Patriots DL Roster*: Jake Bequette, Alan Branch, Michael Buchanan, Dominique Easley, Antonio Johnson, Chandler Jones, Chris Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Zach Moore, Sealver Siliga, Joe Vellano
The news of Vince Wilfork's departure wasn't necessarily a shock to most observers, but it was nonetheless jarring to many when it actually came to pass. It was clearly a business decision, however, as New England must do what it can to be below the league-mandated salary cap by 4 p.m. EST this Tuesday, March 10.
Wilfork leaves a gaping void in the Patriots' D-line now. As we saw when Wilfork went down with an Achilles injury in 2013, New England's rush defense proved extremely vulnerable with youngsters like Vellano and Chris Jones doing their best to hold things down. Siliga provided some relief when he arrived late that year, but it's clear just how much Wilfork's presence was missed. His return in 2014 was evidence of that. Branch, a mid-season addition, also helped fortify the interior D-line in 2014.
New England tried to add depth to the position by drafting Easley with their top choice last May, but coming off a college knee injury, he was ineffective in his limited appearances as a rookie. Fellow rookie Moore showed some promise as a defensive end, but he was a game-day inactive most of the season.
Chandler Jones and Ninkovich picked up where they left off, leading the club in the pass rush department, while former third-round draft pick Bequette hung around by toiling on the practice squad all season. Thirty-year-old veteran Johnson was signed to a post-Super Bowl futures contract.
Potential Free Agents: Branch, Trent Cole, Adrian Clayborn, Nick Fairley, Stephen Paea
Jason Pierre-Paul would have been the most attractive DE free agent, but the Giants applied their franchise tag to him. Greg Hardy, were it not for his off-field behavior, would also have been a top target.
However, the next best option might be Cole, recently released by Philadelphia. Cole (32) is a durable, productive veteran whose 6-3, 270-pound size might also be attractive to Bill Belichick. Clayborn is another intriguing name, not only because of his size (6-3, 280), but also due to the fact that he's coming off a season-ending biceps injury that limited him to just one game in his fourth NFL campaign a year ago. The talented young player is exactly the kind of "value" the Patriots often covet.
As for Wilfork's spot at DT, Branch could be back, but the team could also look elsewhere.
Ndamukong Suh is clearly the most talented free agent DT, but his on-field reputation as a dirty player, plus his expectedly hefty price tag, will likely prove unattractive to the Patriots. Suh's Lions teammate Fairley is another player with on-field reputation for dirty play. However, he's also coming off an injury (knee) suffered in mid-2014, so, his cost might be more palatable for the Patriots.
Paea, meanwhile, was a 16-game starter for Chicago a year ago, and at 26 is just hitting his stride as an NFL player. He could be an interesting acquisition for New England.
Bottom Line Here: With more experience under their belts, the likes of Jones, Vellano, and Siliga might be better equipped to replace him than they were a couple of seasons ago, but the Patriots need to address their D-line situation this spring. It is perhaps their second-biggest priority this offseason.