Editor?s note: NESN.com will go position by position to break down the Patriots? depth chart heading into the 2015 offseason. Next up: the defensive line.
Vince Wilfork and the New England Patriots could be in for another long offseason.
The defensive tackle reportedly cleared out his locker last winter when the Patriots offered him an unsatisfactory figure while talking about the contract extension that both parties eventually reached. Wilfork lowered his 2014 salary in an incentive-laden deal that gave him more guaranteed money upfront, but the contract also includes an $8.933 million salary cap hit in 2015.
If the Patriots cut Wilfork, they’ll only have to eat $866,668 in dead money on their cap. Wilfork remains the team’s best and most dependable nose tackle, however, and he earned every cent of his $2.5 million inventive last season by playing 70 percent of the team’s defensive snaps.
The Patriots will need to hope that Wilfork is willing to be a team player and lower his contract again so the Patriots can bring back important pieces on defense, like cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Devin McCourty. The Patriots need all of the cap room they can save to bring another Lombardi Trophy to Gillette Stadium.
2015 DEPTH CHART: Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Vince Wilfork, Chris Jones, Dominique Easley, Zach Moore, Michael Buchanan, Joe Vellano, Jake Bequette, Antonio Johnson, Eric Martin
2015 FREE AGENTS: Alan Branch, Sealver Siliga (exclusive rights)
The Patriots’ depth at defensive tackle looks solid in the short-term if they can bring back Wilfork. Siliga will be back on an exclusive rights deal, and if they want him in Foxboro, it shouldn’t be difficult for the Patriots to re-sign Alan Branch, who played well on a one-year, $855,000 contract in 2014.
Ninkovich and Chandler Jones likely will remain the team’s starting defensive ends, while Wilfork, Siliga, Easley, Chris Jones and possibly Branch can rotate at defensive tackle. Easley also can play defensive end, where he can serve as depth behind Ninkovich and Chandler Jones.
The Patriots also showed interest in using linebacker Dont’a Hightower as an edge rusher last season. Linebacker Akeem Ayers is a free agent, though he might be too costly to bring back after a solid season pass rushing in New England.
The Patriots could afford to inject more youth into their front four, however. Ninkovich, who remains a top run defender and adequate pass rusher, is 31 years old, and Wilfork is 33 and has more than $15 million left on his contract, which runs out after 2016.
Ninkovich and Wilfork played well in 2014, but it’s never too early to plan for the future, which could lead the Patriots to look at defensive ends or nose tackles in the 2015 NFL draft.
The Patriots used a 2014 first-round draft pick on Easley, whose best role is at three-technique defensive tackle, where he can rush the passer. Easley also can play 3-4 or 4-3 defensive end in a pinch.
Easley’s rookie season was a slight disappointment, marred by injuries and a lack of disruptive plays. The rookie was coming off a torn ACL that disrupted his training camp and preseason. Easley will head into his second year with a full offseason to get healthy, in playing shape and up to speed with the Patriots.
Easley flashed his potential in the Patriots’ Week 11 win over the Indianapolis Colts, when he was stout against the run pressured quarterback Andrew Luck three times.
Because of a lack of size — he played much lighter than his 290-pound listed weight — Easley wouldn’t be expected to fill Wilfork’s role. He likely could play left defensive end, but it’s still too early to transition Ninkovich out of the defense.
If the right player falls, then the Patriots could use an early draft pick on a defensive tackle, but if the Patriots are able to reach an agreement and lower Wilfork’s 2015 cap hit, then their front four is set in the short term.
Thumbnail photo via Jake Roth/USA TODAY Sports Images