Patriots’ 2014 Defensive Blueprint: Vince Wilfork Can Help Free Up Salary Cap Room

Vince WilforkThe New England Patriots’ defense has top-tier potential in 2014.

Defense will be all the rage in the NFL again now that the Seattle Seahawks proved it wins championships by beating the Denver Broncos 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII.

Before defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly and linebacker Jerod Mayo went down with season-ending injuries in 2013, New England had a defense that could win a Super Bowl.

The Patriots don’t need to go back to the drawing board in 2014, but they will have to rebuild in a few spots. The Patriots have $3.8 million in cap room going into the offseason. We saved the Patriots another $4.5 million after moving around some contracts in Tuesday’s offensive offseason blueprint. Let’s see how much the Patriots can free up on defense.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The Patriots need the most help along the defensive line. A third pass rusher to rotate with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich is required — preferably one who can also play defensive tackle on third down. The Patriots also could use a dependable three-technique defensive tackle to play next to Vince Wilfork.

First things first, though — the Patriots need to make a decision on Wilfork. They could save $7.505 million by cutting the nose tackle. That would be a shocking move, but Wilfork wasn’t playing his best football before he went down with a season-ending Achilles injury. Wilfork is 32 years old, and at 325 pounds, coming back from an Achilles injury could be difficult.

The Patriots likely will want to try to restructure Wilfork’s contract before resorting to cutting him. But since they can save so much money by cutting him, and since he’s on the last year of his deal, the Patriots have a lot of power in the situation. I would expect Wilfork comes back on a three-year deal that will save the Patriots a lot of cap room, perhaps the $3.6 million signing bonus that’s left on his contract or more.

The Patriots almost definitely will cut defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga. They will have to eat $1 million, but they will save $2.005 million against the cap. They’ll also likely cut and potentially attempt to re-sign Tommy Kelly. Cutting him would save $1.7 million.

Andre Carter is a free agent. Given his limited impact in 2013, he likely won’t be back.

That leaves the Patriots with Wilfork, Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, Armond Armstead and Cory Grissom at defensive tackle and Chandler Jones, Ninkovich, Jake Bequette and Michael Buchanan at defensive end. Bequette isn’t expected to be back after playing extremely sparingly in his first two seasons. Buchanan will probably be held onto for one more year.

The Patriots could draft a defensive end, but signing one in free agency makes more sense. Greg Hardy, Michael Johnson, Michael Bennett and Lamarr Houston are all players who can play defensive end on first and second down and kick inside on third down. The Patriots also could sign Jared Allen and push Chandler Jones inside on third down. Julius Peppers could be cut by the Chicago Bears. If he comes at a discount, the Patriots could be interested in him, as well.

Five defensive tackles expected to be taken in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft would fit the Patriots’ needs. Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman, Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald, Florida State’s Jimmy Jernigan and Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt would fit at three-technique defensive tackle (typically the better pass-rushing interior defender). Notre Dame’s Louis Nix fits better as a nose tackle if the Patriots cut Wilfork or don’t think Siliga can maintain his strong play from the end of the 2013 season.

Henry Melton, Jason Hatcher, Randy Starks, Antonio Smith, Clinton McDonald and Tony McDaniel are all free agents who could boost the Patriots’ interior line as pass rushers.

LINEBACKERS

Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher are free agents for the Patriots. Spikes is as good as gone after skipping OTAs and being placed on injured reserve before the playoffs. Fletcher could come back, but he won’t be a starter, so he could be on a different team.

Starters Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins will all be back in 2014. Steve Beauharnais, Ja’Gared Davis, Taylor Reed and Chris White also are signed for 2014.

It wouldn’t be entirely shocking to see the Patriots draft another linebacker high, despite having three strong starters. The Patriots could use Collins as a pass rusher more in 2014. If that’s the case, Alabama’s C.J. Mosely, UConn’s Yawin Smallwood, Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier and BYU’s Kyle Van Noy are all roughly the size Belichick typically looks for in a linebacker.

If Fletcher departs, the Patriots will need to either draft or sign a No. 4 linebacker. Bill Belichick is buddies with the head coaches of Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard (Nick Saban) and Notre Dame linebacker Prince Shembo (Brian Kelly).

SECONDARY

The Patriots can free up some money at safety this season. They can cut $671,666 from the salary cap by releasing Adrian Wilson, and they also can extend Devin McCourty. McCourty’s contract runs out in 2014, and he’s on the books for $5.115 million next season. He’s been a team captain the last two years.

Another player to watch is Steve Gregory, who is due $3.558 million in 2014. The Patriots could save $2.23 million by cutting him. If Belichick liked what he saw in Duron Harmon in 2013, that might not be a shocking move. Gregory was praised for his intelligence by many Patriots players, however.

Star cornerback Aqib Talib is a free agent. The Patriots’ defense was considerably better when Talib was on the field in 2013. He’s been banged up his whole career, though. Talib has never played a full 16-game season, and he’s left the last two years’ AFC Championship games with injuries.

Talib is either the No. 1 priority for the Patriots in free agency or No. 1a with Julian Edelman. Talib could be pricey if teams are valuing him based on his first six games of the 2013 season.

If Talib comes back, the Patriots are pretty set at cornerback. They’ll also have Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan — all of whom are talented enough to start. They also have Justin Green returning. The Patriots could upgrade that No. 5 cornerback spot, and they’ll certainly bring in some competition for Green.

If Talib doesn’t return, the Patriots will either need to sign another No. 1 cornerback type or sign or draft a player to compete with Ryan for the starting job. If they’re looking for the No. 1 type, Brent Grimes, Alterraun Verner, Vontae Davis and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are all out there. Sam Shields and Walter Thurmond are among the second-tier types.

The Patriots have McCourty, Gregory, Harmon, Adrian Wilson, Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner and Kanorris Davis coming back at safety. Not much movement is expected at safety, but if Gregory is done, the Patriots will need to sign or draft a player to compete with Harmon. If the Patriots wanted to break the bank, Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward are out there in free agency.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Patriots could save some more money by extending kicker Stephen Gostkowski. His contract is up in 2014, and he has a cap hit of $3.8 million this season. He’s been a dependable kicker, so cutting him to save $2.5 million on the cap would be unexpected. It’s much more likely Gostkowski and the Patriots strike a new deal.

HOW MUCH CAP ROOM COULD THE PATRIOTS HAVE FOR FREE AGENCY?

If the Patriots extend guard Logan Mankins and Wilfork, McCourty and Gostkowski and cut guard Dan Connolly and Wilson, Kelly and Sopoaga, they can save around $15 million on top of the $3.8 million they already have in cap room. If they cut Wilfork and Gregory, it would save another $6.1 million. If they can get rid of Aaron Hernandez’s cap figure, the Patriots will be rolling in cash. Hernandez is on the books for $7.5 million.

In a perfect world, the Patriots would have more than $30 million in cap room. That’s extremely unlikely, but it’s obvious the Patriots have plenty of flexibility on the books for 2014.

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