By Bruce Allen, Patriots Daily Staff

It’s not even a question, right?

Most places I’ve looked at have signing the massive nose tackle to a long term contract the number one priority this offseason for the New England Patriots. Many, including media people, say that OBVIOUSLY the Patriots first order of business this offseason is getting this done.

But is it? And should it be?

I’ll admit, I’ve leaned towards the camp of getting him signed up long term. He’s a top performer at his position, was their best defensive player this season, has been loyal to his six-year contract, and has by all accounts been a solid citizen and generous in the community. He has endeared himself to many, and his appearance on WEEI earlier today, where he declared ““I want a long-term deal, or I want to be free” resulted in a number of people on Twitter trying to start a grass-roots campaign to get the Patriots to reward his loyalty and sign him up to the deal he is looking for.

But is it a slam-dunk no-brainer that the Patriots should just back the Brinks truck up to Wilfork’s bank and unload it there?

Well, let’s try and look at this objectively. That’s not an easy thing to do for a player as likable as Wilfork.

The Patriots surely appreciate what Wilfork brings to the team. Bill Belichick has gushed about Wilfork in the past, and particularly this season. Word is that both sides really want to get a deal done – the Patriots want to keep him, and Wilfork wants to be here – but that the sides are far, far apart on the value of the player. The uncertainly regarding the future of the CBA has been a factor as well. The Patriots signed plenty of smaller name (and size) players to extensions this season, but none of their bigger name players. They seem reluctant to lock up a player to a big contract without knowing what the rules will be in the future. In the end, this could cost them Wilfork.

Looking strictly on the field, while nose tackle is a huge part of the 3-4 defense, how good has that unit been in recent years? They’ve been OK, nothing spectacular. Has his presence single-handedly vaulted them into an elite defense? No. The Patriots won two Super Bowls before Wilfork got here, and they won their third when Wilfork was a rookie splitting time with the immortal Keith Traylor (Traylor started 10 games that season, Wilfork 6). Since that time, Wilfork has emerged as a stalwart on the defensive line, and while it is not his fault the team has not won a fourth Super Bowl championship, the fact remains that they found a way to win those Super Bowls before he got there. Is he irreplaceable?

Apparently he is replaceable on third down, as for much of his career, Wilfork has pretty much a first and second down player, meaning he in on the field for only half of the defensive snaps. This season, the Patriots experimented with putting him on end on third down at times, and he still only played in 51.8 percent of the snaps this season, according to Mike Reiss. More on that later. (NOTE: Please see the comment section below for more information and perspective on the snaps played statistic.)

The second and biggest thing to consider is the type of salary that Wilfork is likely to command. As mentioned, the uncertainty of the CBA situation is a problem here. Does Wilfork expect Albert Haynesworth-like numbers in his contract? Haynesworth’s deal is 7 years, $100 million, which is somewhat deceiving, as many contracts under the current CBA are. However, Haynesworth is guaranteed $41 million in this deal. If Wilfork is expecting that, forget it. It’s not going to happen with the Patriots.

Wilfork is 28 years old. If he wants a 6 year contract, that will take him to age 34. What’s he going to be like at that age? Ted Washington, one of Wilfork’s predecessors at nose tackle for the Patriots, was 35 when he played for the New England, and played until he was 39. Traylor was also 35 when he played for the Patriots, and played until he was 38. It’s possible Wilfork could do the same, but can we count on it? Wilfork’s tragic family history of diabetes which claimed his father at a young age is something that could become a factor for Wilfork himself.

But if Wilfork wanted a shorter term deal, maybe four years, at a somewhat reasonable rate, would the Patriots do that? I think they would, but is Wilfork going to take that? Consider what he said on WEEI in that interview this morning:

“I’m not selling my family short and definitely not selling myself short, just to stay back and stay to win and be part of a great organization,” he said. “That plays a big part in winning. Winning is a big part of sports. But a lot of teams win. A lot of teams win. We’ll see. We’ll see. Like I said, we’ll do what’s best for my family, but I would definitely not sell myself short of my ability. Not at all.”

That doesn’t sound like a guy willing to take less money to remain here with the Patriots. He’s going to try to get every dollar he can while he can still earn it. You can’t really blame him for that, but does that mean that the Patriots are obligated to, or even should, give him all that he wants?

His loyalty to the six-year contract that he signed as a rookie is admirable. The Patriots cannot make that loyalty a factor in contract negotiations. It’s not good business.

Will giving Wilfork the contract he wants prevent the Patriots from improving their defense this offseason? That’s certainly a possibility. But keep in mind also that the team needs to get a deal done with Tom Brady sometime soon as well. I’d say Brady is more of a priority than Wilfork, and everyone else on the team needs to come in behind Brady in terms of salary. You’re not going to pay Wilfork more than Brady. It’s just not happening.

Are you going to tie up your future in a guy who only plays in 50% (or even 64%) of your defensive snaps? That just doesn’t seem to make sense to me. For a franchise that places such a premium on value, that doesn’t seem like good value to me.

Are the Patriots better off with Wilfork signed long term, and mediocre pieces around him because that is all they can afford, or with a Keith Traylor type in the middle, and great linebackers and players around him? The former has never worked, while the latter has worked in the past.

Besides, it seems like half the league is going to the 3-4 defense now. It appears Seattle and Buffalo will join the ranks next season. Is it time to try something new? If the Patriots sign up Wilfork, they’re pretty much locking themselves into the 3-4 for the length of that contract. That limits your flexibility. With a lower price nose tackle, you’re not going to be forced to keep him on the field to get your money’s worth of the contract, and can perhaps do some more creative things on the defensive side of the ball.

In the end, I think both sides are going to move on. I think the Patriots attempted to plan for this with the drafting of Ron Brace and Myron Pryor last April, Brace was a huge disappointment, but has the size to become someone that can hold his own in the middle of the defense. Pryor showed some good technique, but needs to add some bulk. Albert Breer had the Patriots checking out Alabama nose tackle Terrence Cody as someone of interest as well.

Vince, you’ve been a great Patriot, and I thank you for all you’ve done for this franchise for the last six years, but I think you’ve played your last game with the Patriots.