Replacing Vince Wilfork will be a challenge for the Patriots. (Elsa/Getty Images)
When it comes to assessing the Patriots in the post-Vince Wilfork era, we’ll take a page from Bill Belichick‘s book: In 2013, the coach was asked how New England’s defense would look without the veteran lineman, who had just gone down for the season with an Achilles injury.
“You just don’t replace Vince Wilfork,” said Belichick. “It’s a big loss, but we’re just going to have to find a way to do it. That means everybody doing their job. Obviously somebody is going to have to replace him and whoever those people are, they’re going to have to answer the bell. But collectively as a team, we’re all going to have to pull together. There’s no one person that can replace Vince Wilfork.”
To that point, the post-Wilfork era will mean a greater role for some of the younger defensive linemen. Up front, while the team-building process involving the 2015 roster is in the relatively early stages, with Wilfork out of the picture, expect youngsters like Sealver Siliga, Dominique Easley and Chris Jones to play a larger role than they have the last few seasons, as well as a veteran like Alan Branch, who recently re-signed with New England for another two years. In addition, there are a few well-regarded veteran defensive tackles who are still available in free agency who could be attractive to the Patriots. And finally, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see New England try and go after a defensive lineman at the end of the first round with the 32nd overall pick. The need to add some depth to the defensive line — as well as try and bolster a defensive front that will likely have to help the cornerbacks, at least as it stands right now — is clear, so that should certainly set the stage for the Patriots to go after a defensive lineman sometime early in the draft.
From an off-field perspective, Wilfork has always been one of the most important figures in the New England locker room. A well-respected veteran who had the ear of players on the both side of the ball — a rare feat accomplished by only a few players over the course of the last decade — his words carried a certain weight with everyone in the locker room. His resume and work ethic demanded that everyone pay attention to Wilfork. He was a leader in the truest sense of the word.
“It’s phenomenal for me to have a leader like Vince in my meetings every day,” said defensive coordinator Matt Patricia in the days before the Super Bowl. “He’s a guy that sits in the front, pays attention, sits upright and is really into the meetings. If I need to point to anybody in the room that I think needs to do it a certain way, I can just point to Vince and say, ‘You need follow this guy’s example. This is how you sustain in the NFL. This is how you’re a champion in the NFL. You do it like he does it and you attack each day and each week with the preparation that he does.’ I think it’s an easy follow for the young guys that come in.”
Going forward, on the defensive side of the ball, more of a leadership mantle will fall to veterans like Rob Ninkovich, Devin McCourty and Jerod Mayo. All of them have certainly showed those qualities in previous years, and all will be asked to do more in that department going forward.
In short, Wilfork was not the overwhelming defensive presence he had been a decade or so ago for a few reasons, not the least of which is the fact that he had to make some concessions to age, particularly as he worked to come back from the Achilles’ injury that ultimately derailed his 2013 season. But his versatility, toughness and leadership make him a difficult individual to replace for New England. Regardless of how the rest of the offseason progresses, it’ll be a challenge for Belichick, Patricia and the rest of the locker room to replicate Wilfork’s presence down the road. It can certainly happen — there’s enough talent, smarts and leadership skills on both sides of the ball to make it happen. Ultimately, whether or not they’re up to the job could tell us a lot about what happens to the Patriots’ defense in 2015 and beyond.