|If nose tackle Vince Wilfork reaches free agency at the end of '09, he'll be in demand. (file/Barry Chin/Globe Staff)|
FOXBOROUGH - Among the many things the Patriots had to be thankful for yesterday as they took a brief timeout to celebrate Thanksgiving, nose tackle Vince Wilfork should be near the top of their list.
On a defense that has lost safety Rodney Harrison and linebacker Adalius Thomas, the 6-foot-2-inch, 325-pound Wilfork has been among the team's most reliable and redoubtable players.
Despite playing a position that calls for him to face persistent double teams, Wilfork is fourth on the team in tackles with 56, according to coaches' calculations. While the gregarious fifth-year lineman has done his usual job taking on offensive linemen, he also has taken on an increased leadership role as a defensive captain.
Wilfork has a $1.4 million base salary this season, but his contract expires at the conclusion of the 2009 season. The Patriots have a lot of big-name players whose contracts are up after 2009, including defensive end Richard Seymour, left guard Logan Mankins, and linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel, but arguably nobody would leave a bigger hole - both literally and figuratively - than Wilfork.
Nose tackle is a key component of the 3-4 scheme because the player has to be able to occu py and fight off the center and a guard on any given play.
All playoff-contending AFC teams that play the 3-4, including the Patriots' opponent Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers, have good nose tackles.
The Steelers, who have the NFL's top-rated defense, rely on 6-1, 325-pound Casey Hampton, who has made three straight Pro Bowls and four overall. The New York Jets are greatly improved because of Kris Jenkins. The Baltimore Ravens, who lost nose tackle Kelly Gregg for the season with a left knee injury, have used the gifted Haloti Ngata, a 2006 first-round pick, at the nose.
"They are getting increasingly tough to find," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. "That's why most of the people that have got a good one, they've found them in the first round of drafts."
Nowhere was Wilfork's importance more apparent than last week against the Dolphins, as he helped the Patriots hold Miami to 62 rushing yards on 19 carries.
Dolphins center Samson Satele, who has faced Jenkins, San Diego Chargers Pro Bowl nose tackle Jamal Williams, and Ngata, said Wilfork rates right at the top.
"On top, yeah, on top," said Satele, who gave the obligatory nod to teammate Jason Ferguson, a favorite of Dolphins head football honcho Bill Parcells, who had Ferguson with the Jets and Dallas Cowboys.
"I would put J-Ferg on top first; he is the one that has made me better this year. But then Vince. The guys in our [division] are the best: Kris Jenkins and [Buffalo Bills defensive tackle] Marcus Stroud and all them."
Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said it takes an unusual physical specimen to play nose tackle. You can't just be a clumsy giant. You have to be a juggernaut with balance.
"It's not just a big guy you put in there," said Ryan. "He has to control his body and somebody else's body. He has to make plays on both sides of the center, both 'A' gaps. The other thing is he's got to be smart, be able to read blocking patterns."
Satele said that is one thing that separates Wilfork.
"He's just smart," said Satele. "He knows when to fire out and when not to. He has been in the league for quite a while, so he knows some of the little tips. If the guard looks at him, he knows that he is coming his way. He is a low-center-of-gravity guy; you can't move him. I mean, you can, but you have to get lower than him."
Ryan said the best nose tackles get double-teamed and do not yield, then come off the block and make tackles or push the pocket in the passing game.
Ryan called Wilfork a good nose tackle, but favors his nose tackle, Gregg, as the best in the game when healthy. Ryan said the best true two-gap nose tackle he has seen was 365-pound Ted Washington, who played for the Patriots in 2003. "At one time it was ridiculous how good he was," said Ryan.
"Most of the good ones stay square," said Ryan. "I think when Vince makes a mistake, it's because he turns his shoulder."
The Patriots replaced Washington in 2004 by using a first-round pick on Wilfork, who has made a remarkable transition from a penetrating 4-3 defensive tackle at the University of Miami to an immutable 3-4 nose man in New England.
If a nose tackle the caliber of Wilfork, who will be 28 at the end of the 2009 season, reaches free agency, he will be in high demand.
"He's a good one. There will be a lot of takers out there if he's a free agent," said Ryan. "Everybody needs them; 3-4 nose tackles are hard to find. That's why Parcells always brings Jason Ferguson with him. And if you can two-gap, you can play in any system, too. I'd love to have [Wilfork], no question. No doubt, they're going to have to pay him."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.