Vince Wilfork has some big shoes to fill, literally and figuratively. For years he has been the linchpin of the Patriots defense and anchored what has been an outstanding interior defensive line. Losing the captain is a big blow to the defense and the team as the whole, but for the remainder of the 2013 regular season, the Pats are going to have to find a way.
Earlier this week, coach Bill Belichick spoke to how difficult replacing Vince is going to be (Quote from Boston.com):
"I think everybody is going to have to, we're all going to have to pull that rope," Belichick said. "There's no replacing Vince Wilfork. You just don't replace Vince Wilfork. We'll still have his presence around the team and the locker room, and those type of things, which I think he's great at. On the field, we'll miss him. But whoever is out there, those other 11 guys that are out there, they're all gonna have to – we're all going to have to pull a little bit harder, including the coaching staff and all that.
It's a big loss but we're just going to have to find a way to do it. That means everybody doing their job. Obviously somebody is going to have to replace him. Whoever those people are, they're going to have to answer the bell. But collectively as a team, we're all going to have to pull it together. There is no one person that can replace Vince Wilfork."
So who exactly are these people Bill is referring to? Here is the committee of players that will attempt to fill the void left by Wilfork on the defensive line:
1) Tommy Kelly: In terms of stature, D-Tackle Tommy Kelly may be the only player on the roster who can hold a candle to Vince. Kelly stands at 6'6", weighing in at 325 pounds, and is a force to be reckoned with for offensive lineman.
So far this season, he looks to be perhaps the best pick-up by the Patriots this off-season (the jury is still out on Danny Amendola). His value to the team has increased significantly now that Vince has been lost for the season. Kelly had an up-and-down career in Oakland prior to coming to New England, which I wrote about back in August. During his time with the Raiders, he was labeled by some as an underachiever.
But he is with a much different organization now, and for the first time in his career, has a chance to win. He is the most talented member of the group of players who will attempt to replace Vince Wilfork, and has suddenly found himself in a leadership role. Wilfork's injury has made Kelly a truly vital player on this team.
2) Joe Vellano: Vellano has emerged as a pleasant surprise and a contributing player on this year's Patriots defense. According to Shalise Manza Young of the Boston Globe, during training camp the undrafted free-agent out of Maryland received one-on-one tutoring from Vince Wilfork , who he now has the task of replacing. When speaking to the media this week, Bill Belichick had high praise for Vellano and his work ethic (Quote from Boston.com):
“He had an opportunity to get some playing time as we went through preseason and he took advantage of those opportunities, made a few plays, had some production, and it probably led to a little bit more opportunity. I think that there are a lot of things that he’s improved in, in terms of technique and recognition and reaction. He’s got a long way to go, but he’s definitely making progress. He’s usually the first one on and the last one off the field, or close to it. He puts in a lot of extra time, tries to get better at the things he needs to work on, and that’s helped him.”
|Robert E. Klein/ Boston Globe|
Vellano is off to a good start this season, the high-point coming in the third quarter vs. Atlanta when he dropped Matt Ryan for his first NFL sack. He has also added 10 tackles over four games. Without Wilfork out and the depth chart thin at the DT position, Vellano figures to play an even more prominent role going forward.
3) Chris Jones: Probably one of the lesser known players on the Patriots roster, Jones is similar in size to Vellano, at 6'1", 309 lbs. However, unlike Vellano, Jones did have his name called during the NFL draft in April when the Texans selected him in the sixth round. He was released, claimed by the Bucs, then released again. New England picked him up off of waivers from Tampa earlier this month.
Jones had a successful college career at Bowling Green, accumulating 12.5 sacks during his senior season. According to Bill Belichick, Jones had been on the team's radar for a while before finally landing on the roster this month (Quote from Boston.com):
“We did all the players coming out of the draft and Chris was part of that process; he ended up being drafted by Houston. We claimed him at the final cut, [but] Tampa had the priority and got him,” Belichick said. “When they, I guess, got in a roster bind and had to release him, we were able to claim him a second time. This is the first game he was active so he’s had a couple weeks of practice, a lot of meetings with Coach [Patrick] Graham [defensive line coach] and extra work on the field, before and after practice, especially after practice: one-on-ones and different group drills that we do and so forth. I think he’s getting a better familiarity with our system and our communication and the techniques that we play and all that.”
Jones saw his first on-field action vs. Atlanta, playing for 19 snaps in total. He will likely be seeing much more of the field going forward, as he will be the third member of the committee of players set to try and replace #75.
4) Linebacker group: Wilfork's presence will be missed predominantly in the run defense game, where he clogged the middle of the line and made it difficult for opposing running backs to get to the second level of the field. Jerrod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower, and Brandon Spikes will together have increased responsibilities in stopping the run. With the team now relying on unproven rookies like Vellano and Jones on the line, these veteran linebackers will need to step up.
The loss of Vince Wilfork, who is one of, if not the, best nose-tackles in professional football, is without a doubt a devastating loss for the Patriots. His absence will likely lead to changes in the team's defensive schemes as the coaching staff figures out how capable the aforementioned players are in filling in for Vince. But if there is one thing we know about the 2013 Patriots thus far, it is that they are capable of overcoming obstacles presented by injuries. Replacing Vince Wilfork is sure to be one of the toughest tests yet.