Although it hasn't officially been announced by the team just yet, the odds of Vince Wilfork suiting up for the New England Patriots this year are slim. I'm personally amazed his Achilles Tendon lasted as long as it did, as that marvel of nature supported a fairly massive frame for a very long time without so much as a twinge. God speed, little tendon. Get well soon. Regardless, the grim reality is that the Patriots are going to be without their best defensive lineman for the rest of the 2013 season.
And let's be honest: will Wilfork ever really return to form? The next time he takes the field, he'll be almost 33 years old and coming off a major injury. It may be time for the Patriots to start investing in their future along the defensive line and prepare for that inevitable time when the numbers seven and five don't occupy half of the line of scrimmage anymore. Right now, the Patriots are painfully thin along the line; the next up to replace Big Vince are two undrafted rookies, Joe Vellano and Chris Jones. And while they both filled in admirably on Sunday night against the Falcons, I'm not willing to mortgage the future of what is quickly becoming a very good defense on two rookies replacing a perennial Pro Bowler. There's always Arnold Armstead and practice squad stud Marcus Forston, but both of those guys are question marks as well.
Is there any chance at all that a trade is on the horizon?
Now we all know that making a trade to replace a fallen solider isn't usually Bill Belichick's MO; he prefers to stay in-house, build from within, and perpetuate the next man up philosophy that has worked so well in the past. However, with so many rookies on the offensive side of the ball, it's especially important to have some veteran leadership on defense, particularly along the line. It's easy to fill your offense with rookies when you have Tom Brady there to make them look like All- Stars; without Wilfork, a great amount of leadership, experience, and ability is now gone. This may be a situation where Belichick has to go outside the fortified walls of Gillette Stadium and bring in some outside talent.
So what is New England's biggest bargaining chip? What do they have that another team could covet? There are a number of names you could list here, but in my opinion, the best answer to that question is Ryan Mallett.
Mallett is unproven, he hasn't looked great in the preseason, and the Patriots have put a lot of time and energy into grooming him for the future, but that doesn't mean that there wouldn't be interest for his services, particularly with some of the desperate and QB-needy teams out there. Granted, a Mallett trade would leave the Patriots without a viable backup, which could in turn lead to the re-signing of You Know Who, but the coaching staff may see that as an adequate tradeoff to get some stability along the defensive line.
Will it happen? Most likely not. A Mallett-for-defensive player trade doesn't make sense on many levels. But I'm not going to go so far as to rule it out right now. And with that in mind, here are some of the better defensive lineman on teams that may be looking for a quarterback replacement in the near future.
Da'Quan Bowers, Buccaneers. Bowers was the 51st overall pick of the 2011 Draft, and most of the experts think that the Buccaneers got an absolute steal when he fell to them. He's 6'4", 290 pounds with a 35 inch vertical, and many had him going 1st overall in 2011 before injuries hampered his draft stock. However, Bowers hasn't quite been the impact player that Tampa Bay was hoping that he would be; most recently, he lost his starting spot to Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and is currently fighting to get his job back. Bowers has all the tools and the talent to be an elite pass rusher in the NFL, and he could do well with a change of scenery. He isn't the massive, block-eating force that Wilfork is, but in a 4-3 scheme that kind of player isn't as crucial as it is with the 3-4, and I think that Bowers would experience a career revival and become absolutely dominant in New England if given the opportunity.
Gerald McCoy, Buccaneers. A 2012 Pro Bowler, McCoy was the 3rd overall pick in the 2010 Draft and is the anchor of the Bucs' defensive line. McCoy wouldn't come cheap, as he would likely cost New England a draft pick or two alongside Mallett (not to mention the five year, $63 million contract he signed in 2010), but should the Patriots decide to think long term along the defensive line, they could do a whole lot worse. McCoy and Wilfork are two different beasts for sure, but seeing as there simply isn't a player in the NFL like Wilfork out there and readily available, it may be time for a fundamental shift in defensive philosophy. A D Line with McCoy and Jones on it could wreak havoc on opposing QBs.
Kamerion Wimbley, Titans. I almost didn't put Wimbley on this list, because Jake Locker clearly has the support of the front office as the long-term answer in Tennesse and he will be back later this year. Plus, the Titans already have an adequate backup in Ryan Fitzpatrick. However, Wimbley was one of the players I was really hoping to see land in New England after the Raiders released him in 2012, so I figured I'd mention him here. He's a durable, solid pass rusher who is stout against the run, quick to the ball, and versatile enough to transition between defensive end and standup linebacker. He's 29, which means he still has some gas in the tank, and although he's very small for a lineman at 250 pounds, his versatility makes him an asset. Plus, Wilfork will likely be replaced by rotating different guys in and out on a regular basis, so Wimbley could nicely fill that need.
Lamarr Houston, Raiders. The standout defensive end for the Raiders has expressed his desire to remain in Oakland for his entire career, and the front office seems to echo those sentiments. However, with Matt Flynn underwhelming and Terrelle Pryor injury prone and concussed, Oakland could be looking to make a move. Houston is only 26, has experience at both end and defensive tackle, and has excellent speed for a man of 6'3", 300 pounds. He would make a fantastic interior rusher next to Tommy Kelly with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich setting the edge and collapsing the pocket, and it's not like the Patriots and Raiders never do business on trades that more often than not work out in New England's favor.
Again, I don't really see any of these players going anywhere, particularly in a trade involving Mallett. However, 2014 will be a contract year for Mallett, and with Tommy B locked up until 2017, the young QB will likely be looking to make a move to a franchise where he has the chance to become a starter. Stranger things have happened.