By: Bob George/
June 05, 2009

Patriots LB Dont'a Hightower returning to practice field an encouraging sign
Why was Patriots LB Kyle Van Noy doing pushups at a bowling alley?
Patriots owner Robert Kraft owns no concerns that Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski are missing OTAs
New NFL policy lets players who don’t want to stand for anthem stay in locker room
Former Patriots rip NFL’s new anthem policy

Looks like Foxborough's no longer big enough for all three of them.

You don't have too many defensive lines in the NFL which can all brag that they are first round pedigree. You can hang colorful nicknames on them, like the Steel Curtain, the Fearsome Foursome, the Purple People Eaters, even the No-Names. But to cultivate a defensive line with all first round picks, that takes some doing.

The Patriots knew all along that this wonderful trio would have to be broken up long before it really needed to be. Even though the NFL is likely coming into an uncapped year, the Patriots will probably not shed their fiscal discipline just to keep this line intact. The Red Sox practice this sort of thing also; if they didn't, Johnny Damon, Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe would likely still be headquartered at 4 Yawkey Way.

Ignoring all pleas from Patriot fans nationwide and worldwide, Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli used the sixth pick of the 2001 draft on Georgia defensive lineman Richard Seymour, passing over Michigan's David Terrell. This was perhaps the first salvo fired from the "we really do know more than you" cannon, as Seymour developed into the finest defensive end of the 2000s while Terrell, who did pass through Patriot training camp a few years back, proved to be a major bust.

The next one to come along was Ty Warren. He was taken at 13 in the 2003 NFL Draft out of Texas A&M. Warren didn't have the hype that Seymour had, but he won the left defensive end job in his second season and has shown to be one of the most underrated defensive linemen in the NFL. He headed up a list of players in 2006 who "should have made the Pro Bowl", but has never yet played in the anticlimactic season-ending game.

In 2004, the Patriots used the 21st pick of the draft on Miami (Fla.) nose tackle Vince Wilfork. The Patriots needed to replace nose tackle Ted Washington, who after helping the Patriots win Super Bowl XXXVIII bolted to Oakland for a king's ransom. Wilfork became an important cog in the Patriot defense immediately, given the importance of the nose tackle in the 3-4 base. The Patriots brought in veteran Keith Traylor to help Wilfork learn the position, and after the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXIX in Wilfork's rookie season, Traylor stepped aside and the nose tackle's job was all Wilfork's.

With Seymour, Warren and Wilfork, you have six Super Bowl rings, six Pro Bowl selections (Seymour has five of them) and a stability which has helped mask some of the problems that have taken place among the eight players behind them. Age and attrition have bludgeoned the linebackers and secondary, but the defensive line has remained the one constant Belichick and Dean Pees can count on to come through.

Until now.

It seemed certain a few years back that Seymour would be the first one to fly the coop. In 2003, Seymour went home to South Carolina to attend the funeral of his grandfather, for which he took heat from Belichick. Seymour was pulled from the starting lineup for the December 14, 2003 game against Jacksonville for taking his leave, something that many people thought he would never forgive Belichick for. Yet in 2006, Seymour did sign a four-year extension which made him a Patriot through at least 2009.

Wilfork's rookie deal also expires after the 2009 season. Only Warren figures to stay a while longer, as he is signed through 2013. Despite 2010 possibly being an uncapped year, the Patriots have to figure out what to do with Wilfork and Seymour. The Patriots are always one of the best teams in the NFL at preparing for these sorts of things, but it's still a sticky wicket when it's finally time to take action.

The stickiest wicket of all appears to be Wilfork. He has been a holdout from the OTAs (organized team activities) thus far, but attendance at these sessions are all optional. When interviewed earlier this week by ComCast SportsNet, Wilfork did not come right out and say that he would be at the mini-camps in the next week or so, where attendance is required and fines can be levied. Wilfork wants an extension right now, but the Patriots don't seem to be budging, and the nose tackle's patience appears to be wearing thin.

Wilfork says that he wants to remain a Patriot, but he probably has memories of guys like Deion Branch fresh in his memory. Trying to force the Patriots' hand when the team has all the leverage and the player has none doesn't work. Even though Branch eventually won his liberation and moved to Seattle, the Patriots merely replaced him with Randy Moss, who has clearly given the Patriots a ton more than Branch has given Seattle. So if the Patriots play hardball with Wilfork, they still have history on their side.

The Patriots do need to ask themselves if playing hardball with Wilfork is really sound strategy. It may turn out that they win the battle but lose the war, where with Branch it was more like the other way around.

All the Patriots really need to do is the following: Decide if they will keep either Seymour or Wilfork, or will they keep both. If they keep one or the other, Wilfork likely stays because he is younger and it is much harder to replace a nose tackle, especially if the Patriots want to keep running a base 3-4. Once they decide on Wilfork, do they force him to capitulate on their terms or do they keep franchising him?

This is where the Patriots really need to think this over. Slapping the franchise tag on a player is never good business. All you get is a clubhouse cancer instead of a totally dedicated player. Even kickers (Adam Vinatieri, twice) hate the franchise tag. Were it most anywhere but nose tackle, the Patriots may cut Wilfork loose if he prices himself out of Foxborough. But the Patriots may not be able to afford this loss unless they are secretly wanting to convert to a 4-3, especially with the retirement of Tedy Bruschi likely to come about soon.

Whether Wilfork stays or leaves will likely be determined by what direction the Patriots want to go defensively beyond 2009. This may not be a position the Patriots can simply insert Plan B, though 2009 draftee Ron Brace of Boston College may have been drafted for the eventuality of Wilfork's departure. Brace may be an insurance policy if Wilfork cannot be resigned, but Wilfork is talking like he wants to break the bank and someone out there will be more than happy to open their money vaults for him. Wilfork may be greasing the skids for his departure without making it sound so obvious.

If this be the case, bringing in Brace is business as usual for the Patriots. You might say that they are "bracing" themselves for the future.