The Will of Wilfork

Elsa

Patriots captain and stalwart defender Vince Wilfork has led the defense for years. He's been the Tom Brady of the defense- the MVP the unit can't go without. What happens when he slows down?

Vince Wilfork will do whatever the coaches ask him to do. Defensive tackle. Nose tackle. Defensive end. Zone drop into coverage. Rush the passer. Man the point. Eat up space. He'll do it all with his Wilfork smile because he loves his team and because he's damn good at everything a defensive lineman can be good at.

Now those who look at the stat sheet won't appreciate the full value of Wilfork because he doesn't rack up sacks. He rarely pressures the quarterback. That's not what the coaches have him do. Wilfork is the consummate Patriot who will Do His Job and will let the other players make the highlight reels. That's why he's the captain and that's why Patriots fans love him.

There's a pending issue that everyone knows but doesn't really want to address. What about life after Wilfork? He'll be 32 at the end of the season, which means that he has maybe one more great year in him, two if he paces himself. Greg Bedard added his thoughts:

"There has to be something going on injury-wise with Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. He’s never going to wow with quarterback pressure, but he has been elite at taking on double teams and holding his gap against the run. Wilfork struggled mightily with that in the first two games, to the point that Jets guard Vlad Ducasse completely handled him on Thursday night."

Is it injury? Or could it just be age and wear and tear? Typically players will develop a more reserved role when they age; a position to keep them fresh, to allow younger guys to have the reps and groom into the future starters.

Wilfork's done the opposite. He's playing more and the Patriots definitely don't have the youth behind him. The Patriots have opted to bring in grizzled veterans like Gerard Warren and Tommy Kelly- players who have come in and done a fantastic job next to Vince. But none to let him rest.

The Patriots youth at the position has consisted of undrafted players like Kyle Love, Marcus Forston, and Joe Vellano. Or they've been late round picks- premium free agent picks- like Brandon Deaderick and now Chris Jones. The last defensive tackle taken by the Pats in the top rounds was second round bust Ron Brace in 2008 to provide insurance in Wilfork's contract season. That was five seasons ago.

Sure, the Patriots have tried to bring in free agents. Jonathan Fanene was supposed to help, but he was hiding an injury. Armond Armstead was supposed to develop as a pass rusher this year, but he's been inactive due to an infection. After those plans fell through, what did the Patriots do? They shrugged. And they put Wilfork back on the field because that's who he is.

No one has been tapped as Wilfork's heir and he keeps on playing and playing and playing. You have to think the Patriots will address it in the next draft. Of course, I thought they'd address it this past one. Or the one before that. Or before that. They draft has yielded linemen like Phil Taylor, Corey Liuget, Cam Jordan, and Muhammad Wilkerson- all respectable if not above average/elite linemen- and those were taken off the board between tackle Nate Solder and cornerback Ras-I Dowling. Last year, Derek Wolfe went early in the second, while Kendall Reyes, Jerel Worthy, and Devon Still all came off the board behind safety Tavon Wilson. I guarantee the Patriots would want to rethink how the draft played out.

And yet Wilfork is still standing. And fighting. And giving his everything to this defense that has been growing up before our very eyes. Other positions have been fleshed out, with Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, and Devin McCourty all playing great football. And Wilfork has been playing with them.

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus' Steve Palazzolo, Wilforks time on the field is at a high. From 2008-2013, he's gone from 63.3% and 64.7, to 70.7, and on to 86.6, 81.8, and 84.1. Wilfork used to sit on most nickel defenses because he doesn't add much value in pass rush as an extra defensive end- and it allowed him to remain fresh on passing downs. Now, he's playing on all downs and its causing him to decline on the field.

ESPN's Ken Daube has Wilfork's snaps per game at 36.4 and 37.5 in 08 and 09, 46.2 in 10, and a gross 57.1 and 53 in 11 and 12. That's nearly a 50% increase in playing time, which is the opposite of what you would expect for such a key aging player.

I don't know how long Wilfork can keep up this pace, and it's clear the Patriots don't have a back-up plan if anything should happen. But let's hope the defensive coaches can find a way to keep Wilfork active on the field and keep him effective for as long as possible. Because thats what Wilfork deserves.

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