After mincing words at his Monday morning press conference, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick all but verified in an afternoon radio interview that nose tackle Vince Wilfork is out, reportedly with an Achilles injury and probably for the season.
"It doesn't look too good for Vince," Belichick said Monday on WEEI radio. "I think he's got a pretty serious injury, and it's probably unlikely that he'll be able to play again this year."
Numerous media, led by the Boston Globe, reported early Monday that Wilfork tore his right Achilles tendon Sunday night in the Patriots' 30-23 win over the Atlanta Falcons and that he is probably out of the season. According to USA Today, an MRI exam confirmed the diagnosis of a torn tendon.
Wilfork went down awkwardly in the first quarter of the game, and explanations of the injury were still being handled awkwardly Monday morning when Belichick sidestepped questions and implied he did not yet know details.
"We'll just have to see how things turn out here," Belichick said. "But he's an outstanding player, we all know that. He gives us great leadership, and he's a strong contributor on and off the field and in the locker room and everything else. We'll just have to see how things come together for him. ... Obviously if he's not there, it will mean everybody having to pull a little bit more weight on their end."
However, as the press conference continued, it was obvious Belichick was aware that Wilfork's season was in jeopardy as the coach discussed the abilities of potential replacements in depth.
Still, Wilfork isn't a player who can be replaced easily. This is a major hit to the Patriots' defense.
Wilfork, listed at 6-foot-2, 325 pounds, dominates the middle of the defense, allowing linebackers to run freely to their targets. Wilfork has been a force for the Patriots since they drafted him in the first round (21st overall) out of Miami in 2004. Since then, he was selected to the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro teams five times, including last season.
Behind Wilfork on the depth chart are veteran Tommy Kelly, who can start at end or tackle and who was a standout with the Oakland Raiders for most of his previous eight seasons; Joe Vellano, a rookie free agent from Maryland who played in the season's first four games; and Chris Jones, a sixth-round draft pick this year by Houston who was cut by the Texans and then by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before the Patriots signed him off waivers.
While Kelly's abilities as a journeyman are above average and well known, the two rookies need some introduction. Both played after Wilfork went out Sunday.
Belichick on Vellano: "Joe's a hard-working kid. He was a productive player in college. He played a lot of spots at Maryland. He played end, he played tackle, he played some on the nose. He's got good instincts, kind of has a nose for the ball, good feel for what's going on. He's really worked hard to first come in as an undrafted player and earn a spot on the roster. He had an opportunity to get some playing time as we went through the preseason, and he took advantage of those opportunities. He made a few plays, had some production. That led to a little bit more opportunity.
"There's a lot of things that's he's improved in in terms of technique and recognition and reaction. He's making progress. He works hard every day. He's the first one on and last one off the field or close to it, puts in a lot of extra time, tries to get better at the things he needs to work on, and that's helped him."
Belichick on Jones: "This was the first game he was active for us. He's had a couple of weeks of practice, a lot of meetings with coach (Patrick) Graham, extra work on the field before and after practice, especially after practice, one on one and different group drills that we do. I think he's getting a better familiarity with our system and our communication, the techniques that we play. He did some of those in Houston, where he played both nose and end in a 3-4 scheme. ...
"Overall he's getting familiar with what we do. Our calls, his assignments, block reaction, all those kind of things have been better over the past couple of weeks, and he was active for the game. He had an opportunity to play some last night. Hopefully he can build on that."