[This article is one of eight in B/R contributor Jack Harver's "State of the DTs" series, introduced here.]
Coming off a career year, both statistically and as a team leader, Vince Wilfork might have expected the New England Patriots to be willing when he broached the subject of a contract extension this offseason.
Wilfork had a personal best 66 tackles (45 solo) and two sacks while starting all 16 games on a defense that lost several veterans to injuries. Safety Rodney Harrison, end Richard Seymour, and linebackers Adalius Thomas and Tedy Bruschi all missed starts; Harrison and Thomas finished the season on injured reserve.
But the Patriots' front office, not a group disposed to depend too heavily on any one player, responded to Wilfork's upcoming contract year stoically. They have held firm in negotiations thus far, clinging to the bargain $2.2 million salary ($800,000 base plus $1.4 million in escalators) owed to Wilfork in 2009 and not willing to overspend to keep him a Patriot.
And in April, perhaps mindful of Wilfork's contract situation, New England spent a second-round draft pick on Boston College defensive tackle Ron Brace—a 6'3", 330-pound mauler who could eventually replace Wilfork at the nose.
At age 27, Wilfork is hardly a fading dinosaur on his last legs. Of the 80 games the Patriots have played since using their 2004 first-round pick on him, Wilfork has played in 77 and started 67 of them. Playing one of football's most physically demanding positions, he has missed just three starts in five years.
After making his first Pro Bowl appearance in 2008, Wilfork wasn't voted to the 2009 game. Kris Jenkins and Shaun Rogers, two star newcomers from the NFC, had more buzz and better numbers, respectively.
But Wilfork, who also earned All-Pro honors for his play in that 2007-08 season, is still considered one of the NFL's elite at his position.
"[Wilfork]'s just smart," Oakland center Samson Satele told The Boston Globe.
"He knows when to fire out and when not to. He's been in the league for quite a while, so he knows some of the little tips. If the guard looks at him, he knows that he is coming his way.
"He is a low center of gravity guy. You can't move him."
With his combination of savvy and strength, Wilfork has been a crucial component of New England's run defense in his four years as a full-time starter. Over that stretch, the Patriots have consistently been in the league's top 10 in terms of rushing yards allowed.
They took a step back to the middle of the pack in 2008, hampered by a combination of injuries and new starters at linebacker and safety.
Wilfork, too, struggled a bit as the Patriots missed the playoffs. Former Baltimore defensive coordinator—and current Jets head coach—Rex Ryan points out that Wilfork wasn't above occasional lapses in technique.
"Good [nose tackles] stay square," he told The Boston Globe. "I think when Vince makes a mistake, it's because he turns his shoulder."
On a defense missing several of its steady veterans, and with his own contract situation unsettled, Wilfork might have felt pressure to beat blocks and make more plays himself instead of sticking strictly to his two-gap role.
Brace, Wilfork's rookie understudy, played second fiddle to Boston College teammate B.J. Raji for two years, generally taking on blockers while Raji racked up sacks. Whether the Patriots think Wilfork's form has slipped or not, Brace might offer enough of a continued bargain at nose tackle to allow them to focus on re-signing veterans like Seymour and guard Logan Mankins instead.
Regardless of whether New England ends up retaining him, Wilfork's value has hardly diminished in the eyes of the rest of the league.
"I'd love to have him, no question," Ryan added. "Nose tackles are hard to find; everybody needs them, [and] he's a good one.
"There will be a lot of takers out there if he's a free agent."