INDIANAPOLIS -- The Patriots got very lucky in 2005. They were lucky because Vince Wilfork was healthy all year long and able to start 16 games. Wilfork struggled early in the year but he became a dominant force in the middle of the Patriots defensive front towards the end of the season. Because of Wilfork's improved play, nose tackle isn't being talked about as a need area this offseason but when you look at the players behind Wilfork, adding depth at defensive tackle is definitely a priority for the Patriots heading into the draft.
If Wilfork had been injured last season, the Patriots would have been forced to go with undrafted free agent Mike Wright, undersized Dan Klecko and the inexperienced Santonio Thomas in his place. Nothing against those players but it's doubtful any of them could hold up at nose tackle if they had to play the position for an extended period of time.
Haloti Ngata (Oregon), Brodrick Bunkley (Florida State) and Gabe Watson (Michigan) are considered the top players at defensive tackle by most experts in this year's draft. It's highly doubtful that any of them will wind up in New England because the team has more pressing needs address in the first round.
There are, however, a number of mid-round prospects who have the ability to play nose tackle in the 3-4 defense the Patriots may be interested in to back up Wilfork.
Miami's Orien Harris (6'2, 301 pounds) is a player who can stuff the run and also rush the quarterback. He played nose tackle when the Hurricanes went to a 3-4 defense on passing downs and Harris doesn't think he'll have any problems making the switch to a full-time nose tackle in the NFL.
"Some teams have asked me if I would be comfortable playing nose tackle," Harris said. "I told them that I can make the transition easy. If they watch me in the 3-4 defense on tape, they will see how versatile I am."
Barry Cofield (6'4, 304 pounds) out of Northwestern spoke to the Patriots at The East-West Shrine game about playing nose tackle for them. Cofield has the versatility to play both tackle and end at the pro level.
"I told them I can either play tackle or end in the 3-4," Cofield said. "I feel comfortable at both positions. I just want to get on the field and contribute so I'll play wherever they tell me to."
Cofield isn't a great pass rusher but he was stout against the run during his college career at Northwestern.
An interesting prospect is Stanford's Babatunde Oshinowo because he's played nose tackle in the Cardinal's 3-4 defense the past two seasons
Oshinowo is projected to be a third or fourth round draft pick. He hasn't talked with the Patriots at the Combine yet but met with the team at The Senior Bowl.
"I talked with the Patriots, Dolphins and some other teams during Senior Bowl week," he said. "Teams that run the 3-4 defense are showing the most interest in me right now."
Oshinowo's parents went to Oxford and he's about to graduate from Stanford, so he shouldn't have much trouble learning the Patriots playbook.
A player who sounds like he would be a perfect fit for the Patriots is LSU's Kyle Williams (6'1, 299 pounds).
Williams is a little undersized but he is a relentless player who has a motor that never stops. He plays with good technique and a mean streak on the football field. Williams won't overpower anyone but he has the intangibles the Patriots look for in a player and he was a team leader at LSU.
"I don't pass the eye test like some other guys here but when I'm on the football field I'm in my element because of my work ethic," Williams said. "I was always told growing up to work hard and give your best at everything you do and I think that's the reason why I'm here.
"I'm somebody that's going to go out and represent an organization the way they want to be represented. I'll never embarrass myself on or off the field. I want to be the kind of guy that when next year's draft comes around people say they want a player like me on their football team."
Louisville's Montavious Stanley (6'0, 313 pounds) had six sacks during his senior season but was overshadowed by his teammate Elvis Dumervil, who led the nation with 20 sacks.
Stanley is a versatile tackle who played in both the 4-3 and 3-4 defenses while at Louisville. He excels at stuffing the run even though he was often double-teamed in college.
"Yes, I was double-teamed a lot in college but I got used to it because I knew it was coming," Stanley said. "I feel comfortable playing nose tackle and I've been letting teams know that. I actually prefer playing nose tackle because it's a shorter route to the quarterback."
Stanley said he is receiving a lot of positive feedback from the teams he's talked to at the Combine.
"Teams like the way I redirect and chase the ball carrier," he said. "They also like the way I rush the passer from the inside."
Other defensive tackles who have experience playing in the 3-4 and could draw interest from the Patriots are Claude Wroten (LSU), Rodrique Wright (Texas) and Dusty Dvoracek (Oklahoma).
If Wilfork plays like he did over the second half of the 2005 season, he could become a Pro Bowl tackle. However, if the Patriots go into next season without more viable options at nose tackle, they could be in big trouble if Wilfork goes down. There are a lot of mid-round defensive tackle prospects who can be effective in the 3-4, so it won't be a surprise if the Patriots select one of them to add depth behind Wilfork at the nose tackle position.