Contract disputes usually come with angry rhetoric, harsh words and prolonged absences.
But after listening to Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork Wednesday, he certainly didn’t sound like a man at odds with the Patriots franchise over his contract. In fact, Wilfork used the word “love” 16 times when talking about his current situation, and said even though he stayed away from all 12 voluntary organized team activities (OTAs) over the last month as part of a protest over his deal, there’s no place he’d rather be than on the field in Foxborough with his teammates.
“There’s nothing like being around a group of guys that love you, and my teammates showed me a lot of love, a lot of respect,” Wilfork told the media in a session that lasted just over 10 minutes (click here and here for the full transcript). “They know what I bring to this game. I’m just happy to be back here with my teammates.
“I’m very positive about this whole thing,” added the 27-year-old, who was selected 21st overall in the 2004 draft by the Patriots. “This organization has been good to my family and I, and vice-versa. I’ve been good to this organization and this team.”
New England owner Robert Kraft did his part to fuel the love-in, saying he and Wilfork have a “great relationship” and expressing optimism the two sides could reach an agreement on a new deal for the nose tackle sooner rather than later.
“Vince Wilfork is a great guy. Every year we have these business issues that have to get worked out,” Kraft said. “One way or another, they’ll get worked out and hopefully Vince will be here for the long term.
“Vince and I have a great relationship. We actually chatted at the golf tournament Monday. We both understand this is not personal in any way. This is just each side doing their business. One way or another, I’m sure things will get resolved.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked if he was happy to have Wilfork in camp after the nose tackle missed all 12 OTAs over the course of the last month.
“Well, the players that were here we were working with,” Belichick said. “Those were all voluntary sessions and I’m glad everybody’s here today.
“I like all the players. I like to see them all out there. There are some that aren’t,” he added. “It’s good to see Tom [Brady] and Vince, Adalius [Thomas] and Laurence [Maroney] and a lot of the players that didn’t get to play all last year, so it’s good to see them all out there.”
Wilfork explained his absence from the OTAs by explaining that, within the rules of the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, attendance at those is strictly voluntary. The minicamp is another matter altogether.
“Guys don’t go to work on their off days. When you chill at home, [you don’t think], ‘Let me go to work,’ even though it’s my time off,” he said. “I took a break, stepped back, and got a little focus and understood what was going on around me.
“The OTAs, I missed. But at the same time, it wasn’t the right time for me to be here. But now, everything is starting to crank up -- mandatory stuff. And my team really needs me, and I’ll be here. You can depend on me being here, and I will be.”
Of course, there was the matter of a possible fine. It was reported that Wilfork could be hit with a $500,000 penalty if he missed the minicamp.
“I was aware of that for a while, but I wouldn’t say it played a big part in my decision to come here,” said Wilfork, who was noncommittal when asked about a possible boycott of training camp next month. “I told you, that’s in my contract, to be here. I live up to my word. If it’s mandatory, I will be here. I don’t care what it is.”
Wilfork is a Pro Bowl nose tackle who has emerged as one of the best defensive linemen in the AFC. Prior to his arrival, the Patriots struggled for consistency at the nose tackle spot -- the only other success story for New England at nose tackle was massive veteran Ted Washington, who spent one season (2003) at the position for the Patriots before moving on as a free agent.
But the 6-foot-2, 325-pound Miami product has become one of the keys to the success of New England’s 3-4 defensive scheme the last five seasons. The unique combination of his versatility, size and quickness make him extremely difficult to contain, and his ability to occupy multiple blockers at the point of attack creates openings for the Patriots’ linebackers to flourish.
Coming out of college, Wilfork’s first agent negotiated a team-friendly contract, inking a six-year pact with the Patriots. In fact, his deal was so team-friendly that it changed the way the NFL deals with first-round picks. The league has since changed the rules to limit contract lengths of first round choices from picks 17-32 to five years.
His current deal calls for him to get just over $2 million in base salary this season, a number that’s relatively low when compared to some of the contracts that are being shelled out to other Pro Bowl defensive linemen. On Tuesday, he told WEEI’s “Dale & Holley” he isn’t looking to “sign this big-time, going-down-in-history, the best contract there is.” Instead, he simply wants to be “comfortable.”
He said his ultimate goal is the same as it was when the Patriots drafted him in April 2004.
“My goal is to be here. That’s the bottom line. My goal is to be a New England Patriot,” he said. “I think I said it in ’04 when I was drafted -- I want to be drafted as a Patriot, end my career as a Patriot. I don’t care if I play 10, 12, 15, 18 years, I want to be here playing. It hasn’t changed.”
On Wednesday, Wilfork certainly didn’t look like a player who had spent time away from the game. He spent the duration of the workout -- which lasted roughly an hour and a half -- going through each one of the drills with the rest of the defensive linemen. When New England was in its base 3-4 defense, he lined up in the middle of the defensive front, in between Richard Seymour and Mike Wright.
Afterward, he said he’s excited about the prospects for the 2009 season.
“I’m just looking forward,” he said. “I’m looking forward to a great camp, I’m looking forward to a great season. So hopefully, we can move forward from here.”