Vince Wilfork Signing Gives Texans More Margin for Error at Inside Linebacker

Rivers McCown@riversmccownNFL AnalystMarch 16, 2015

Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; New England Patriots running back Shane Vereen (34) celebrates with defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (75) after defeating the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Texans have been a team without an actual nose tackle for almost as long as I can remember. Earl Mitchell. Shaun Cody. Travis Johnson. Jeff Zgonina. It has been a long road from Seth Payne to Ryan Pickett, who at least had typical nose tackle dimensions.

Now, the Texans can say they actually have a good one after signing an out-of-his-prime Vince Wilfork to a two-year deal. The former New England Patriots lineman announced the deal Monday via his Twitter account. Per the Houston Chronicle's John McClain, Wilfork will make $9 million on a two-year deal, with $5 million in guarantees:

John McClain @McClain_on_NFL

Vince Wilfork's two-year contract is worth $9 mil with $5 guaranteed.

Outside of continuing their tradition of dumpster-diving any table scraps the Patriots let go, the Texans signed Wilfork to help a run defense that had some pretty bad games last season.

Houston finished 16th in defensive rushing DVOA, per Football Outsiders. In a five-game stretch from Weeks 5-9, they allowed positive DVOAs to every team they faced sans the Steelers. In an age where very few teams actually have a positive rushing DVOA, that's much worse than it sounds.

The Texans are banking on a 33-year-old nose tackle to keep their run defense healthy. Of particular interest to Houston fans should be the fact that the inside linebacker position is a mess right now. No one knows what to expect of the perpetually injured Brian Cushing going forward. And outside of him, the Texans have made a habit of punting their other inside linebacker spot for cap space.

Luminaries such as Jeff Tarpinian (stage name: Tarpy) and Akeem Dent have sidled up next to Cushing over the past two seasons. The results have been fairly predictable: When opposing running backs made it to the second level, they were able to pick up yards by the bushel. Football Outsiders ranked the Texans 24th in second-level yards allowed in 2014.

By adding Wilfork to the middle of the defense, the Texans have added a player Patriots coach Bill Belichick called "the best defensive lineman I ever coached," per ESPN's Kevin Seifert:

Kevin Seifert @SeifertESPN

The highest of praise RT @SportsCenter: Bill Belichick releases a statement about Vince Wilfork http://t.co/lgcKJT6tFL

With this signing, it seems Houston is just attempting to make sure nobody ever gets to the second level in 2015. Wilfork may be old, but he's also part of The Planet Theory. Even as a slower version of himself, there still aren't many football players who can move as quickly as Wilfork can while carrying that much weight. He's a boulder that can create its own momentum. That has a lot of value. 

The Texans originally tried to fill their defensive tackle hole by drafting Notre Dame's Louis Nix in the third round of the 2014 draft. But after missing the season with a couple of injuries, it was clear Nix wasn't to be relied on. With Wilfork in the fold, Nix won't have the pressure of being the No. 1 guy, and that might help Nix live up to the expectations.

Is Vince Wilfork's 2014 Season Repeatable?
YearSnapsPFF Run Stop GradePFF Overall Grade
Source: Pro Football Focus

Wilfork wasn't the Texans' only signing on Monday. They also bolstered the offense by bringing in wide receiver Cecil Shorts, per Fox Sports Ohio's Zac Jackson.

The interesting thing to me about Houston's signings today is that they very clearly defined the positions of need in the NFL draft. If the Texans are satisfied with their quarterback trio—which they seem to be for reasons I won't understand—wide receiver, inside linebacker and outside linebacker are the three areas that clearly stand out to me. 

Assuming no surprise releases (Johnathan Joseph? Maybe Garrett Graham?) or signings (Bob McNair probably won't ever sign a player with the off-field track record of a Greg Hardy), Houston is essentially locked into its team at the moment. There's not much cap room left beyond paying the new draft picks. 

John McClain @McClain_on_NFL

Texans entered the day almost $10 million under the cap. Wilfork gets $5 mil guaranteed and Shorts $2.5.

I can quibble with the Wilfork signing on a few levels. I don't like that the Texans will probably be relying on a rookie to pick up slack for the injured Jadeveon Clowney. New England's Jabaal Sheard looked like a steal on a contract I would've liked to see the Texans try to top. Minor points like that. 

But ultimately, it's a nice fit for a team that has needed a nose tackle for a long, long time. And the fact that it helps assuage fears about inside linebacker helps sell me on it. 

The Texans will still only go as far as their quarterback situation will take them. That they've had to settle at the position means their margin for error is very small. They have to build the perfect box for that situation to breathe in. 

Wilfork is one side of the box that is essentially immovable. Can Houston draft well enough to seal off the rest of the holes too? 

All DYAR and DVOA numbers cited are courtesy of Football Outsiders. Learn more about DVOA here

Rivers McCown is the AFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the co-host of the Three-Cone Drill podcast. His work has also appeared on Football Outsiders and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at @riversmccown.


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