In with one star defender, out with another. The New England Patriots and Vince Wilfork appear to be headed to a split after 10 years together.
There were reports recently that the Patriots had asked Wilfork to adjust his contract, but instead, Wilfork has asked for his release, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network.
#Patriots Pro Bowl DT Vince Wilfork has asked that the team release him after 10 seasons in New England, according to sources.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 13, 2014
Releasing Wilfork would create some much-needed cap relief — $8 million worth, to be exact — but would also create a need at defensive tackle. In truth, they may have had a need there already. At 32 years old, Wilfork is coming off a torn Achilles' and there is some uncertainty as to whether he'll be the Wilfork of old or just an old Wilfork.
As always, there's a lot at work with such big news, so let's go through it all one step at a time.
1. Money's an issue
It's the issue at the very core of the divide.
The Patriots asked Vince Wilfork to alter his contract according to ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss, but Wilfork fought long and hard for his contract. He called it a "slap in the face" when the Patriots put the franchise tag on him, but they were able to reach an agreement on a five-year, $40 million contract with $25 million guaranteed. He has made most of that, but was due to make around $8 million in 2014.
I previously laid out a way in which the Patriots and Wilfork could have re-worked the deal to satisfy both parties, but there's a catch — the Patriots would have had to extend him without seeing him in action following the surgery to repair his torn Achilles' tendon. An investment of $11.6 million in cap space doesn't make sense for a 32-year-old defensive tackle nearing the end of his career and coming off a major injury, especially not if you don't know what that player will look like afterward.
It's understandable that the Patriots would want Wilfork to re-work his deal, but if anyone can overcome those stacked odds, it may be Wilfork. He's a hard worker, a leader, and a rare breed. The odds are certainly not in his favor, though.
2. Changing of the guard, loss of a leader
If Wilfork is released, Tom Brady would become the last remaining player on the roster to have won a Super Bowl with the Patriots. The changing of the guard would be nearly complete.
There are both long-term and short-term ramifications in the locker room, and there was an interesting question posed by colleague Zuri Berry on Twitter:
So if Tom Brady is the face of the franchise and offense, wasn’t Vince Wilfork the face of the defense? Who would it be now? Mayo?— Zuri Berry (@zuriberry) March 13, 2014
My initial response listed Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty, and some new defensive back named Darrelle Revis. You could also throw Rob Ninkovich into that group. He has a similar blue-collar, hard-working, leadership mentality to Wilfork.
Last year, McCourty and Ninkovich were the ones asked to step up as team captains when Wilfork and Mayo went down. One of the two will likely be asked to step up yet again — or possibly Revis. This will certainly be an interesting story line to follow.
3. Next men up
The Patriots were able to re-work Tommy Kelly's deal, according to ESPN's Field Yates, so he will remain with the team in 2014. The spot next to him, however, becomes a question.
For now, releasing Wilfork would thrust Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, and Sealver Siliga into the spotlight. The three were the Patriots' top defensive tackles by the end of the season, after injuries sidelined both Wilfork and Kelly.
Unless the Patriots are comfortable rolling with that group as prominent fixtures on defense yet again in 2014, they will need to make improvements. As a whole, the interior defensive line struggled in 2013 and was exposed by opposing offenses to the tune of 134.1 rushing yards per game and 4.5 yards per rush attempt, both in the bottom 10 in the NFL.
4. Potential offseason additions
The Patriots have options if they want to replace Wilfork this offseason. Defensive tackles Henry Melton, Jason Hatcher and B.J. Raji are all on the open market. Raji is probably the most similar to Wilfork for his skill set as a two-gap defensive tackle. Melton tore his ACL in Week 3 of the regular season, but before that, he was considered good enough for the Chicago Bears to hit him with the franchise tag in 2013. Hatcher had an impressive 2013 campaign, with a team-high 11 sacks.
If it's not a free agent, there's always the draft.
Both the first and the second Going Deep mock drafts have focused on bolstering the defensive line, and perhaps the Patriots could take a similar approach. It wouldn't be out of the question for the Patriots to spend two picks on defensive tackles to aggressively address the need by way of throwing as many darts at the board and hoping to get a bull's eye.
Defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman (Minnesota), Louis Nix III (Notre Dame), and Stephon Tuitt (Notre Dame) should be in focus as the Patriots look for the heir to Wilfork's spot on the defensive line. Any of those three could be taken with the team's first-round pick (29th overall).
5. What's next for Wilfork?
It's fair to question Wilfork's decision to demand his release. At 32 years old, coming off the Achilles' injury, the market may not be strong for his services. As mentioned earlier, he was slated to make $8 million in 2014. He may be able to get close to that on the open market, but it would be a stretch — and that team would be assuming a risk if they gave him any long-term guarantees.
During his contract stand-off with the Patriots in 2010, Wilfork said in an interview with the Sun-Sentinel that playing in Tampa Bay or Miami would be "a dream come true." If either of those teams is willing to sign him, perhaps Wilfork would be willing to give up a little money to go back home to Florida.
There are plenty of teams in need of a 3-4 nose tackle, though. The Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans and Pittsburgh Steelers could all be in line for his services. The question is which, if any, of those teams would be willing to take a chance without knowing what he has left.
The author is solely responsible for the content.