This shouldn't affect too much. The fact that we were so willing to move onwards from Vince Wilfork, or at least acknowledge that his recovery could force him into a rotational role, means that this shouldn't change anything.
We had a plan without Vince Wilfork on the roster. How much should change now that he's back on board?
The Patriots have seven defensive tackles, with six that we could consider as serious contenders for roster spots.
There are the veterans Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork who all but assured themselves a roster spot with their contract restructures.
There are the three young guns who held down the fort last season in Bill Belichick favorite Chris Jones, as well as Joe Vellano and Sealver Siliga.
And there's the injured and unknown project in Armond Armstead, another Belichick gold star, and in the roster yo-yo Marcus Forston.
In each of the past three seasons where the team heavily featured a 4-3 attack, the Patriots have dedicated four roster spots to the defensive tackle position. There was always some fluctuation with injuries moving the meter up to five, but four is the golden target.
If Wilfork and Kelly are guaranteed two of the spots, don't the odds favor a Hunger Game-esque tournament between Jones, Vellano, Siliga, and Armstead for the final two or three spots?
How much value is adding an additional early pick to the defensive tackle spot?
The return of Wilfork does change the game plan. He's not the long term solution. But he covers the now and pushes off the positional need for another season. Even if it sounds wrong.
So here comes the fun part: what do the Patriots do now?
If we consider the defensive tackle position fleshed out, we can look at the other needs of:
1. Interior Line - Ryan Wendell hasn't attracted any suitors on the open market. The Patriots could bring him back and allow him, Dan Connolly, and Marcus Cannon to fight for two of the interior spots. While Wendell isn't the best prospect, he's a clear rebound candidate after he followed a promising 2012 with a disastrous 2013. Depending on the view, the Patriots could bring in a depth player on day 3, but do we really see the Patriots bringing in a rookie to hold down a starting role?
Not really, especially at center and right guard where the Patriots haven't featured a player drafted before the fifth round in the past decade. Don't know why the trend would change here.
2. Tight End - This is a clear need and the Patriots are now in the clear to address it early on in the draft. I don't see any real reasoning on why they can't/won't/shouldn't take a tight end in the first two days of the draft.
3. Defensive End - Like the tight end spot, don't be surprised if the Patriots take a defensive end early. And if we look around the league at the elite defensive ends and their snap counts, the Patriots could afford to bring aboard another top talent. In fact, I'm going to start looking at defensive ends like corners and receivers- nickel corners and slot receivers are starters, just like the third defensive end.
As a result, don't be shocked if the Patriots take one much earlier than you would expect.
4. Safety - We're back to this ol' position, but this just shows how well the Patriots addressed their other needs this off-season. There's a lock down safety in Devin McCourty and there's quality depth with Duron Harmon- but is there really another starter that can be trusted?
In my opinion, the Patriots might feature more single-deep coverage, with McCourty as the only safety, with the likes of Darrelle Revis, Alfonzo Dennard, Logan Ryan, Brandon Browner, and Kyle Arrington (doesn't that list just make you excited?) playing more freely. If the defensive front is a 4-3 attack, why not play Revis, Browner, and Arrington in tight man coverage in front of McCourty?
But even as we project these ideas, the Patriots have been working out plenty of safeties. Expect one early in day three.
5. Linebacker - We have Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower, and Jamie Collins. Three great looking starters, but little depth behind them. Like safety, the Patriots could spend one of their day three picks on a depth prospect who can play in a pinch. But seriously, the roster is looking really good.
6. Running Back - Stevan Ridley. Shane Vereen. Brandon Bolden. I'd be fine with that group and any other addition for the purposes of depth is just a LeGarrette Blount sized cherry on top.
So what has changed?
Defensive tackle isn't as pressing of a need, especially with the Patriots typical roster make-up. But the rest of the needs are so low, that the team could honestly pick up a defensive tackle in the first two days of the draft and not disrupt their team-building plans.
Tight end. Defensive end. Those are now the priorities. Defensive tackle and the interior line will take the backburner and can be filled with a round three prospect.
Wilfork shouldn't have changed the game plan. But he definitely did.