If yesterday's signing of No. 1 pick Vince Wilfork is an indication of how smoothly the rest of the '04 season will go for the Patriots, their bid to return to the Super Bowl is already right on track.
Patriots executive director of legal affairs Jack Mula got this one done with time to spare before training camp begins July 29 in Foxborough. Now there's no worry about Wilfork being late to compete for the starting nose tackle spot vacated by free agent Ted Washington, unless he fails the conditioning test.
The deal, agreed upon by Mula and Wilfork's agent, Michael Huyghue, is for six years and has a maximum value of $18.05 million, according to player, team, and industry sources.
Though the deal had not been filed with the NFL Players Association at the close of business yesterday and all the numbers were not available, sources indicate the 6-foot-2-inch, 325-pound former Miami Hurricanes defensive tackle, the 21st player taken overall, got $3 million to sign, a $325,000 roster bonus this season, and will receive a $2.5 million option bonus at the beginning of the '05 season.
Wilfork's deal appears similar to the recent contracts of Richard Seymour and Ty Warren.
Wilfork won't have to be an All-Pro to reach the majority of the lucrative escalators in the fifth and sixth years of the contract, but he'll have to be a "significant player" according to one source. If that's the case, owner Robert Kraft won't mind paying the maximum amount because it would mean Wilfork had turned out like Seymour, one of the top defensive linemen in the game. But the Patriots currently view Wilfork's contract as more like a six-year, $9 million deal, $6.575 million of which is guaranteed through signing bonuses, roster bonuses, and salary through 2006.
Wilfork will be part of a young group of linemen, headed by Pro Bowler Seymour, that the Patriots hope will be dominant for years. Also included in that mix is last season's top pick, Warren, who had mixed results as a rookie, and Jarvis Green, who has become a steady contributor. The Patriots already have signed second-round pick Marquise Hill of LSU and hope to develop him as a pass-rushing end. Hill is a former teammate of Green's at LSU.
The Patriots have been getting younger on the line, allowing over-30 linemen such as Washington, Anthony Pleasant, and Rick Lyle to leave as free agents, though they added veteran Keith Traylor to back up at nose tackle and on the line. Traylor could be the starter if the Patriots decide to ease Wilfork into the mix, as they did with Warren last season.
The Patriots spent all last week negotiating with Wilfork. In the past, the Patriots seem to have worked from the bottom up in signing their draft picks, but this season two of the team's top three picks are in the fold. The next target appears to be Georgia tight end Benjamin Watson, New England's other first-round pick.
Wilfork, only the second first-round pick to sign so far (the other is the Texans' Jason Babin), didn't start at Miami until his junior season in '03, and started 14 of 36 games in three seasons. He registered 148 career tackles (73 solo), including 14 sacks for losses of 60 yards.
Wilfork was unanimous All-Big East first-team choice in his final season. He recorded six sacks for a loss of 29 yards, which tied him for the team lead. In the final game of his career, he had seven tackles (5 solo) against Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
Wilfork was in Foxborough yesterday, taking part in the offseason workout program and taking care of living arrangements for his family. The team advised Wilfork to decline media interviews, although it indicated he might speak later in the week.
The Patriots also made official the signing of quarterback Jim Miller, 33, who is entering his 10th season in the NFL. Miller was out of football last season and last played for the Bears in '02, starting eight games. Miller's best season was 2001, when the Bears finished 13-3.