FOXBOROUGH — If he sounds like a proud papa, maybe it’s because he is.
Everywhere Vince Wilfork looks these days, he sees young men growing up in front of his eyes: fellow starting defensive tackle Kyle Love; the other young players stocking the Patriots defense; and even his own son, D’Aundre, who played in his first high school football game Friday night.
They may be at different spots along the way, but they’re all traveling the same path Wilfork did.
A few months shy of his 31st birthday and starting his ninth NFL season, Wilfork is the elder statesman of a very young New England defense — the youngest of Bill Belichick’s tenure.
He laughs when asked about being the “old man” of the group. He is by no means old, at least not in the world outside of football, but with 16 of the 26 defensive players on the 53-man roster having just three years of pro experience or less, Wilfork has a wealth of knowledge that the others don’t.
And he’s more than willing to share it with the youngsters.
“Vince has been a great mentor for me,” said first-round pick Chandler Jones. “I feel like without Vince taking me under his wing from the first day I’ve been here, who knows what kind of player I [might be].
“The thing that he’s taught me is to slow down. Slow down. Because, he said, even though they say the NFL is a lot faster, if you just slow down, everything slows down for you.”
A first-round pick in 2004 out of Miami, Wilfork has seen his career unfold as not many others’ do in the NFL: He has been with the same team, going from the smart rookie learning to play nose tackle in the middle of a three-man line to one of the players that everyone else looks to, a leader on and off the field who is still among the best at his job.
“Ever since I got here, Vince has been a leader on the D-line, and that’s the type of guy he is,” said Ron Brace, now in his fourth season. “His work ethic and everything, you just can’t help but see him as a leader because everything he does is an example of how a defensive tackle or a D-lineman should play here. You can’t help but to look up to him as a leader.”
A busy man
Last year, as New England tried to switch to a 4-3 base defense — a switch that was delayed after the Albert Haynesworth experiment didn’t exactly work out — Wilfork was moved all over the line.
And when the season was over, it was he — not a linebacker like Jerod Mayo or a cornerback like Devin McCourty — who had played the most snaps on the defense. He was on the field for 977 of 1,141, a very high number for a lineman.
When postseason snaps are added in, Kyle Arrington overtook Wilfork by four snaps, but it still speaks to his durability and versatility.
Maybe it’s because he was on the field so much, or maybe because he continues to get better as a player — perhaps a bit of both — but Wilfork set a career high with 3½ regular-season sacks, and added two more in the playoffs; he also got the first two interceptions of his career, and the first touchdown, when he recovered a Redskins fumble in the end zone in December.
He has missed just six of 128 regular-season games in his career, three each in 2006 and ’09, and feels as good as ever.
“Physically, never had a problem, and knock on wood,” Wilfork said. “I’ve been pretty healthy throughout my whole career — high school, college and now pros.
“I never play scared, I never play ‘what if.’ I play the game the way it needs to be played, and that’s full-speed, full-tilt, and whatever happens out of that happens. But physically, I haven’t felt any better.
“I don’t feel [age]. I don’t feel it. That’s something I never look at. Every year I know it’s a year under your belt, but when I’m playing, I don’t feel like I’m 30 or nine years in; I feel like I’m just like everybody else.
“I come to work, I work hard, I expect the same thing out of my teammates, and as long as you keep that mind-frame, you can play as long as you want to play. You have to have the passion for it.”
Perhaps one day in training camp this summer encapsulated Wilfork’s status as one of the best and displayed his still-strong love of the game. In one-on-ones against the offensive linemen, he was beaten soundly by Dan Connolly on his first turn. Not only did Wilfork take three more turns, but he dominated Dan Koppen, Donald Thomas, and Robert Gallery, using a different move each time.
With so many fresh faces on the defense, and a new wave of expectations after last year’s unit was arguably the worst of Belichick’s career, Wilfork has almost flown under the radar since camp started, but among his teammates, everyone knows where to find him, and it’s usually in the film room.Continued...