a respected coach (Hue Jackson), some receivers and tight ends that can stretch the field (Darius Heyward Bey, Kevin Boss), and an underrated running back (Darren McFadden). The Raiders are viewed as a team on the rise. If Campbell is better than most people remember, they’ll fight for that AFC West crown.