As of now, the Texans will be entering this season without Vince Wilfork manning the middle on defense. While Wilfork did not put up the numbers he did in New England, he still was a very productive player. His impact is seen with productivity of the players around him.
Wilfork embodied the role of a prototypical nose tackle, taking on blockers to allow his teammates to roam freely and cause havoc. In New England, the defensive scheme is never the same week to week, it is tailored to stop the opponent. This hybrid system allows certain players to excel in certain situations, sometimes that would mean Wilfork would have an added responsibility.
In Houston he took on a more traditional nose tackle role and this was most noticeable in his tackle numbers. In Wilfork’s last season in New England, he accounted for 47 total tackles. During Wilfork’s two seasons in Houston, he only made 43 total tackles. The change in defensive philosophy is the reason for the discrepancy in tangible production. As a result, his statistical numbers vary so much between New England and Houston. The other reason is playing alongside J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. As good as the players on the Patriots are, none of them have the pure athletic talent of Watt and Clowney.
Now, Houston has decided to move on form Wilfork, and they now have to rely on D.J. Reader and incoming rookie Carlos Watkins to fill the void. Reader is of relative similar size to Wilfork, while Watkins is somewhat smaller and more athletic. Wilfork is 6’2″ 325 lbs, Reader is 6’3″ and 327 lbs and Watkins 6’3″ and 309 lbs.
Reader will fill an almost exact role to Wilfork, a large bodied player absorbing blocks allowing others to make players. Watkins is able to move around the line in multiple positions and use his smaller size and athleticism to make plays on his own.
The largest void the Texans will not be able to fill is experience. Wilfork is an 11 year NFL veteran with two Super Bowl victories on his resume. Experience is not something that can be replaced, however veterans on the roster will be able to help along the way.
There is going to be some growing pains this season without Wilfork, however along the way Reader and Watkins will be able to pick up the slack. The lack of experience at the nose tackle position won’t hurt the Texans as much as other teams this season due to the version of the 3-4 defense they play. In a one gap system, the responsibilities for gap coverage are distributed evenly between the lineman and the linebackers. Therefore the lack of experience Houston has will not be as detrimental as it would to other teams. In addition to the experience on the defensive line, the linebackers will also be able to pick up the slack.
It is not going to be easy for the Texans to transition to a life without Wilfork, yet it seems like it is not going to be as tough as it could be. As a result, the front seven of the defense has the potential to be just as productive. This is especially relevant due to the experience and ability Wilfork brought to the Texans.