Opposing offensive linemen didn't have to look hard to see Vince Wilfork coming at them.
It's fitting, then, that his release from the New England Patriots was the same way.
After suffering a season-ending Achilles' injury in 2013, Wilfork's recovery in 2014 was nothing short of miraculous. But the Patriots had to make a big choice for the future, and the big man was due a $4 million roster bonus if he was still on the roster on the first day of the league year (March 10) that would have triggered his contract for the next two years.
Wilfork announced that the Patriots will not be picking up the option on his contract and that he will become a free agent.
Morning guys ... Please read below this will be my only statement pic.twitter.com/gClv03hqet— Vince Wilfork (@wilfork75) March 5, 2015
Scheduled to count roughly $8.93 million against the salary cap in 2015, and $6.43 million in 2016, the decision may leave the Patriots in a tight spot at defensive tackle, but helps open up possibilities elsewhere.
Releasing Wilfork may not help right now, but the Patriots had to start prioritizing at some point, and they decided that a 34-year-old defensive tackle is less important than a 29-year-old All Pro cornerback or a 27-year-old top-flight safety.
The money they saved by releasing Wilfork will help them in their endeavor to keep both cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Devin McCourty in the fold.
Now, with $8 million more in cap space for 2015, they have a much better shot of retaining one or both their two key defensive free agents.
That's only Phase 1 of the plan. Phase 2 comes when the Patriots begin deciding whether they will look to their current roster to take his place, or try to find someone else to do the job.
Dominique Easley has the potential to be a pass-rushing maven when matched up one-on-one with guards and centers, but the Patriots 2014 first-round pick isn't a two-gapping force who can anchor like Wilfork. Chris Jones has proven that he can be a jack-of-all-trades, but primarily in a supplemental role on passing downs. Sealver Siliga is the closest thing to Wilfork on the Patriots roster, with the build (6-foot-2, 325 pounds) and the skill set to mimic Wilfork's gap-plugging ability.
What a honor it was to play next to one of the greatest d tackles to do it! @wilfork75! Super bowl brothers 4 Eva! This man changed my game!— sealver siliga (@S_Siliga) March 5, 2015
Siliga may be ready to step into a bigger role, but the Patriots will still need to add insurance in the event of an injury.
There aren't many options on the open market with regard to nose tackles; Dan Williams (Arizona Cardinals) and Barry Cofield (Washington Redskins) are the players who could most closely approximate Wilfork's space-eating role in the Patriots defense.
The draft has a few first-round prospects in Jordan Phillips (Oklahoma) and Eddie Goldman (Florida State) who could fit the bill, but with needs at guard and potentially at cornerback and/or safety, the Patriots may have to settle on a second- or third-round prospect like Marcus Hardison (Arizona State) or Carl Davis (Iowa) to fill Wilfork's void.
But the void isn't just on the field, it's in the locker room. Wilfork has been a leader since nearly the day he walked in the door in 2004. He said in the past that he knows the checks for the defensive line, the linebackers and the secondary. It's hard to replace that kind of leadership.
Losing that veteran presence only intensifies the importance of keeping McCourty, whose command of the defense — particularly of the secondary — is second only to his talent level and value within the defense.
It's obvious that the resources should be invested toward keeping either Revis or McCourty, but what's less obvious is whether the plan will work. This move creates a hole with some flux in the short term, but it also creates an opportunity for continuity in the long term.