The New England Patriots, in the course of fewer than 48 hours, lost one of their most important defensive pieces, replaced him with an upgrade — and then, in news that stunned Patriots fans, now look like they are about to lose another fundamental member of their defensive unit.
After the Patriots pressured him to restructure his contract, which pays about $8 million in 2014, five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork told the team he would rather play elsewhere — just a day after they acquired five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis to replace outgoing 2013 Pro Bowl selection Aqib Talib.
The 32-year-old, 325-pound Wilfork is the team’s defensive captain and until a season-ending achilles tear in 2013, was a key element of every New England Patriots season since they drafted him in the first round out of The University of Miami in 2004 — the season in which the Patriots last won a Super Bowl. But they have made the playoffs every year of Wilfork’s 10 seasons with the team, except 2008.
Going into the last year of his current contract, Wilfork went to the Patriots brass sometime earlier this week after refusing their request to renegotiate his deal and requested that they release him which would make him a free agent.
New England needs to free up space under the salary cap to bid effectively in the free agent market, where the Patriots will look to address a number of pressing needs — defense being far from the least of those. Though the Patriots owed Wilfork $8 million this year, due to the intricacies of the NFL salary cap, his contract counted as $11.6 million toward that limit.
In other words, by releasing Vince Wilfork, the Patriots lose arguably their most important defensive player and are also stuck with $3.6 million of useless money against the cap, making it that much harder to replace Wilfork, at least through free agency.
One NFL analyst expects the Patriots to target Notre Dame’s Louis Nix III in the draft as a possible replacement for Wilfork. “He’s a Wilfork clone,” said analyst Bucky Brooks, on NFL.com, of the 331-pound, 6’1″ Nix.
The Patriots have the 29th overall pick, which they could also use on Nix’s defensive line-mate at Notre Dame Stephon Tuitt who at 6’5″ and 304 pounds presents just as intimidating a roadblock for offenses at Nix.
One thing is certain, Patriots Coach Bill Belichick has been through this type of player exodus before and has always managed to come up with some solution. In 14 seasons at the helm of the New England Patriots, he has missed the playoffs only three times, taken his teams to the AFC Championship game eight times and appeared in five Super Bowls winning three.