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Without Vince Wilfork, what’s next step for Patriots?

03.13.14 at 3:49 pm ET

The news Thursday afternoon that Vince Wilfork has asked for his release was shocking, but not all that surprising.

In today’€™s NFL, it’€™s all about financial flexibility — the Patriots were able to create some room to go after Darrelle Revis earlier this week, and if the early reports are to be believed, Wilfork balked at the possibility of re-doing his deal, and that created a essential disconnect between the player (coming off a season-ending Achilles’ injury) and team. Providing the team goes through with Wilfork’s request, New England would be off the hook for the $11.6 million cap hit, and would save roughly $7.5 million in cap space.

The 32-year-old Wilfork occupies a unique spot in franchise history. He’€™s not the face of the franchise — like Tom Brady — but has been a bridge from the Super Bowl team of a decade ago. (If Wilfork was indeed cut, Brady would be the last player left on the roster from the Super Bowl XXXIX championship team.) He’€™s not only a borderline Hall of Famer, but he’€™s had a huge impact when it comes to leadership. In most locker rooms, the offensive guys listen to the offensive guys, the defensive guys listen to the defensive guys, and there’€™s very little crossover. Like Kevin Faulk and Junior Seau before him, Wilfork has been one of a handful of players on the New England roster have been able to garner the sort of respect on both sides of the ball — when he speaks, everyone listens. (From a leadership standpoint, more will fall to Jerod Mayo, Rob Ninkovich, Devin McCourty and the rest of the defensive veterans to try and lead the team into 2014 and beyond.)

If you’€™re an optimist, you can point to the fact that the Patriots learned to play without Wilfork this season, as the injury limited him to four games. As a result, on the current roster, the Patriots have a handful of young defensive linemen who were able to gain quality snaps last year while Wilfork was on the shelf. Chris Jones and Joe Vellano distinguished themselves early, but appeared to slow down the stretch, perhaps hitting the dreaded rookie wall. Youngster Marcus Forston also remains a possibility, and in addition, Sealver Siliga played well late in the year and into the postseason. However, it would probably be asking a lot of them to step up in 2014 and take on the kind of responsibility that Wilfork had, at least from an on-field standpoint.

There are also two other players on the roster who could emerge as key figures in the post-Wilfork era: Tommy Kelly and Armond Armstead. Kelly was a bit of a surprise last year, playing well before going down with a knee injury early in the year. He was a high-character locker room presence who relished the idea of finally getting a chance to play for a winner. While he’€™s balked at playing nose tackle in the past (he’€™s probably a little light to play the traditional NT role), he will likely figure into the mix at defensive tackle in a four-man front. The other name is Armond Armstead — the former CFL star sat out the entire 2013 season because of health issues, and while he has yet to stay on the field consistently, could be an intriguing part of the defensive puzzle for 2014.

In terms of other options, the Patriots could fill the void via free agency, or in the draft. There are a handful of possibilities out there in free agency, but few versatile defensive linemen who have experience playing multiple spots in a 3-4 and 4-3 defensive front, particularly nose tackles. That group might include (but is not limited to) B.J. Raji and Terrence Cody. For what it’s worth, there are several versatile defensive linemen in this year’s draft, including Louis Nix III from Notre Dame, Aaron Donald from Pitt and Ra’Shede Hageman from Minnesota.

But in the end, replacing Wilfork will represent a challenge. He was no longer the overly dominant player he was a few years ago, but his smarts, versatility, durability and all around knowledge of the system made him one of the fundamental elements of New England’€™s success over the last 10 years. And even with the acquisition of cornerback Darrelle Revis, it’€™s important to remember the words spoken by Belichick shortly after Wilfork went down with a season-ending Achilles’€™ injury.

“€œYou just don’€™t replace Vince Wilfork,”€ said Belichick on Oct. 2, shortly after Wilfork went down for the season. “œIt’€™s a big loss, but we’€™re just going to have to find a way to do it. That means everybody doing their job. Obviously somebody is going to have to replace him and whoever those people are, they’€™re going to have to answer the bell. But collectively as a team, we’€™re all going to have to pull together. There’€™s no one person that can replace Vince Wilfork.”

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