FOXBORO, Mass. — At face value, it appears the trade for Isaac Sopoaga has not worked out for the Patriots.
New England acquired the veteran defensive tackle along with a sixth-round pick from the Eagles for a fifth-rounder. He was expected to step in at nose tackle for the injured Vince Wilfork, but as the season has went along, Sopoaga’s snaps have dwindled.
After playing 27 snaps in his first game with the Patriots against the Steelers and 41 in his second week against the Panthers, Sopoaga has played just 17 snaps in the past two weeks. Sealver Siliga has taken his place as New England’s starting nose tackle since coming off the practice squad and has played well in his two weeks as a regular.
Sopoaga may not have been acquired just for his on-field acumen, though. The 10th-year veteran has taken a leadership role on defense in just six short weeks with the team.
When the locker room is open to the media, Sopoaga is frequently found in the back corner talking to some of his fellow interior linemen, Siliga and rookie defensive tackle Chris Jones.
“He’s been a big help,” Siliga said. “I’m lucky to have him over here to help show me the ropes. With Vince and them down, I don’t really see them as much. For a person like Isaac, he’s a big help to me whenever I have a question, whenever I don’t really understand something, I ask him and he really helps me, explains it to me.”
Siliga played with Sopoaga during the summer of 2011 when the third-year pro was a rookie with the 49ers. Siliga was released by San Francisco and spent time with the Broncos and Seahawks before latching on with the Patriots.
“Isaac brings a lot to us, man,” Jones said. If you were out there on the practice field or in the game, he’s constantly helping us with our technique and telling us stuff that we can do that can help us in certain situations. If we’re moving, if we’re playing a base technique, he’ll give us any little key that we can use. He helps out a lot, though.”
After Wilfork and Tommy Kelly went down for the season, New England needed a veteran presence who would regularly be on the practice field, in the locker room and on the sideline. The team was left with just Jones, rookie defensive tackle Joe Vellano and second-year interior lineman Marcus Forston. Wilfork has been around, but there’s only so much he can do from the sidelines.
Vellano is the lone player left on the interior line that has been with the team the whole season. Jones was picked up off waivers after Week 1, Sopoaga was traded for on Oct. 29 and Siliga was signed to the practice squad on Oct. 23. The ragtag group of players have gotten close quickly.
“We’re a very tight-knit group,” Jones said. “We’re trying to work on working better together while we’re out on the field. But while we’re in there, in our meeting, we’re nice, we’re a tight-knit group. Nobody hates anyone.”
It’s still a work in progress for the interior line. It’s impossible to replace players like Wilfork and Kelly, but it appears Sopoaga has taken on the leadership role, while Jones and Siliga are doing their best to replicate their production on the field. The Patriots did not give up much for Sopoaga, so if his contribution is to make the younger players better, it will surely be welcomed in Foxboro.