FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Players can wax poetic all they want about professionalism, honoring their contracts and not allowing business to get in the way of on-field duties. Sometimes, they mean it. Other times, their rhetoric is more transparent than a sheet of glass.
New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork has been a hallmark symbol of professionalism this season, which is his last under the rookie contract he signed in 2004. Wilfork has made it known that he wants more money and a contract extension from the Patriots, and he fired a proverbial warning shot by skipping voluntary organized team activities in the spring.
Since then, though, Wilfork has shown up to work, he’s affirmed the respect he gets from his teammates, he’s been named a defensive captain and he’s played through an ankle injury. For a player like Wilfork, who is easily one of the three or four best at his position in the NFL and is about to get paid accordingly, it’s been a selfless act to gut it out through the sprained ankle he suffered in Week 3 against the Atlanta Falcons.
Durability has never been an issue for the hulking run stuffer, who has played all 16 games in four of his first five seasons.
“That’s something I pride myself on, being durable,” Wilfork said. “People are different, so I can’t say I’m going to play all 16 games this year. Who knows what the future may hold for me? I pride myself on being durable and being able to be out there with my guys when they need me. If I can play, I’ll play. If it’s something where I can’t play, I won’t play, but it hasn’t happened too often here, so hopefully it’ll continue that way.”
After the Atlanta game, the Miami product missed two practices and part of a third before suiting up the following Sunday in a key matchup against the Baltimore Ravens. He recorded two tackles, including one for a loss and also deflected a pass at the line of scrimmage to help the Patriots knock off a fellow AFC playoff hopeful.
“I try to brush it off and go forward,” Wilfork said of the sprained ankle. “You play with pain a lot. Pain … that’s one thing I try to block out. If I can play, I’m going to play, point blank. I felt good. Every week, it’s been getting better. I’ve been getting better. I’ve been feeling good. Hopefully, I can just stay healthy and go on with that. I’d rather have pain than being injured. Those are two different things.”
Wilfork turns 28 next Wednesday, so it’s likely that the next contract he signs will be the last he’ll receive during the prime of his career. After he was taken with the 21st overall pick of the 2004 draft, the defensive tackle, listed at 325 pounds, signed a six-year contract reportedly worth about $18 million.
He is worth considerably more than he is paid, so in the salary-capped world of the NFL, Wilfork is as valuable as anyone on the planet. Bill Belichick‘s defensive system relies heavily upon a massive defensive tackle who can fill up two gaps at the line, which allows the linebackers more freedom to make plays. Because of that, Wilfork’s statistics will never tell the true story of his value to the Patriots, but he is always one of the first players an opposing coach or offensive player refers to when assessing New England’s defense.
Wilfork’s talent is truly respected throughout the league, and he’ll get his money one way or another, from the Patriots or someone else. The league’s labor agreement — which could result in an uncapped season in 2010 and beyond — has also hindered contract talks between Wilfork and the Patriots. With so many variables coming into play, Wilfork finds it easier to focus on the one thing he can control.
“I’m really not paying attention to that,” Wilfork said. “The final year of my contract is this year. Whatever happens, happens after that. I’ll move forward. That’s one thing I can say. I will move forward, but right now, that’s the last thing on my mind — contract talk and all that. That’s what I pay my agent for. If he has a problem, he has my number. I just try to focus on doing my job and how we can get better as a team. That’s basically my mind frame as of now.”