The unexpected rise of Matt Cassel and the Patriots' need to place the franchise tag on him may be having unintended consequences for the team's plans for the future and for prospective 2010 free agents seeking new deals such as Vince Wilfork.
Wilfork, one of the top nose tackles in the game and a pivotal piece of the Patriots' 3-4 defense, is entering the final year of the six-year deal he signed as a rookie in 2004, when the Patriots took him with the 21st overall pick. That deal averages $1.5 million per season.
He is due for a hefty raise, considering that 3-4 nose tackles Casey Hampton of the Steelers and Kris Jenkins of the Jets both made more than $5 million last season.
But whether it's because of the Patriots being consumed by the Cassel situation, or coach Bill Belichick dealing with turnover in the front office and coaching staff, or just a simple lack of interest in doing a deal, the team has not contacted Wilfork about an extension.
"Last year at this same time - that was the last time I heard from them," said Wilfork yesterday from Florida.
The 27-year-old Wilfork, who made the Pro Bowl in 2007 and this past season, wasn't making like Ty Law and accusing his coach of dishonesty or bemoaning an inability to feed his family.
He merely was being blunt about the lack of progress on a new contract that in an offseason without the Cassel saga probably would rank as one of the team's top priorities.
"The ball is not in my court right now," said Wilfork, who will carry an $800,000 base salary and a $1.44 million cap charge in 2009. "Nothing has happened. No progress has been made.
"I thought maybe there would be some sort of move forward, but everything is at a standstill. I'm sure they'll do whatever they have to do. I have that last year, and I'm preparing to play and play well. It's not going to change me. But they know the longer it takes the more it costs."
With $14.65 million dedicated to Cassel via his franchise tender and nearly a quarter of the $123 million salary cap ($29.27 million) currently devoted to two quarterbacks (Cassel and Tom Brady), the Patriots are not in an ideal position to negotiate with any of the 22 players who will be free agents after the 2009 season.
That is a group that includes Wilfork, guards Logan Mankins and Stephen Neal, defensive ends Richard Seymour and Jarvis Green, tight ends Benjamin Watson and David Thomas, linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel, running back Kevin Faulk, placekicker Stephen Gostkowski, and cornerback Ellis Hobbs.
Take the quarterbacks' combined cap hit and throw in wide receiver Randy Moss's $10.5 million charge, Seymour's $9.79 million, and the $6.4 million that linebacker Adalius Thomas is slated to count and you potentially have nearly $56 million - or 45 percent of the cap - tied up in just five players.
Although none of the team's current free agents - a group headlined by safety James Sanders and wide receiver Jabar Gaffney - figures to break the bank, it might take a trade of Cassel or Brady to free up the money to do new deals with the would-be free agents.
"I hope whatever they have going on gets cleared up sooner rather than later," Wilfork said. "I'm looking forward to a new deal, and I'm looking forward to the 2009 season. We have unfinished business as a team, and myself, I have unfinished business as an individual.
"But you know me, I'm going to play hard regardless of the situation. One thing they don't have to worry about is me preparing hard, working hard and playing my tail off, with or without a contract."
Wilfork also made it clear that he didn't begrudge Cassel for cashing in while he could.
"I'm happy for Cass," said Wilfork. "He proved a lot of critics wrong. He raised expectations throughout the year, and he deserved everything he got. I don't look at him no different. He's one of my teammates, and I'm happy for him.
"I'm very happy for a guy like that, a guy that a lot of people wrote off in the preseason. He put up numbers that a lot of the so-called 'good quarterbacks' didn't. It was a steppingstone season for him. He deserved everything he got."
Now the question is, when will Wilfork get what he deserves, and will it be from the Patriots? Or will he be the next Asante Samuel and end up in a contentious stalemate with the team and eventually play somewhere else?
For now, Wilfork will sit tight and prepare to play out the final year of his contract.
"I'm going to have to be cool with playing out the year," he said. "It seems [a new contract] hasn't happened yet. I see a lot of guys getting deals in my position. There are guys in my draft class in the last year or two who got a deal. If I don't, I'll play out the contract and see what happens."