Wilfork joining Samuel tag team?

Former teammate has been in this spot before

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / January 30, 2010

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Shortly after Vince Wilfork boarded the AFC Pro Bowl team bus after yesterday’s practice and it rolled away, the NFC pulled up at St. Thomas Aquinas High School’s practice field. One of the last players to climb off was Asante Samuel. The Eagles cornerback joked with a pair of friends, shouted to the crowd, and fidgeted with a cellphone clipped to his shorts.

Wilfork and Samuel will share the field during the NFL’s annual exhibition tomorrow. In time, they may share another distinction - being a homegrown player the Patriots have angered and alienated by designating them with the franchise tag.

Samuel, appearing in his third straight Pro Bowl, has occupied the same career crossroads Wilfork currently faces. In 2007, Samuel was a free agent who had reached a Pro Bowl level. His rookie contract had concluded, and the Patriots seemed poised to slap the franchise tag on him.

In Samuel’s case, the showdown resulted in his eventual departure and lingering animosity. Yesterday, Samuel offered a cutting perspective on how he thinks Wilfork should approach his contract situation with the Patriots.

“I don’t think they care about you, in my opinion,’’ Samuel said after practice. “They didn’t care about me. So do what’s best for you and your family.’’

While Samuel spoke up, Wilfork took a break from his verbal campaign against the franchise tag. He went on WEEI Wednesday and strongly expressed his disdain for potentially becoming the Patriots’ franchise player. Thursday, he told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that playing in Florida would be “a dream come true.’’

After playing out his first NFL contract, Wilfork, 28, wants to sign a long-term deal. Wilfork earned below market value without ruffling the Patriots, even in the final year of his six-year rookie contract, a contract length no longer permitted. Wilfork believes his “good soldier’’ tact should compel the Patriots to reciprocate. If the Patriots franchise him, Wilfork will play 2010 under a one-year contract worth $7.003 million, a figure for defensive linemen revealed yesterday by the NFL.

While stating his case, Wilfork laid bare his emotions but never outlined the precise course he would take if the Patriots franchise him. When asked yesterday if holding out would be a primary option, Wilfork said, “I don’t know. We’ll find out then. I said what I had to say, and I’m done with it. Next time I approach that is when I find out what’s going on. I had to say what I had to say, and that’s it. Whatever happens, happens.

“Next time I talk about it is when I hear something or something happens. Right now, nothing has happened. I already talked about it, so I don’t want to keep hammering at it.’’

The best recent parallel for Wilfork’s status might be Samuel. In February 2007, when Samuel was 26 and four years into his career, the Patriots hit Samuel with the franchise tag. The sides then struck a unique agreement for the 2007 season. If Samuel participated in 60 percent of the team’s defensive snaps or the Patriots won 12 games, the Patriots would not be able to franchise him again the next season.

Samuel played the 2007 season, his lasting image a leaping interception, which would have sealed Super Bowl XLII, slipping through his fingers. When he was not franchised again, Samuel signed a $56 million, six-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. Samuel received his payoff, but his dealings and negotiations with the Patriots left him with a sense of mistrust for the organization.

The Patriots kept Samuel for one year by franchising him, but they also sealed his departure because of his negative perception of how the team dealt with him. In Samuel’s view, the Patriots’ approach might also affect how future free agent targets view the team.

“From my end, it would, definitely,’’ Samuel said. “But they’ve got their own mind-set. The way they treat people is not something I agree with. But everybody has their own opinion.’’

The window for teams to designate a franchise tag begins Feb. 11 and ends Feb. 25. This weekend, Wilfork will relax in the city where he played college football. After practice finished yesterday, Wilfork posed for a picture next to a boy wearing a University of Miami jersey. The boy’s father said, “That’s one of the greatest ’Canes ever right there.’’

“Any time I come to Florida, it’s great to be down here,’’ Wilfork said.

Once the Pro Bowl and Super Bowl have concluded, Wilfork can only wait for the Patriots to decide on his future. And then the Patriots will wait for his reaction. The process might help shape how players across the league perceive the Patriots, but that does not concern Wilfork.

“I don’t know how other people are going to take it,’’ Wilfork said. “I’m not doing this for other people. I’m doing what’s best for me and my family.’’

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