The last three days of have been kinda stressful. It can’t be healthy to be suffering this much emotional whiplash, but I guess that’s the life of a football fan.
Still, this was different. Losing Aqib Talib was rough, to be sure, but he only played on the team for two seasons, and so much attention was being placed on Revis as an immediate replacement that it didn’t sting as much. The contract that Denver offered him was crazy enough that Pats fans were fine with their team not matching and also placed no blame on Talib for leaving.
But there is no replacing Vince Wilfork. At least not really.
This afternoon it was announced that the 10-year Patriot was requesting his release. I don’t want to speculate too much on the internal discussions being had. It’s easy to see where each side might be coming from. But it sucks that the New England Patriots will be losing their captain. It sucks that they’re losing one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL for the past decade. It sucks that he’s leaving after a year spent in a boot, cheering on his teammates from the sideline instead of in full pads on the field.
And it sucks that, in the end, it all came down to money.
It’s too soon to really put Wilfork’s effect on the team into true perspective. Know that on a team with a coldly efficient Jedi Master at its helm and a poster boy married to a model as its quarterback, Vince Wilfork was the humane, lovable beating heart of the team, the reminder that football could still be fun, shown time and time again with that infectious smile on his face. Forget the fact that he was an absolute beast, his personality alone made him an easy player to love, and my favorite Patriot in my young fandom.
That being said, it’s not too soon to start speculating on how to fill the 325-pound hole in the middle of the defensive line. Here are the three steps that the Patriots need to take to keep their Super Bowl dreams alive:
- Draft Louis Nix III
In the upcoming weeks, you’ll see all those mock drafts that unanimously had Jace Amaro and Ra’Shede Hageman as the Patriots’ 1st-round pick all change to Louis Nix III, the nose tackle out of Notre Dame. I’ve written extensively on the 342-lb college star, so I won’t go too far in depth on him. Ideally he would have been groomed under Wilfork for a few years before eventually replacing him, but as it is he’s as good an immediate replacement as is out there right now.
Like Wilfork, Nix is ridiculously athletic for someone his size, and is nimble enough to shed offensive linemen and make plays in the backfield. If the Patriots stick to the 4-3 next season, it will make his transition to the NFL all the more easier. He’s not a great pass-rusher, but he will be brought in to take up space in run defense, something he’s top-notch at. Not only does Nix look like Wilfork, but the man they call Irish Chocolate has a similarly magnetic personality, and was a huge hit in his Combine interviews. There are some lingering injury questions from his junior year at Notre Dame, but at this point he’s too good a talent to pass up.
2. Add another veteran to the defensive line
This is something that we can expect to happen in the next few days. The unfortunate timing of the Wilfork release has robbed the Patriots of the opportunity to chase after the top DTs on the market (Arthur Jones, Linval Joseph, and Paul Soliai would have been PERFECT replacements, as would Red Bryant). But there are still some intriguing options.
One route the Patriots can take is, knowing that they’ll go after Nix in the draft and have a steady vet like Tommy Kelly next to him, aim for a veteran pass-rushing specialist on the edge, and move Chandler Jones inside on 3rd down, where he flourished. The obvious names are Jared Allen and Julius Peppers, but both took big steps backwards last year, and are probably looking at hefty contracts (Allen has said he has not problem retiring should his demands not be met). Robert Ayers and Corey Wootton are both inexpensive, relatively young options, but are more suited for run support than pass-rushing. A player to watch is Shaun Phillips whose age (33) seems to be the one thing leaving him without a deal. He still has enough in the tank to be a dangerous edge rusher and help spell Ninkovich and Jones. And of course, Wesley Woodyard, albeit a linebacker, has the speed to get after the quarterback in sub packages on occasion.
There are also the remaining defensive tackles on the market, though all have questions. Henry Melton, though only 27 and impressive, has suffered season injuries and run into trouble with the law. BJ Raji, though mammoth, has some serious motor issues (though a change of scenery, back near his college town, could help). Terrence Cody and Pat Sims are both massive nose tackles who haven’t lived up to expectations, but could be inexpensive options. The most intriguing choice? Veteran Viking Kevin Williams. The 11 year vet is getting up there in years (33), but he still played 66% of team snaps last season. He wouldn’t be asked to play nearly that much for the Pats, and would provide a strong locker room presence while still having the talent to get to the QB on occasion.
3. Make Rob Ninkovich an official captain
It’s one thing to replace Wilfork’s talent on the field, but his leadership is a whole other animal. Ten years in New England, especially on such a fluctuating and young defense, was a valuable asset, and it’s clear how much his teammates respected him.
The logical player to occupy Wilfork’s captaincy is Rob Ninkovich, who is now the oldest starter on defense outside of Tommy Kelly. Ninkovich was the substitute captain alongside Devin McCourty when Jerod Mayo and Wilfork went down, and it’s clear that the young players look up to him.
Just as important to the Patriots organization is what Rob Ninkovich represents. After bouncing around the Saints and Dolphins special teams units for four years, he was happily picked up by the Patriots in 2009. By 2010 he was a starter. His sack totals have risen steadily in the last five years, and last season he registered a career high 91 tackles, at defensive end no less. He’s the hard-working, versatile player that New England fans fall in love with and the organization wants to celebrate. He’s the unwanted player who not only found a home in New England but flat-out flourished. Making him a captain as he turns 30, as more new players are brought onto the defensive unit, is the right step to make.
That’s not to say it stops with Nink. The further development of Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, and Jamie Collins, not just as football players, but as experienced leaders becomes more essential than ever. Same goes for Devin McCourty, who has gone through his own up and downs to be one of the best safeties in football. The good news is Jerod Mayo returns, as does the 33-year old Tommy Kelly.
The Patriots locker room took a gigantic hit when they lost Vince Wilfork today. But all is not lost. The football offseason can be a cruel time for a team’s stability, but the Pats are built to withstand it.
Follow me on twitter @isportspeters and keep sending me stuff at firstname.lastname@example.org. Once all this free agency craziness dies down a bit, I’ll get back to my normal Patriots draft previews, and I’ll assemble my fan-sent mock draft article, so keep sending those as well!