Why Vince Wilfork is so hard to replace

Once a training camp, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick throws his team a bone, metaphorically speaking.

It usually takes place after a morning practice, often on a Saturday, and the circumstances are these: If a player of his choosing -- typically a lineman -- can catch a punt, the team will have the afternoon and evening off from meetings. Six to eight extra hours of freedom may not seem like much, but during training camp, every spare minute counts.

Forgive us for not recalling the year, but one fair-catch attempt will forever be remembered. Belichick tabbed nose tackle Vince Wilfork -- all 325-plus pounds of him -- to catch a punt (in the air, of course) with a night off on the line. But there was a catch to the catch: Wilfork had to do so with a ball in one hand, allowing him just one free hand to make the catch.

As the punt soared into the air, spiraling down the field, Wilfork gently glided laterally, lining his frame up under the punt. Just seconds later, the arcing football landed in his free arm, almost as if Velcro were affixed to both the ball and his forearm.

For a moment, Wilfork could have been mistaken for his pint-sized teammate and master ball handler Kevin Faulk, a regular punt returner.

The point of this vignette is that it illustrates Wilfork’s rare athleticism for a man of his stature, proof that men who stand 6-foot-2 and well over 300 pounds can be exceptional athletes, not merely human mountains.

But not all defensive tackles have Wilfork’s movement skills. In fact, maybe a handful of others around the league do.

And that is -- at least in part -- what makes Wilfork such an invaluable member of the Patriots' defense. It’s the ability to align in a variety of spots on the defensive line, the quickness and agility to disrupt as a pass-rusher and, yes, the hands to make a play on the ball as a pass defender, as we saw against the Chargers back in 2011, when he nearly returned an interception for a score.

Three-down defensive linemen are hard to find, especially among interior defensive tackles.

Vince Wilfork fits the bill.

When the Patriots opt to put Wilfork on the injured reserve list -- which looks like a certainty at this point, after he had surgery Tuesday to repair a torn Achilles tendon -- a key cog in their defensive wheel will be done for the season.

And we haven’t even talked about Wilfork’s contributions against the run. The Patriots don’t always play three-man fronts. In fact, they often align with four men at the line of scrimmage. But when Wilfork was selected by the Pats in the 2004 draft's first round, he provided the team a refined and ready-made nose tackle to anchor the defense.

In the Patriots' two-gap system, a defensive lineman is called upon to engage an opposing offensive lineman, lock his arms out to gain leverage, and be prepared to move laterally with the flow of a run. If a running back tries to squirt through one of the two gaps the defensive lineman is controlling, it’s up to him to shed the block and make a tackle.

That’s not easy. It’s an arduous task that requires unique skills. And yet, on virtually every play, the Patriots rely on Wilfork to man this task at a dominant level. A look at the numbers affirms his importance: According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Patriots in the past five seasons have allowed 4.1 yards per rush with Wilfork on the field, ninth-best in the NFL. When Wilfork was off the field, the Patriots ranked last in yards per rush allowed (5.0).