How can the Patriots replace Vince Wilfork, who is lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon?
No way, no how.
If everyone in the league was suddenly a free agent and the Patriots had an unlimited budget and zero salary cap implications, they still could not replace Vince Wilfork.
One more time so we’re crystal clear on this: THERE IS NO REPLACEMENT for a player like Vince Wilfork.
Other than Tom Brady, Wilfork is the longest-tenured player on the team. Drafted 21st overall in 2004 out of the University of Miami, as a rookie Wilfork helped the Patriots win their third Super-Bowl in four years and has gone on to become a perennial Pro-Bowler and All-Pro defensive tackle.
But his importance goes well beyond his contributions on the field. A team captain for each of the last six seasons, Wilfork is the unquestioned leader of the defense and there is no one in the Patriots’ locker room, Tom-Terrific included, whose words carry more weight than Wilfork’s.
So no, you can’t replace his years of experience or his calm, steadying-presence.
But replacing his level of play this season? That actually may be a possibility.
For the first time since his rookie year, Wilfork cannot count himself among the top-five tackles in football. (For the last few years that list has included the 49ers’ Justin Smith, the Texans’ J.J. Watt, the Ravens’ Haloti Ngata, and the Bengals’ Geno Atkins.)
Wilfork still draws frequent double teams and is still virtually impossible to move off the line but over the first three games of the season he’s struggled to make much of an impact. At his best, Wilfork disrupts running plays by getting a yard into the backfield before the quarterback has even handed the ball off. (And usually, Wilfork is a yard into the backfield not because he has blown past his man but because he’s pushed his guy two or three yards into the backfield.) Other than a few flashes in Buffalo Week 1, that simply hasn’t happened this year.
Just a year removed from earning first-team All-Pro honors, Wilfork has not only fallen out of the top echelon of tackles across the league, he’s arguably been the least productive player on his own defensive line. Through the first three weeks of the season Rob Ninkovich has been, without question, the team’s best defensive player (though cornerback Aqib Talib firmly entrenched himself in that discussion after Sunday’s performance in Atlanta). Defensive end Chandler Jones has shown impressive development against the pass in his second season and Wilfork’s fellow tackle Tommy Kelly has also outplayed the captain thus far, particularly in his pass rush.
Which is all to say that, no, New England won’t be able to find someone to replace Vince Wilfork, but for the first time in years the team may have some shot at replicating his production.
1. The first option is to do nothing. The Pats have been thin at defensive tackle since the start of training camp, in part because Armond Armstead has been on the non-football injury list after undergoing surgery for an infection. The Canadian Football League’s reigning sack king remains on the non-football injury list but is eligible to return in a few weeks and while he is nominally a defensive end, at 6’5”, 305 pounds, he certainly has the size to kick inside and play tackle. In the meantime, undrafted rookie Joe Vellano has been serviceable in spot duty over the first few weeks. The Pats also played another rookie, Chris Jones (sixth-round pick from the Houston Texans claimed on waivers) Sunday night against Atlanta and have two more tackles on the practice squad in A.J. Francis and Marcus Forston.
2. The second option is to look to free agency. There is certainly no shortage of familiar names available, the question is how much they have left (and whether they’d be interested in joining the Patriots).
A quick list of tackles currently without a job includes former Patriots Richard Seymour, Ron Brace and Kyle Love.
Seymour was memorably furious when the Patriots traded him to the Raiders in 2009, saying the move “blindsided” him and has repeatedly stated he has no interest in returning to Foxoboro to play for the Pats so that seems unlikely.
Like Seymour, a return to Foxboro might be a tough sell for Kyle Love whom the Patriots released in May, just two weeks after he was diagnosed with Type-2 diabetes. Love was an undrafted free agent signed by the Patriots in 2010 and played in all 16 games in both 2011 and 2012. Since being released by New England, Love has received looks from Jacksonville and San Francisco among others but hasn’t yet caught on anywhere. While he was understandably upset with the organization’s decision to release him after his diagnosis, he also has incredibly close ties to Wilfork, even earning the nickname “Mini V” for his admitted fondness and admiration of Vince during his time with the team.
At just 26 years old, Springfield-native Ron Brace is definitely someone who could be getting a call from the Patriots. Taken in the second round (40th overall) by the Pats in the 2009 draft, the 330-pound Boston College product struggled to stay on the field due to injuries and inconsistent play before being let go late last season but he certainly has size and familiarity with the system in his favor.
If former Steeler nose guard/defensive tackle Casey Hampton still has any tread on the tires he stands out as an intriguing possibility. At age 36 that’s a big “if” but Hampton comes with tons of big-game experience and could be a nice addition in the locker room as he was widely known as a beloved teammate.
3. If the Patriots don’t find anyone to their liking on the street, they could try moving Chandler Jones to tackle and putting rookie Michael Buchanan on the edge. New England has done this fairly often on obvious passing downs over the first four games and Jones has performed admirably inside. At 265 pounds, Jones has definitely added some size and strength since his rookie campaign but he is still very undersized to play tackle on an every-down basis so while it’s not a realistic solution long-term, it could prove effective for 12-15 snaps per game.
4. A fourth option would be for the Pats to move to a three-man defensive front with Tommy Kelly sliding from tackle to nose guard and Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich on the edge. The Pats have lined up in a 4-2-5 (four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs) a ton this season, leaving Brandon Spikes stuck on the sideline. A move to a three-man front would allow the Pats to keep Spikes on the field more often and take advantage of his terrific ability crash the line and blow up plays in the backfield.