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This nose has eye on new deal

Wilfork frustrated over lack of talks

By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / May 28, 2009
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All eyes will be on quarterback Tom Brady when the Patriots take the field for organized team activities late this morning, although there is another story simmering that could command attention:

Is nose tackle Vince Wilfork set to make a statement about his displeasure over stagnant contract negotiations?

Although "OTAs" are voluntary, one of the trends in recent years has seen players use them as a vehicle to spark contract talks. Recent examples have come in Cleveland, where Pro Bowl return man Joshua Cribbs initially threatened to not show up if the Browns didn't address his contract; in Tampa Bay, where middle linebacker Barrett Ruud has stayed away in hopes of an upgraded deal; and in New York, where Jets running back Leon Washington is drawing a line in the contractual sand by remaining home.

Wilfork, who sent out three "tweets" on his Twitter account yesterday at the same time the Patriots were practicing at Gillette Stadium, has been frustrated at the lack of progress on contract talks. The sides haven't negotiated this offseason.

So Wilfork's presence, or lack thereof, is near the top of things to watch today, right after "How does Brady look?"

The Patriots would not confirm if Wilfork participated in OTAs over the last two days. The team's website noted that "over 80" of the 91 players on the roster were on the field. Wilfork did not return messages the last two days, nor did his agent.

Wilfork enters the sixth season of a six-year pact he signed as a first-round draft choice in 2004. That was the same year the Patriots other first-round draft choice, Benjamin Watson, held out because his agent (Tom Condon) insisted that a six-year contract was not an option.

Condon's thinking was that it was better to take a lesser signing bonus on a shorter-term contract (five years). The player is betting on himself to perform well in that scenario, and then have an opportunity to earn big on the unrestricted free agent market after his fifth year. However, the Patriots held firm on a six-year deal, and that's what Watson - after switching agents - ultimately signed.

In part because the Patriots and other teams took such an approach on six-year deals, NFL rules were later changed, limiting the contract length of first-round draft choices from picks 17-32 to five years.

Looking back, Wilfork likely regrets locking himself into a six-year deal after being selected 21st overall, because even at a $2.2 million base salary for 2009, he's outperformed his pact (which was negotiated by his former agent). Even the Patriots would agree, but the issue now is finding an acceptable middle ground.

So, what would be fair market value for the 27-year-old Wilfork with one year remaining on his contract?

While Wilfork is a two-down player, his ability to play the hard-to-fill nose tackle spot in the 3-4 alignment increases his worth. His performance in the team's Nov. 23 win over the Dolphins last year, when he almost single-handedly blew up Miami's "Wildcat" attack, reflected his importance to the team. While the Patriots drafted Boston College's Ron Brace in the second round (40th overall), it's hard to imagine him stepping in and filling that void this year, which would presumably help Wilfork's cause.

In most negotiations, the sides look for a comparable player as a foundation for talks, so a solid 3-4 nose tackle like Kris Jenkins, who signed a five-year, $30 million-plus pact with the Jets in February 2008, figures to come up in discussions.

Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris would be another possible comparable. Although he isn't a nose tackle, he was a fellow 2004 first-rounder and the extension he signed last June averages just shy of $8 million per season (without incentives).

The top end of the defensive tackle market was set by Albert Haynesworth in free agency, as he can earn $52 million in his first four years, a whopping average of $13 million per year.

Because Wilfork is under contract, and there is the possibility of placing the franchise tag on him in 2010, the team is in a position of negotiating strength. Further tilting things in their direction is the NFL's uncertain labor situation, and if there is an uncapped season in 2010 teams can use franchise/transition tags on two players, not just one.

From Wilfork's perspective, one way to attempt to nudge leverage back in his favor is to withhold his services from OTAs, minicamps, and possibly training camp. The hope would be to spark some movement from the Patriots, whether it is an extension closer to what he desires, a boost to his base salary that would serve as an incentive to return, or an agreement that if he shows up the team wouldn't restrict him with the franchise tag next year, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent.

Such an approach produced a resolution with Richard Seymour (contract extension), Deion Branch (trade), and Asante Samuel (agreement not to use franchise tag) in recent years.

Are the Patriots and Wilfork headed down the same road? Today could help clear up some of the lingering questions.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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