There's a general sadness regarding a future without Vince Wilfork.
He was the heart of the team. He was one of the last players of the old guard and will be leaving Tom Brady as the only player who has won a Super Bowl. He was a leader in the locker room and in the community. His presence is undeniable and I can guarantee that we'll eventually be celebrating his induction to the Patriots Hall of Fame.
Wilfork is a deserved fan favorite whose body just gave up. The Patriots couldn't find him the help along the defensive line and Wilfork stepped up when needed. He boosted his playing time from 65% to 85%, or roughly 20 snaps a game. And even when his play was down earlier this season due to injury, the difference between a hurt Wilfork and no Wilfork was still tremendous.
You kind of hope that every future for the Patriots could include Wilfork. I won't count out that he can have a successful return. But not with the Patriots this season. Not with a Wilfork who won't renegotiate his enormous contract.
No one is at fault here. Wilfork doesn't want to stay if he has to adjust his contract- I will never blame him for that. The Patriots can't afford to improve the franchise if Wilfork uses up $8 million of the cap.
I won't blame the team for letting him go.
But there is some silver lining here. The Patriots would have an additional $8 million in cap space to play around with where, after the Darrelle Revis signing, the blockbuster contracts of Michael Hoomanwanui and Danny Aiken, and the restructuring of Tommy Kelly's contract, the Patriots are left with roughly $18 to 19 million of cap space.
For a team that has plenty of youth and plenty of questions that needs to win, this cap space is tremendous. We've talked about how defensive end in an underappreciated need that has to be addressed in free agency. In the arms race against the Broncos, who signed DeMarcus Ware, the Patriots now have the freedom to bring in that crucial third defensive end to rotate with Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones. Each player can have 750-900 snaps, instead of Ninkovich and Jones playing the lions share of the 1200 defensive plays.
The Patriots can bring in veterans like Jared Allen or Julius Peppers or Shaun Phillips on contracts worth $4-5 million per season (based off of the $5.5 million per season deal that Justin Tick signed with Oakland). If Wilfork's still on the roster, this type of acquisition would use up half of the remaining cap space- and the rest is needed for rookies. The Patriots wouldn't be able to freely choose which defensive end is the right fit.
They can sign back Julian Edelman, who is likely requesting somewhere between the floor of $3.5 million per season that Andrew Hawkins was offered by the Browns (also a suitor to Edelman) to the $6 million ceiling that Danny Amendola received. With Wilfork on the roster, there's zero chance the Patriots bring back Edelman, never mind any other veteran receiver like Emmanuel Sanders or Brandon LaFell to supplement the off-season roster while Aaron Dobson recovers from his foot surgery.
They can bring in an athletic tight end, like Jermichael Finley or Dustin Keller or Owen Daniels, all three of whom are returning from season ending injuries. They'll likely accept a one year "prove it deal" in the range of $2 to $4 million. Instead of forcing Tom Brady to play with even more rookies, the Patriots can bring in a veteran in addition to whichever tight end prospect is drafted.
They can sign back Ryan Wendell, or pick up Brian De La Puente, Evan Dietrich-Smith, or Shelley Smith for between $2 and $3.5 million per season. The Patriots need a veteran upgrade for their interior line to act as a bridge until their rookie draft pick is groomed. Any of the above would be a bonus because they would either provide continuity (Wendell) or an upgrade (the other three) and they should be fairly inexpensive- but with Wilfork on the roster, they might be too much to pay for.
And if you'll notice, you can choose three of the above positions and pay them with just the money saved from Wilfork's cap space. If Wilfork is still on the roster, they can only afford to pay one of them. With his money, they'll be able to afford all of them.