The hits seem to keep coming for the New England Patriots, according to Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe:
league source: Vince Wilfork has torn Achilles - almost certainly ends his season—shalise manza young (@shalisemyoung) September 30, 2013
This follows the offseason losses of wide receiver Wes Welker to free agency, and tight end Aaron Hernandez after his arrest on murder charges. Fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski, recovering from surgeries, has yet to suit up in a game.
In Week 1, they lost wide receiver Danny Amendola to a groin injury and running back Shane Vereen to a broken wrist. In Week 2, they lost special teams ace Matthew Slater, also to a broken wrist.
Now, the Patriots' Week 4 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, 30–23, may have been a pyrrhic victory after all.
The injury happened on the Falcons' first drive of the game, as you can see in the NFL.com highlights video for the game. ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss reports that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was talking to Wilfork's wife Bianca after the game.
The Patriots have been fortunate that the 6-foot-2, 325-pound Wilfork has been remarkably healthy over the last nine years. In that time span, he has missed only six of 144 regular-season games, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.
If Wilfork is indeed done for the season, it would be yet another tough blow for a team that has suffered many this year. The five-time Pro Bowler Wilfork is, in a sense, irreplaceable, but that doesn't mean the Patriots can't win games without him. After all, they did beat the Falcons without him.
The Patriots have three other defensive tackles: veteran Tommy Kelly, who also left the game for a while with an apparent injury, and two rookies. One, Chris Jones, is a sixth-round draft pick the Patriots claimed off waivers from the Houston Texans; the other, Joe Vellano, is an undrafted free agent out of Maryland.
Neither Jones nor Vellano have Wilfork's size (both are listed in the 300–310 pound range), but they did combine for five tackles, three solo against Atlanta. The Patriots also rotated Chandler Jones into the interior of the defensive line at times as well.
Moreover, the Patriots do have one more defensive tackle waiting in the wings in Armond Armstead, a former USC defensive lineman who left the program after suffering a heart attack (Armstead is suing the university over his medical treatment). After playing for the Toronto Argonauts in 2012 (he recorded six sacks), the Patriots signed Armstead (6'5", 305 pounds) as a free agent in the offseason. Since he is currently on the Non-Football Injury list, he is eligible to start practicing with the team after the Patriots' Week 6 game against the New Orleans Saints.
The Patriots list Armstead as a defensive end, so it's not clear that he could truly replace Wilfork. At a minimum, though, he would offer some more bulk on the line.
How will the Patriots replace Wilfork?
Bill Belichick is not known for panic. When the Patriots lost Slater, who is arguably as important on special teams as Wilfork is on defense, the Patriots didn't try to find one player to replace him. As Reiss reported, they divvied up his snaps among four players in Week 3.
I'd expect a similar approach with Wilfork: instead of having one player take his job, look for multiple players to see an incremental rise in their snap counts.
The Patriots have a good team, if not necessarily a great one, and one that will likely be playing better on offense by season's end. If the worst is confirmed, and the Patriots have indeed lost Wilfork for the season, they shouldn't, and likely won't, overpay to sign a replacement. But if they can find someone who can at least be a role player for the rest of the season—someone like, for example, former Pats DL Kyle Love, who was released in the offseason—they should be able to adapt.
I don't expect an immediate trade, though, unless New England can find someone that doesn't break the bank. (The trade deadline is October 29, so there's no need for a hasty move.)
Adapting to a Wilfork-less defense will require some scheme adjustments by Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. I wouldn't be surprised if they go to schemes that favor speed over size, which would admittedly make them more vulnerable to the run but might improve the pass defense.
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