Signed: Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, Sealver Siliga, Isaac Sopoaga, Michael Buchanan, Armond Armstead, Jake Bequette and Cory Grissom
Free Agent: Andre Carter
What if—Imagine what the Patriots defense could have been if it wasn’t for the injuries. The defensive line took two significant hits: Vince Wilfork and, a week later, Tommy Kelly. The defense was carrying the team until injuries took its toll.
Now imagine the defense without Wilfork and Kelly in 2014. It could happen.
The two defensive tackles have performed at very high levels throughout their careers and were expected to benefit from playing together. They should make full recoveries physically, but will they return to the level of play they were known for? That’s the real concern.
While massive run-stuffing defensive tackles historically have long, productive careers (Ted Washington, Keith Traylor), being an aging big man recovering from injury is another story.
Kelly must bounce back from his knee injury as a 33-year-old. The 32-year-old Wilfork has to overcome a torn Achilles tendon. Both recoveries are possible, but they have to prove to the coaching staff they can still play instead of beginning to break down.
As evidenced in 2013, replacing them won’t be easy.
Wilfork was dominant for the Patriots in the past, earning four straight Pro Bowl selections from 2009-2012 and an All-Pro in 2012. Kelly was stout against the run and was effective rushing the passer, starting 2013 with 2.5 sacks in five games played for New England.
After they went down, the Patriots tried repeatedly to find an adequate pair up the middle.
Joe Vellano was in then out of the starting lineup. Chris Jones rushed the passer well but was a poor run defender. New England traded for Isaac Sopoaga, only to leave him on the sideline for the final four games. Cory Grissom didn’t play a single snap. Sealver Siliga, signed after being released from the Seattle Seahawks' practice squad, was the best all-around defender.
Money will factor into New England’s decisions. Kelly has a year remaining on his deal at around $2.5 million, but Wilfork will cost the Patriots more than $11 million in 2014. It wouldn’t be surprising for New England to approach Wilfork about restructuring his deal to gain salary-cap relief.
It could also make it easier to cut Wilfork if the remaining two years and $7.2 million of his signing bonus were re-worked into a lower cost for 2014.
Thankfully, defensive end is a strength for the line with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich consistently holding the edge and combining for 19.5 sacks. There is room for improvement though.
New England finished with 48 sacks, the highest total during head coach Bill Belichick’s tenure with the Patriots. But a number of those sacks were coverage sacks. With experience and clever scheming, hopefully the D-linemen will beat blockers more consistently and bury the passer in about three seconds more often.
Pass-rush help might have to come from outside the organization because depth is weak. Jake Bequette has zero sacks in two years and Armond Armstead is yet to get on the field. Michael Buchanan showed a little promise in his rookie year. How much faith New England has in Buchanan could determine if Andre Carter is re-signed.