There is no “next Vince Wilfork.”
The New England Patriots will sign or draft a big nose tackle whether they decide to bring back Vince Wilfork on a reduced salary or not, but it would be impossible to fill Wilfork’s shoes on the field and as a respected veteran in the locker room.
Wilfork announced Thursday that the Patriots won’t pick up his 2015 option, which frees up $8 million in cap room. If the Patriots don’t re-sign cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Devin McCourty, then they will have some money to throw around in free agency.
The Patriots have defensive tackles Dominique Easley, Chris Jones, Joe Vellano and Antonio Johnson under contract for next season, and they’re expected to bring back Sealver Siliga as an exclusive-rights free agent. Siliga can fill Wilfork’s role at one-technique nose tackle, but the Patriots need another stout run defender to pair in the middle of their base defense — and it still could be Wilfork if he’s not pleased with his offers on the open market.
Alan Branch, who was signed midway through the season and offered solid production against the run and as a pass rusher, could be back on a low salary. Here are five other options for the Patriots in free agency:
The Denver Broncos free agent might wind up costing too much money and draw too much interest on the first day of free agency, but after an up-and-down career with the Jacksonville Jaguars, NFL teams might still be hesitant to give him too much guaranteed money.
At 6-foot-3, 331 pounds, Knighton can play the nose, but he’s also a productive defender against the pass, totaling 38 total pressures in 2013. It’s worth noting that Knighton grew up as a Patriots fan in Hartford, Conn.
Williams is one of the best young nose tackles in the NFL, which could boost his price on the open market. If the Patriots are willing to spend, however, then they would know what they’re getting in the five-year veteran.
Williams is stout against the run, but he won’t contribute much on third down and in obvious passing situations. He’s not as versatile as Wilfork, but he certainly could pair well with Siliga to improve the Patriots’ run defense.
Odrick isn’t a nose tackle like Wilfork, but he could provide solid run defense next to Siliga at three-technique defensive tackle. Odrick played all three downs for the Dolphins, and he could pair for an impressive pass-rushing duo with Easley in the middle of the Patriots’ defense on third down.
Odrick won’t come cheap, however, but he could be a solid backup plan if the Patriots can’t re-sign both Revis and McCourty. Odrick has had solid production against the Patriots in past games, recording two sacks, 11 tackles and an interception in eight games.
Raji missed the entire 2014 Green Bay Packers season with a torn biceps tendon, so he comes with a risk. The 6-foot-2, 337-pound nose tackle is built like Wilfork and could come at a discount on the open market because of the injury and his recent inconsistent play.
Since Raji is a risk, he would be best to pair with a young nose tackle selected in the NFL draft. Raji is just 28 years old and still comes with plenty of upside, however.
Sims, like Williams, won’t contribute much on passing downs, but he could help bridge the gap as a run-stuffer between Wilfork and a draft pick.
There are a number of appealing nose tackles in the draft this year, including projected first-rounders Danny Shelton, Malcom Brown and Eddie Goldman. Oklahoma’s Jordan Phillips and Iowa’s Carl Davis also could go in the first round.
The Patriots should be in good position at No. 32 overall in the first round to get one of those top defensive tackles, and if they can’t start right away, then having a player like Sims could be valuable.
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