BOSTON (CBS) – The loss of Vince Wilfork leaves a very large void to fill on the New England Patriots’ defensive line.
All signs point to the five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle being lost for the year after suffering a torn Achilles in Sunday’s 30-23 Patriots win over the Atlanta Falcons, and chances are no one player is going to be able to clog the holes the 325-pound Wilfork fills up every time he takes the field.
“He’s an outstanding player, we all know that,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said on his Monday morning conference call. “He gives us great leadership and he’s a strong contributor on and off the field and in the locker room and everything else. We’ll just have to see how things come together for him and also what, obviously if he’s not there, it will mean everybody having to pull a little bit more weight on their end.”
So who will get the call for the Patriots?
Replacing Wilfork is nearly impossible, but New England has a few in-house candidates to help fill the void. We got a glimpse of what undrafted free agent Joe Vellano could bring to the table on Sunday, as the defensive end racked up three tackles, a sack and another quarterback hit against Atlanta. Though a bit undersized at 6-2 and 300-pounds, Vellano is one of those hard-working players that Bill Belichick loves, and one that turned a few heads in training camp. Now we’ll see if he can keep it going with an increased role.
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“He’s had an opportunity to get some playing time as we went through preseason and he took advantage of those opportunities, made a few plays, had some production and it probably led to a little bit more opportunity and so forth. I think that there are a lot of things that he’s improved in, in terms of technique and recognition and reaction and all that,” Belichick said of Vellano. “He’s still got a long way to go but definitely making progress. He works hard every day.”
Other options include practice teamers Marcus Forston and A.J. Francis, who could be in line for a promotion to the active roster. Forston, who played in one game for New England last season, was mentored by Wilfork — a fellow Miami Alumni. Francis was claimed by the Patriots shortly after the final roster cuts in September, and found his way onto the practice squad after being cut prior to the regular season. Francis was a college teammate of Vellano’s at Maryland, and had four sacks for the Terrapins as a senior.
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There are a few potential replacements out on the free agent market, with former-Patriots Kyle Love and Ron Brace available. Love was solid for New England last year, but was released after the season and didn’t make an 0-4 Jaguars team. Brace was never able to do much on the field while with the Patriots, and was released by the Redskins in August. Richard Seymour’s name will also be tossed around, but after the way things ended for him with the Patriots, chances are he won’t be returning.
It won’t be easy to fill the void left by Wilfork, and it will be even harder for any one player to emulate Wilfork’s production, especially against opposing rush attacks. While a rotation of one or two players will be called upon to fill in for Wilfork, it will really be up to the Patriots defensive line as a whole to step up. Tommy Kelly, who has been stellar in his first year in New England, will have more pressure to step up his game, and more pressure will fall on the Patriots’ linebacker corps, with more running backs likely finding some holes on the defensive line.
Losing a player like Wilfork is not an an easy injury to recover from, but is just another test for an improving Patriots’ defense this season.