Despite fielding one of the NFL's oldest and thinnest linebacking corps, and despite injuries to DE Richard Seymour, now-retired SS Rodney Harrison, and a thin secondary, the New England Patriots were still able to finish No. 10 overall in the league in total defense during the 2008 season. How were they able to do it? Bill Belichick had a lot to do with it. NT Vince Wilfork was even more valuable.
Wilfork, 27, has anchored Belichick's 3-4 defense for five seasons and is coming off of his best season as a pro (66 tackles, 2 sacks). Yet despite playing for a franchise that has always made quality defensive linemen a high priority, Wilfork will make a pedestrian $2.2 million in 2009 - the final year of his current deal. Instead of working on an extension, however, the Pats have left the unblockable Wilfork unsigned while using a second-round pick this year on Boston College NT Ron Brace.
What's going on with Wilfork and the Pats? I asked MaPatsFan of Pats Pulpit that very question; his response follows.
How critical is it for the Pats to re-sign Wilfork? More importantly, why hasn't it happened yet? Vince is perhaps the most unblockable lineman in the NFL, and he's got plenty of NFL years in front of him, as he's just 27 years old. Why the delay? How soon do you expect this to be resolved?
MaPatsFan: To me, Vince Wilfork is one of the most high profile and important signings we've had in recent years. As you mentioned, he is one of the mos unblockable defensive linemen around and is the anchor of our 3-4 defense. That being said, both have fired shots across the bow: the Patriots by drafting three defensive linemen, most notably Ron Brace, and Wilfork by skipping OTAs. However, Vince did attend Wednesday's mandatory mini-camp, which is a positive sign. He's no dummy either; skipping it would've cost him $500,000.
Looking to the right of the front three, both DEs Richard Seymour and Jarvis Green are making more than Wilfork. Vince is also not blind to the Albert Haynesworth deal, although he's said he doesn't want "Haynesworth money," just a "comfortable" contract. Comfortable could mean many things, but for one of the premiere nose tackles in the business, it's gotta equate to more money and a long term deal.
I'm also very impressed with the way both the Patriots and Wilfork have been handling this. For some players, it turns into a whiny, silver spooned baby wanting to get out of something he signed. With Wilfork, the dealing has been all business and "feels" more like a desire to get this handled before the end of the season when his contract is up. Who knows, it could actually be a carefully orchestrated PR campaign between the Pats and Vince's agent, but both parties are respectful of the other and keeping it professional. Everyone I've chatted with says sign Vince and let's move on.
Obviously, I don't like Vince Wilfork - and for obvious reasons. But I also believe that in terms of NFL defensive linemen that aren't paid to sack quarterbacks, Wilfork is the best in the business. Better than Haynesworth. Better than any other DT you can name. I hate saying it, clearly, but Wilfork is a beast - and folks rarely talk about him because he's simply the anchor of New England's defense, and not the stat-piler.
I cannot fathom what has taken the Pats so long to land Wilfork. The selection of Brace was curious simply because it's rare to see a team draft a backup to a dominant 27-year-old as high as the second round. Maybe they were preparing for a potential holdout; maybe they just liked Brace enough to risk raising Wilfork's eyebrows. I don't know. Either way, if I were invested on the other side of this argument, I'd be pulling my hair out every day Wilfork remained unsigned. Since we're here in Buffalo, however, we'll just say this: the longer this drags out, the better for us.