Post-draft press conferences and conference calls can either age like a fine bottle of wine or a gallon of unpasteurized milk.
It is a blind taste test at the time. There is no way of knowing whether a first-round pick will become a first-team All-Pro. There is no way for a coach or general manager to tell if the investment will sour before its expiration date.
Needless to say, Bill Belichick’s transcript from April 24, 2004 is a worthwhile one to revisit.
And with Vince Wilfork officially calling it a career in an unofficial way Monday, there’s no better time to.
That spring, the New England Patriots’ war room wasn’t expecting to see the junior nose tackle out of Miami still waiting at No. 21 overall – Belichick and then-vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli hadn’t met with Wilfork outside of a 15-minute encounter at the NFL Scouting Combine – but the wait would end right there for both sides.
There was little left to do other than get the draft card to the lectern.
“I would say it was a little bit of a surprise,” Belichick told reporters over the phone when asked of Wilfork’s slide, via the Patriots.com archives. “But there are always surprises on draft day, you just never know how they are going to come off. We were happy that he was there.”
The Patriots had trade opportunities at pick 21 and also 32 – which ultimately turned into Georgia tight end Benjamin Watson – yet elected to get younger on defense and attain “good value” where it fell.
That value was, in some sense, a matter of market inefficiency. The lone interior D-lineman taken to that point in the first round was Oklahoma’s Tommie Harris, a one-gap rusher who went to the Chicago Bears at pick 14.
The man chosen seven slots later was of a different mold.
“Vince Wilfork is a guy that is coming from a real good program,” Belichick said. “He played with a lot of good linemen down there last year. Mostly all of those guys [Jerome McDougle, William Joseph, Andrew Williams, Jamaal Green, Matt Walters] were drafted. He stayed another year.”
Wilfork recorded 41 tackles, one sack and three forced fumbles as a Hurricanes freshman in 2001. The product of Santaluces High School then notched 43 tackles and seven sacks as a sophomore on the way to becoming a BCS national champion. And by his junior season he was a full-time starter, and one who’d go on to rack up 64 tackles, a team-high 20 quarterback hurries and six sacks en route to first-team All-Big East honors.
Wilfork did so while mourning the loss of his father, David Sr., due to kidney failure in June of 2002, and his mother, Barbara, who passed just six months later due to complications following a stroke.
He kept going.
“I thought it was obviously a tough situation,” Belichick said. “Let’s put it this way: He missed very little time given all that he went through. Football is very important to him. He worked through a tough situation to still do all he could for the team. I think that speaks a little bit to his commitment to the team. I think that he did what unfortunately anybody would have to in that situation. That forced him to grow up in a hurry.”
The mature, 6-foot-2, 325-pound rookie hit the ground running in Foxborough, even if there was no immediate opening for him at the zero-technique in the 3-4 front.
“We will just have to see how it all fits together,” Belichick cautioned of the depth chart. “I don’t have any preconceived notions at this point.”
New England had acquired nose tackle Ted Washington in 2003, before bringing in Keith Traylor to fill the void entering 2004 after Washington signed with the Oakland Raiders. That swap of run-stuffing veterans left Wilfork taking a more stretched-out role as a rookie, working behind and alongside the 6-foot-2, 340-pound Traylor at defensive end. One was 35 years old, the other 23.
But Wilfork didn’t look out of place. In the mix with Traylor, Richard Seymour, Jarvis Green and Ty Warren, he started six of 16 games to make 42 tackles, a couple sacks and three pass deflections on the road to Super Bowl XXXIX.
And by the time Wilfork played his final down as a member of the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX, he’d already started 148 regular-season games. He’d already been voted a team captain seven times and a Pro Bowler five times. He’d already been a first-team All-Pro once and a second team All-Pro thrice, not to mention a member of the franchise’s 50th anniversary team.
Wilfork, now 35, proved to be every bit of what his new head coach said he was.
He proved to be no spoiled milk.
“He is a big, strong, powerful guy that we think will fit in well in our system at nose,” Belichick added. “Obviously, we like a lot of his whole makeup as a player and as a person. He is a good fit for us all the way.”