Hampton deal may guide Wilfork talks

INDIANAPOLIS -- One day after owner Robert Kraft said the New England Patriots and nose tackle Vince Wilfork were close on a contract extension, a new deal for Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton might push them even closer.

Hampton reportedly agreed to a three-year, $21 million contract with $11 million in bonuses/guarantees, a deal that helps shape the market for nose tackles who play in 3-4 defenses.

Because the responsibilities of nose tackles in 3-4 defenses are unique -- which was a hot topic at the NFL combine Thursday -- establishing a market for them can be a challenge. But Hampton's agreement provides a general neighborhood, based on current market conditions, for where the Patriots and Wilfork ultimately will be, and could accelerate the process toward consummating a deal.

The general feeling at the combine among a handful of front-office types and agents was that the agreement would strengthen the Patriots' position in negotiations with Wilfork.

Wilfork is a superior player to Hampton, and is four years younger, so his market value figures to be a bit higher, although not as high as Redskins defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who signed a monstrous deal last year that included $41 million in bonuses and guarantees.

A contract for Wilfork would likely be anywhere in the range of $8 million to $9 million per year with bonuses and guarantees topping $20 million.

Pioli checks in

Former Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli, now with the Kansas City Chiefs, was perhaps the most engaging NFL executive to answer questions from media members Thursday. He touched on a variety of topics that had ties to the Patriots. A sampling:

Can the Patriots' 3-4 defensive scheme still be successful in today's NFL? "Yes it can. Everything goes in cycles. They thought that defense was dead in '86 when the Giants won the Super Bowl, and then didn't go to the Super Bowl for two more years. And that defense didn't go to the Super Bowl from '90 to '96. You guys have run out of patience up there, haven't you?"

Thoughts on if a team can be successful without naming coordinators: "Different teams do it different ways, and I've been with a bunch of different organizations, including the Patriots, that have been successful with and without coordinators. The bottom line is that people in the locker room know who the boss is and who is making the decisions. Just because there is not a title out there for the rest of the world to see, it's never a secret to the players."

The importance of former Patriots coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel as staff members who weren't afraid to disagree with the head coach: "Absolutely, and that was something that [head coach] Todd [Haley] and I talked about and wanted to make sure we had more of. It's part of what we told them before they came here -- we want different ideas, we want to hear 'no,' there needs to be 'no.' It helps for growth. A lot of people say they want that, but not everyone wants that. Todd and I really want it, and we need it. We need to be pushed back. None of us has all the answers."

Around the AFC East

Michigan's Zoltan Mesko, who is considered one of the top-rated punters in the draft, said he was peppered with questions by Patriots special-teams coach Scott O'Brien. The Patriots don't have a punter under contract for 2010, so Mesko is a name to keep on the radar as a late-round possibility. … Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren playfully jabbed Patriots coach Bill Belichick. When a questioner asked Holmgren about Browns coach Eric Mangini's background under Belichick, he responded: "I don't blame him for that." … Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland targeted wide receiver as a position from which the team is looking for more production. … Unlike in 2007, when the Patriots were on top and then there was a large gap before the next team, Ireland believes that in 2010 it is "anybody's division." … Buffalo Bills coach Chan Gailey said offensive tackle has become a top need following the retirement of Brad Butler. … Gailey sees the Bills' switch to a 3-4 defense benefiting 2009 first-round draft choice Aaron Maybin, who had a quiet rookie campaign at defensive end in the 4-3 alignment.

Quick hits with New England ties

Linebacker Adalius Thomas, whose future with the Patriots is in question, was in town with others representing the NFL Players Association in meetings with the NFL's competition committee. … Pioli brushed off a question about a media report that the Chiefs were looking for a quarterback in the draft, saying the team has its man in former Patriot Matt Cassel, who struggled in his first season in Kansas City. … Offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga of Iowa said that Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz often uses the Patriots as an example when speaking to players. Ferentz was an assistant under Belichick with the Browns in the 1990s. … Notre Dame offensive tackle Sam Young said he watches Patriots offensive tackle Matt Light and tries to incorporate parts of his game, such as hand techniques, into his own repertoire. … Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz said former Boston College offensive lineman Gosder Cherilus, set to enter his third year, "fit everything we're looking for from a size standpoint and from a physical standpoint." But Cherilus hasn't fully emerged, in part because of knee injuries.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.