FOXBORO — Vince Wilfork can’t play every down anymore. Nor do the Patriots want him playing all the time anymore.
After playing 64 of 69 snaps in Buffalo against the Bills, Wilfork’s snaps fell to 78 percent (68 of 87 snaps) against the Jets. Still, Wilfork is certainly on pace to earn his 70 percent participation clause that will kick in his $3 million guarantee. He has already played 78.9 percent of his snaps this season. His 377 snaps is 162 more than Chris Jones, the next closest on the line.
But with injuries to Sealver Siliga and Chandler Jones and the departure of Tommy Kelly, there’s a need to make sure there’s insurance behind Wilfork.
This is what the Patriots had in mind when they drafted Dominique Easley and Zach Moore and signed Casey Walker off the Carolina Panthers practice squad in late September. It’s why they have brought in Alan Branch to see if they can resurrect his career after some off-the-field transgressions.
But most of the focus now is on Easley, a player like Wilfork who could make the transition from inside to outside on the defensive line.
“Easley has really played all those spots across the board from college and even back from when we had him here in the spring and then when he was able to practice in training camp,” coach Bill Belichick said Friday. “He’s worked all the way from outside the tight end to on the center’s nose, so everywhere in between: zero to two-I, three, four, five, six, seven, nine. He’s been at every spot.
“That is unusual. He’s got a unique set of skills that allow him to do that. [He's] quick enough to play outside, enough playing strength to play inside, to a degree. Good instinctiveness in terms of recognizing blocking schemes. There are a lot of different things that can happen when you’re in there between a guard and a center or a guard and tackle compared to when you’re outside of a tight end. You’re seeing the game kind of from the inside out as opposed from the outside in. it’s different. I’d say there aren’t a lot of guys that comes real easy to. There are a few, but not a lot.”
While Easley (295 pounds) is a good 40 pounds lighter than Wilfork, Belichick sees a lot of similarities.
“Vince is very instinctive, no matter where ‘ not that he’s going to go play probably in a nine-technique but I think center, guard, tackle and on the tight end. I think he instinctively does things well there. Same thing at the linebacker position, a guy like [Dont'a] Hightower can play at the end of the line, can play in the tackle bubble, guard bubble, could play as a middle linebacker over the center.
“It’s hard to find those guys that have those kind of instinctiveness that can see a game, I don’t want to say equally well, but pretty equally well at those different spots. It’s a lot different looking at the game outside in and opposed to looking at it from inside out and being able to flip back and forth and do that, not everybody can do it by a long stretch. It takes physical talent but it also takes a mental and an instinctive skill to be able to handle that transition too. I’d say that’s pretty unique having guys like that.”
Out of the University of Florida, the word used on Easley was disruptive. Has Belichick seen that quality in Easley’s rookie season to date?
“Yeah, sure, absolutely,” Belichick said. “I think the ability to be disruptive, to cause offenses to do something a little bit different, whether it’s eating up a second blocker, whether it’s creating pressure on a pass rush, whether it’s recognizing something and reacting into it so that it’s kind of in the middle of the play that fouls it up. It could be the anticipation: snap counts or draws, screens, plays like that; interceptions, tipped balls.
“There’s a whole element of that. It’s not one thing but when you combine it all together, like the play he had against Minnesota. I don’t know how many guys make that play. I’d say not everybody. There’s an element of that. Being aware of the ball and being able to get to it and being able to make that play, I think that’s an example of some guys can make those kind of plays and some guys have a harder time making them.”
Here are some other Belichick takeaways on potential contributors on the defensive line as the season goes on:
On Concordia University product Zach Moore: “Every day is a learning experience. Just the overall level of program from everything: training to preparation to film study to practice to the level of players that he’s competing against and the techniques that those players have all relative to what he’s seen is a big gap. The preparation every day in the classroom with Brendan, Coach Daly, with some of our other veteran players like Chandler [Jones], like Rob [Ninkovich], like Vince, guys like that, just working with him, working against guys like [Nate] Solder and [Sebastian] Vollmer and [Marcus] Cannon, plus the guys we play against on Sunday. That’s not the type of competition that he was seeing at Concordia. I think all those things: the kicking game, the length of the season, the grind of the week and the season and obviously training camp, even all the way back to the spring. But he’s a smart kid, he works hard. He’s the first guy in the meeting room every day. He’s there with his pencil sharp and his notebook open. He’s ready to learn. He absorbs information well. He has a lot of it to take in but he takes it in and processes it and moves along. I think he’s made a lot of progress this year. He’s got a long way to go, but considering where he came from in terms of his experience, he’s gained a ton of it and he gets better every day. I like his work ethic, I like his commitment, his diligence, his perseverance. It hasn’t seemed to have worn him down abnormally, any more than anybody else. He hangs with it and works hard at it.
On nose tackle Casey Walker and his development in the time that’s been here and how he’s helped stabilize the middle of that line?
BB: I think Casey has worked hard since he’s been here. He played in preseason at Carolina then was on the practice squad. Probably wasn’t getting as much work, but came in and worked hard on his conditioning, doing extra things after practice in terms of conditioning. Then he spent quite a bit of time with Coach [Brendan] Daly, just as far as our techniques and our communication and our calls. Vince [Wilfork], Chris [Jones] have done a good job with him too. I think it’s getting better. I think there’s still a ways to go. He’s got good playing strength. He’s got some quickness for a guy his size. Decent technique player, but still a lot of things he needs to work on. I think he’s making progress day by day. It’s been steady. It’s been consistent.
Q: Would you say the split is pretty even between conditioning and getting up to speed with the system and technique?
BB: No. I’d say that learning the system and learning the techniques and all that was the biggest thing for him. But I think there were other things too. It’s not, we’re not talking about a 12-year veteran here. His playing time in this league has been limited. But he was in the league last year. He played again in preseason this year. He’s definitely got some experience, some background. He’s not a pure rookie. But again, he hasn’t had a lot of game experience. So, I think a lot of the things that happen in the game, preparation for games, things like that have just been more than what he’s done in the past. It’s nobody’s fault or anything, it’s just the circumstances of his situation.”