The New England Patriots had a glaring hole in 2013: the middle of the defense. With the loss of defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly along with middle linebacker Jerod Mayo to season-ending injuries the Patriots struggled in rush defense. Without Kelly and Wilfork manning the middle of the defensive line, the Patriots made due with undrafted rookie free agent Joe Vellano and scrap heap pick-up Chris Jones forced to step in and start.
After the Patriots defense carried them in the first quarter of the season to an undefeated start, Wilfork went down in week three and Kelly in week five. It was then that the defense began to crumble. After giving up only an average of 14 points per game in their first five games, the Patriots defense started to bend. With since-departed cornerback Aqib Talib and linebacker Jerod Mayo injured in week six against New Orleans, the floodgates opened.
In the first four games the Patriots defense allowed an average of 105 yards rushing per game: In games five through twelve the Patriots defense allowed an average of 154.75 yards rushing per game. With Vellano and Jones struggling to hold the line, the Patriots imported defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga from Philadelphia. After playing 55 snaps in his first two weeks in New England, Sopoaga played 56 snaps over the remaining seven weeks of the season and was a healthy scratch by week sixteen.
Even without Sopoaga playing the defensive line, the run defense improved over the final four games and the playoffs. In the last six games (four regular season and two playoff games) the Patriots defense held opponents to a far more respectable 110.5 yards rushing per game. While part of the reason was the opponent played (Miami, Cleveland, Baltimore and Indianapolis had weak rushing attacks), part of the reason was improved play at linebacker, and a big part of the improved rush defense was another scrap heap defensive tackle.
Signed to the practice squad two weeks after Seattle released him, Sealver Siliga was promoted to the roster after Denver gashed the defense for 280 yards rushing in week twelve. Stepping in at right defensive tackle as the starter the next week against Cleveland, Siliga proved to be a diamond in the rough.
Per ProFootballFocus in just seven games (including playoffs), Siliga had 18 tackles, 3 assists, and 17 stops. He earned a +8.6 grade including +9.5 against the run which ranked him right behind high-priced veterans Terrance Knighton and Nick Fairley despite playing less than half as many snaps. Siliga helped in pass rush as well with seven hurries, a hit, and two quarterback sacks.
Presently, the Patriots have some work to do to figure out the defensive line. Siliga appears to have an inside track on getting regular work with his strong play last season. Veteran Tommy Kelly was the Patriots most effective interior defensive lineman in the first quarter of last season and recently reworked his contract to improve his chances of remaining in New England.
Beyond those two are just question marks. The biggest question mark is veteran Vince Wilfork. A fixture for a decade in New England, Wilfork’s age (32), declining play last season before his Achilles injury (-2.6 rating per ProFootballFocus), and onerous contract ($7.5 million with an $11.6 million salary cap hit) make his return muddled. After a contentious contract negotiation after the 2009 season Wilfork ended up signing a five-year, $40 million contract with $25 million guaranteed. Now, he enters the last year of a contract that New England never planned on him receiving.
While Wilfork may want to be paid $7.5 million this year, if he is fortunate he will play for a deal for half that amount–whether in New England or elsewhere. Although New England needs depth at defensive tackle behind Siliga and Kelly, Wilfork may not be the answer in 2014. Age, injury, size and cost are working against his return to New England.
The Patriots also have last year’s emergency starters Joe Vellano and Chris Jones on the roster. While Jones showed some pass rush ability, he was a complete liability on rush defense. In fact, ProFootballFocus rated Jones as the worst against the rush and worst overall defensive tackle in the entire league. Vellano was not much better as the undersized defensive tackle showed grit and a high energy motor, but was simply overmatched and overpowered at times.
The Patriots have the components to have a strong season at defensive tackle if Kelly and Siliga hold down the spot. The Patriots should bring back Canadian Football League refugee Armond Armstead who never played a snap last season due to a mysterious infection kept him on the sidelines. Also, Marcus Fortson, who was limited to 35 snaps over three games after playing just 8 snaps in 2012 will be back but is a longshot to stick in 2014.
A return by Wilfork at a team-friendly rate is a way to help keep the defensive line strong, but seems less likely with each passing day. The Wilfork-Patriots relationship may be too damaged to repair. The NFL Draft remains an option to add a young player as the defensive tackle position is thin in free agency.
One option is raiding the Raiders again and targeting defensive tackle Pat Sims and bringing in Oakland’s replacement for Tommy Kelly in 2013. Sims came from Cincinnati to Oakland last year and showed flashes of run-stuffing ability. Former Baltimore Raven Terrence Cody may be worth a flier to see if he can regain the form that made him a second round draft pick in 2010. Veteran run stuffer Ryan Pickett is older than Wilfork and offers nothing in the pass rush. Finally, veteran big body Colin Cole may be a fit after reviving his career in 2013 in Carolina.
The Patriots need additional depth at defensive tackle no matter what they do in free agency. Drafting one or two defensive tackles would go a long way toward filling the position with an eye for the future. Even if Wilfork returns, there is a need for youth and athleticism at the defensive tackle position. Without a doubt, defensive tackle is a particular need for the New England Patriots in the off-season.