The newly retired Vince Wilfork will be a no-brainer pick for the New England Patriots’ Hall of Fame as soon as he becomes eligible. A shoo-in.
But does the big-bellied, rib-loving defensive tackle deserve a place in Canton, enshrined among the game’s absolute best at the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
He at least deserves heavy consideration, no pun intended.
Conservatively listed at 6-foot-2, 325 pounds, Wilfork, who has an official retirement ceremony scheduled for noon ET on Wednesday at Gillette Stadium, was one of the most dominant and successful defensive tackles of his era.
For more than a decade, he served as the defensive backbone of a Patriots team that won two Super Bowls — in Wilfork’s first season in New England, 2004, and his last, 2014 — and reached two others. In his heyday, he gobbled up blockers not just with his size, but also with his unexpected athleticism, routinely erasing running lanes and disrupting opponents’ entire offensive game plans.
Yes, although Wilfork always was among the NFL’s largest players, he also was an incredible athlete. That was clearly evident in his most memorable moment: the mad dash upfield he made after picking off a Philip Rivers pass in 2011, one of three interceptions he hauled in during his illustrious career.
Wilfork also started every game he played in after his rookie year and played in all 16 games in nine of his 13 seasons — 11 with the Patriots and two with the Houston Texans.
All of those traits made Wilfork an excellent Patriot — one of the absolute best of the Bill Belichick era. But is he a Hall of Famer?
In my opinion, he’s very, very close. But he has a couple of factors working against him.
First off, and perhaps most importantly, players at Wilfork’s position rarely receive much love from the Hall of Fame voters. Since 1996, only four pure defensive tackles have earned enshrinement: Curley Culp (Class of 2013), Warren Sapp (2013), Cortez Kennedy (2012) and John Randle (2010).
I won’t pretend to know much about Culp (sorry, Curley) but Sapp, Kennedy and Randle all were dominant interior players who posted defensive end-type sack totals, finishing their careers with 96 1/2, 58 and 137 1/2 sacks, respectively.
Which brings me to my next point: For many great D-tackles, the numbers simply aren’t there. This will be a large part of the argument against Wilfork, who tallied a mere 16 career sacks. He’s also a bit lacking in the awards department, having been selected to just one All-Pro team and five Pro Bowls. (Sapp, Kennedy and Randle combined for 13 first-team All-Pro nods, and each had at least three.)
But Wilfork’s game never was about sacks. He was the rare type of player who could — and regularly would — affect plays that he wasn’t even directly involved in, whether that meant driving one entire side of an offensive line 3 yards into a running back or bench-pressing a poor New York Jets guard to trigger the most infamous fumble return touchdown in NFL history.
That’s right: The Butt Fumble doesn’t happen without Vince Wilfork.
The day after Wilfork announced his retirement Monday, Belichick called him “a special, special player.” Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, his teammate for six seasons from 2009 to 2014, used the phrases “best I’ve seen” and “flat-out stud.”
Wilfork was all of those things. Is he Hall of Famer, too? We shall see.
Thumbnail photo via Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports Images