NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
For 14 days, it seemed imminent.
It seemed as if his success in holding the point of attack on the field and the organization’s success in doing the same off the field would be their unraveling.
For Vince Wilfork and the New England Patriots, it seemed to be about pride.
But as two weeks of uncertainty wore on, so did the semblance of hope that the 10-year NFL veteran would restructure his $11.6 million salary cap hit to return to the team that drafted him 21st overall in 2004.
In the afternoon hours of March 27, that came to fruition, as ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the 32-year-old defensive tackle had re-signed on a one-year, $8 million deal with $2.6 million guaranteed and a two-year option worth up to $22.5 million.
His cleaned-out locker and torn-off nameplate would not spell the end of his stay in Foxborough, Mass.; it would only catalyze a new one.
Wilfork now finds himself on the same path as other Patriots cornerstones – owner Robert Kraft’s personal favorites – Tedy Bruschi, Matt Light, Kevin Faulk and Troy Brown. All of whom finished their careers where they started, and the 6’2”, 325-pounder has a chance to do the same.
The five-time Pro Bowler stuck to his principles; the Patriots stuck to theirs. And ultimately, the bend-but-don’t-break adage that has fueled the Patriots defense over the years forged new meaning.
Coming off a torn right Achilles’ tendon and having logged 3,220 snaps since 2010, Wilfork’s case proved to be an exception to the rule. In a business of great turnover and little sentimentality, head coach Bill Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio revealed their trust in No. 75.
And he trusted the organization enough to ink an incentive-laden deal, essentially earning back his original salary when he might have found more financial security elsewhere.
If the Lantana Fla., native plays in every game in 2014, averages 70 percent of snaps, New England makes the divisional playoffs and the defense ranks in the top-10 in scoring, he will earn a total of $3 million in performance incentives, according to ESPNBoston.com’s Field Yates. If he meets his weight clause incentive, his offseason workout bonus, his 53-man roster bonus and 46-man game-day active bonuses, he could earn as much as an additional $2.4 million.
If the team triggers his option for the 2015 League Year, he’d be in line to accrue a $4 million roster bonus and potentially an average of $7.5 million through 2016.
Albeit far from set in stone, all of which is attainable. It may not be right, asking a longtime employee to take less assured money while suggesting they can earn back the rest by abiding to the fine print. It may not be right, asking a player to sacrifice in a game of short shelf-life so that the team can benefit with short-term cap relief.
It isn’t fair. But it’s understood.
Wilfork’s pact may fray once again next March if the Patriots opt to save the $4 million he will be due. Yet in the meantime, the roster has some flexibility to plan for the future without mortgaging.
It was telling when the Patriots sifted through the first several weeks of free agency without signing a defensive tackle, only bringing in former Minnesota Viking Letroy Guion for a visit, releasing Isaac Sopoaga and restructuring Tommy Kelly’s deal.
Part of that suggested patience with the second-longest tenured Patriot. Part of that also suggested confidence in 23-year-old journeyman Sealver Siliga, who left a strong impression after being promoted from the practice squad to start the final four regular-season games at Wilfork’s usual one-technique spot, tallying 23 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble.
The two figure to work in hand next season, rotating on the interior of New England’s defensive line as run-stuffers in a similar two-gap mold. Nevertheless, Wilfork’s return and Siliga’s emergence aren’t barriers that will keep the Patriots from drafting a defensive tackle this May.
It’s reasonable to say Wilfork wasn’t playing up to his usual standards before his injury struck against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4. Yet conversely, his importance went on to be realized in his absence. The run defense was hamstrung without him.
Even so, questions will inevitably linger when it comes to how his performance will fare this upcoming season. He turns 33 in November and has played in 158 regular and postseason games since entering the league out of the University of Miami a decade ago.
And although Siliga’s late-season rise in 2013 instilled promise, it didn’t instill certainty that he will sustain that level of play over a 16-game season in 2014. He remains relatively unproven, even if the Patriots found something in the 2011 undrafted free agent that three other teams didn’t.
With these forces at work, New England could very well address the position as soon as Round 1, where a rookie prospect could walk into a Keith Traylor-type apprenticeship the way Wilfork once did.
That could come in the form of a Louis Nix III from Notre Dame or a Timmy Jernigan from Florida State. That, however, may not be the course of action. New England could very well move away from the nose tackle position and select a three- to five-technique pass-rusher to add versatility, depth and third-down pressure along the front.
With the restructured Kelly recovering from a torn ACL and former Canadian Football League standout Armond Armstead battling back from an infection that required surgery, the Patriots three-tech alternatives include Chris Jones and Joe Vellano, who were thrust into significant snaps as rookies, and Marcus Forston, who has spent much of his NFL career on New England’s practice-squad shortlist.
Looking to bolster that area of the line, a draft addition could come in the form of a Ra’Shede Hageman from Minnesota, a Stephon Tuitt from Notre Dame or a Dominique Easley from Florida. Yet with five selections in the first four rounds, there is room to invest in value over need.
There is room to grow around the foundation in place. Because by stretching just far enough, the Patriots defense was able to retain its captain and its leader for at least another season.
And while the numbers were once far apart – and still may be – the end result is what both parties wanted all along.