“It’s a business.”
That’s the throwaway line and the standard description of the NFL in February and March. The realities of salary-cap squeezing and maximizing the return for every dollar leave little time for nuisances like loyalty.
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has always approached a frosty time in the calendar with the appropriate coldness—the same emotion he brings to press conferences. Celebrated veterans are either traded or released before hitting their decline years, as teams prioritize asset management.
It can be robotic and sometimes a little ruthless, but Belichick’s approach is the right one, especially with players whose contracts get too heavy as they advance in age.
That describes defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who won two Super Bowls with the franchise over 11 seasons and played all of his 158 NFL games under Belichick. Now the 33-year-old will spend the twilight of his career elsewhere after the Patriots declined to pick up his contract option for 2015, Wilfork announced Thursday:
Wilfork may be shedding the title of Patriots team leader, but now he takes on a new and intriguing label: veteran free-agent bargain.
The Patriots have other pressing roster needs that made the decision to move on from Wilfork an easy one. Emotionally, it wasn’t enjoyable. But again, Belichick is highly skilled at making sure no human feelings leak into the Patriots fortress.
Wilfork was owed a $4 million roster bonus on March 10, which meant a decision on his future was coming soon. But the more important dollar figure attached to his now-terminated Patriots contract was $8.9 million.
That’s how much Wilfork would have counted for against the salary cap, according to Spotrac. The amount of cap real estate Wilfork occupied had grown far too large for a team with other priorities, like trying to retain cornerback Darrelle Revis and gather the riches he’ll demand.
But one team's salary-cap casualty is always another franchise's scrapheap score.
Wilfork is still effective despite his advancing age, and he’s still a massive run-clogging force at 325 pounds. Both of those coveted selling points will lead to plenty of interest on the open market. He could even return to the Patriots at the right price.
The riddle, of course, is determining exactly where the wheel of fortune will stop spinning for Wilfork.
|2015 top 10 defensive tackle cap hits|
|Defensive tackle||Cap hit|
|Haloti Ngata||$16 million|
|Gerald McCoy||$14.6 million|
|Geno Atkins||$9 million|
|Marcell Dareus||$8.1 million|
|Arthur Jones||$7.1 milion|
|Kyle Williams||$6.4 million|
|Brodrick Bunkley||$6.1 million|
|Randy Starks||$6 million|
|Brandon Mebane||$5.7 million|
|Sen’Derrick Marks||$4.8 million|
Wilfork’s old contract would have given him the fourth-highest cap hit in 2015 among defensive tackles, a mammoth number for a mammoth man.
But let’s insert Wilfork among those 10 names again and see how the defensive effectiveness of a well-worn veteran one season removed from tearing his Achilles measures up to the highest-valued players at his position.
|Wilfork is still among the NFL's best DTs|
|Defensive tackle||Defensive stops (regular season)|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
Wilfork’s top defensive tackle peers often had low production because of injuries. For example, Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Brandon Mebane tore his hamstring and appeared in only nine games during the 2014 season.
Injuries are a part of the equation here, though, and with one notable exception, Wilfork has maintained rather pristine health throughout his career.
It’s easy to cite his Achilles tear as a concern that still lingers large in the rearview for Wilfork (like, say, how I did it above). That’s real, it happened, and it was significant. But set aside the 2013 season, and look at Wilfork’s other 10 years.
Over those years, he averaged 15.4 games played. The Achilles tear has been Wilfork’s only major health blemish, as he had missed only six career games prior to that injury.
In 2014, Wilfork played all 16 games for the seventh time in his career. As Rich Hill from Pats Pulpit quite rightly observed, Wilfork’s workload was pure lunacy given the circumstances:
Wilfork was on the field for 952 defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. If his Achilles didn’t snap, it would be easy to argue that, given his size and durability, he’s actually an indestructible force from another galaxy, perhaps sent to explore Earth’s weaknesses.
So as a commodity on the open market, Wilfork is still among the best run-smothering beasts. He’s also far less injury prone than what recent history will have you believe. Yet age still has a way of naturally driving a price down due to fear of when Wilfork will go careening into the production wall that inevitably lies ahead.
That’s why he could become an affordable bargain on a short-term deal worth likely about $4 to $5 million against the cap.
So do the Indianapolis Colts with the abundance of cash they have available to toss around gleefully ($41.3 million in cap space, per OverTheCap.com), and free-agent defensive lineman Cory Redding mulling retirement.
Wilfork checks all the boxes that will make him appealing on the open market. His price will fall, and he can still be a behemoth up the middle. And now he’s free to do that space-eating somewhere that isn’t New England for the first time in his career.