The New England Patriots have had recent discussions with representatives for defensive tackle Vince Wilfork about altering Wilfork's contract, according to sources familiar with the talks.
Left hanging in the balance is one mammoth question: If an agreement can't be reached, would the Patriots really consider cutting Wilfork?
It's hard to believe the Patriots would do so given everything Wilfork has meant to the franchise on and off the field, but the simple fact they've approached him about the contract puts the possibility in play -- unless it's just one 325-pound-sized bluff.
Wilfork is due to earn $7.5 million in base salary in 2014, the final year of his deal. His salary-cap charge is a hefty $11.6 million. He turns 33 in November and is coming off a torn Achilles injury that ended his 2013 season after four games.
Meanwhile, the Patriots can absorb the salary, as they aren't snug to the salary cap like the Pittsburgh Steelers or Dallas Cowboys, both of whom recently restructured and extended contracts because they needed the space. So New England's hand isn't forced. But every bit of salary-cap space helps when building a roster, and Wilfork could provide a significant amount of it by reworking his deal.
Those are the main dynamics in play, and, as former Patriots left tackle Matt Light once said about signing his contract as an unrestricted free agent to play one more season in 2011, it can be complicated.
I see some similarities between what Light went through that year and what is currently happening with Wilfork.
In one respect, you have a first-class, family-type-but-hard-driving environment that you've been an integral part of creating and sustaining for more than a decade. In another respect, there is the team's cut-throat, no-emotions-at-the-negotiating-table approach that could chew up anyone, including a team leader and captain such as Wilfork.
Wilfork, who first joined the Patriots in 2004, surely knows this by now. There is no shortage of examples, with perhaps the one hitting closest to Wilfork coming in 2009, when one of his on-field mentors, Richard Seymour, was surprisingly traded to the Oakland Raiders.
Then there was Wilfork's own struggle with the Patriots in the contract negotiation that ultimately produced a five-year, $40 million extension in 2010. Based on how hard Wilfork fought for his current contract and how long it took to consummate, it's understandable that he would currently be reluctant to provide any concessions.
At the same time, he's coming off a torn Achilles, wasn't playing at his trademark All-Pro level in the three games before the injury and has now graduated into the NFL's version of senior citizen status.
With that, perhaps the sides will both view things through the same big-picture lens and strike a compromise -- something like Wilfork getting his $7.5 million in the form of a bonus while adding a year or two on his deal at significantly lower base salaries so the Patriots could spread the money out from a salary-cap standpoint.
A win-win situation for all?
One could envision the Patriots selling that line of thinking, but no player wants to sell himself short, and that's probably what Wilfork and cool-headed agent Kennard McGuire have been analyzing since the Patriots first approached them in what have been described by sources as conciliatory talks.
If Wilfork were ultimately to balk at altering his contract, assuming the risk that the Patriots would follow through on the possibility of cutting him despite facing a potential public backlash, what type of deal could he receive on the open market? And how important is it to Wilfork, and his wife/business partner Bianca, that he finish his career with the Patriots?
Endings with franchise cornerstone players can be tricky, and that's what both sides are currently navigating.
It worked out well for Light, who had a memorable retirement ceremony at the Patriots Hall of Fame and later returned for an in-season night dedicated to his career accomplishments -- things normally reserved for lifetime Patriots.
Will the same happen for Wilfork?
It's complicated. It often is.