Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork announced that the Patriots will not be picking up the option in his contract, which would have brought him under contract for the 2015 and 2016 seasons. For the first time since Vince joined the team in 2004, New England will have to figure out what to do without their defensive captain.
Wilfork offered the team a wide range of skills along the defensive line. Despite his listed 325-pound frame, Wilfork could do everything. He could play any position in the 3-4, and he played either tackle position in the 4-3. He could single gap and penetrate into the backfield, althought that was rare and he mostly two-gapped by controlling a point along the defensive line.
He is not a player that's easily replaced because his versatility allowed the defense to run multiple sets with the same personnel. Still, in a league that's trending passing heavy, his impact lessened as he wasn't a true interior pass rusher. He still played a frankly ridiculous number of snaps for someone of his size, logging 73.3% of the snaps this season.
Vince's leadership cannot be overlooked and easy parallels to the loss of Logan Mankins can be made. New England found a way to replace Mankins' leadership within the ranks (look for Rob Ninkovich to be a captain next season).
In fact, look for the $8.1 million in cap space that this frees up to help bring fellow captain Devin McCourty back into the fold. McCourty was instrumental in smoothing over the unhappy negotiations between Wilfork and the Patriots in the 2014 off-season, and he'll likely be the benefactor of Wilfork's departure.
On the field, the Patriots are real believers in Sealver Siliga to fill some of Wilfork's role, but this might actually signify a shift in defensive style for New England. When Wilfork was on the field, he was generally used to control the line of scrimmage, which is helpful against the run, but seemed less effective against the pass.
It's possible that New England finds a player to complement Dominique Easley's pass rushing ability in the middle to generate greater pressure, making a shift from "control" to "aggression" on the defensive line. Only time will tell.
There is still an outside chance that Wilfork could return to New England, based upon how the market views his value. Young teams like the Jaguars, Jets, Buccaneers, Falcons, and Raiders would be thrilled to have him aboard, but it comes down to price. The Patriots are open to his return and have a set price tag if Wilfork wants to take it. Wilfork should absolutely shop around to get the best value on his last contract.
As WEEI's Chris Price notes, the Patriots cut Troy Brown in 2005, resigned him a couple months later and he played two more years in New England. That remains an outside possibility.
Wilfork is not someone that the Patriots can singularly replace. Let's hope he comes back for one final ride.