After Wilfork injury, young DTs in spotlight

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- From the first day of training camp up to the fourth game of the regular season, little media attention has been paid to rookie defensive tackle Joe Vellano and first-year defensive tackle Marcus Forston.

Likewise, the Patriots claimed rookie defensive tackle Chris Jones on waivers on Sept. 11, and there was little dissection and analysis of the move. It mostly flew under the radar.

Now everything has changed.

In a ripple effect created by defensive tackle Vince Wilfork’s season-ending Achilles injury, all three players drew large media crowds in the locker room Wednesday. Along with veteran Tommy Kelly and practice squad rookie A.J. Francis, they are the answer to the question many are asking: “Who steps in to help fill the void?”

For Vellano, who projects to start alongside Kelly, the plan is not to waver in his hard-working approach.

"Stay on the gas, really," he said.

That's what Vellano has done since arriving in New England as an undrafted free agent out of Maryland on May 3. Earlier in the week, Patriots coach Bill Belichick complimented him, while also sharing insight on what drew the team to Jones to claim him on waivers.

Vellano and Jones might have been considered long shots to make the initial 53-man roster two months ago, but now they’re front and center as the Patriots prepare for Sunday’s road game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Meanwhile, Forston or Francis figure to be promoted to the active roster by Sunday once the Patriots officially place Wilfork on season-ending injured reserve.

Jones, a sixth-round draft choice of the Texans out of Bowling Green, figures the Bengals will attempt to exploit Wilfork’s absence.

“I think when people look at us, Cincinnati, they’re probably going to try to run the ball on us a little more,” said Jones, who played end and tackle in Bowling Green’s 4-3 defense, and the same positions in the Texans’ 3-4 defense in training camp.

On Sunday night in Atlanta, the 6-foot-1, 309-pound Jones was bumped up to the No. 3 spot on the D-tackle depth chart after Wilfork’s injury, and played 19 snaps. The speed of the game was an adjustment.

“I was a little nervous at first, and that kind of made things go faster. So I just had to slow down and I got the hang of it. I feel like it can be a lot slower for Cincinnati for me,” he said.

Like Jones, Vellano might be considered undersized by NFL and Patriots standards at 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds, but he showed with a third-quarter sack of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan on Sunday night that size isn't everything. "You have be a technician in there," he said.

All three players discussed how Wilfork helped them as players.

"His knowledge of the game, the level that he's done it, it's very hard to match," Vellano said. "He doesn't give you everything because he doesn't want to bog you down. So you're trying to pick up a tip here and there, a technique here and there, and the locker-room presence and what he gives in our building, you couldn't ask for a better guy."

“Vince is a great leader and a great football player,” added Jones. “He’ll take me to the side. He was one of the first guys to come up to me and talk to me, and introduce himself. Great guy, he taught me a lot; I learned a lot from just watching him.”

“Just changed my mindset when I came here,” Forston echoed. “Learned how to be a professional and doing things the right way and controlling what I can control. Sometimes as players we get caught up in trying to worry about things we can't control."