FOXBOROUGH — It seemed only fitting that the two longest-tenured Patriots walked up the stairs to the team’s perfectly lined practice fields for the first training camp practice together, Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork all smiles as they took those steps side by side.
They are the faces of their respective units, Brady the unquestioned leader of the offense, and Wilfork for the defense.
Even last season, as Wilfork missed the final 12 games after tearing his Achilles’ tendon against Atlanta, the five-time Pro Bowl selection was as involved as he could be, helping youngsters Joe Vellano, Chris Jones, and Sealver Siliga get ready to play, offering advice wherever he could.
It was a sign of the respect Wilfork has with coaches and teammates alike that he was allowed to travel with the Patriots despite his injury, a privilege Bill Belichick has afforded to very few players.
It remains to be seen if Wilfork will be restricted once the Patriots are in full pads on Saturday, but he has answered the first big question of his recovery just by being on the field Thursday. No setbacks, no physically unable to perform list, his age (32) and size seemingly nonfactors in his rehabilitation.
“I feel fine,” Wilfork said Thursday after the two-hour practice. “Throughout all season and just working hard, I’m pretty sure there’s going to still be some stuff that I may need to do so, so far so good. I’m not looking back. I’m looking forward. I’m just excited to be here.”
The 11-year veteran bristled at the idea that he would face any restrictions on the field.
“If I had limitations, I wouldn’t be practicing. My job is to help my teammates the best way I can, whatever that may be,” Wilfork said. “The only way for me to help my teammates is to be on the field and be healthy. Right now, I’m on the field and I’m healthy. If anything happens in the future, I can’t predict that.
“But right now my job is to help this team the best way I can and get better each day and that’s what I’m going to do.”
New England began last season with Wilfork and Tommy Kelly at defensive tackle, but Kelly was lost to injury in Week 5, leaving the Patriots highly inexperienced at the position. Without Wilfork and Kelly anchoring the middle, the defense gave up 134.1 rushing yards per game, the most for New England since 2002.
Wilfork helped where he could, though assistant coach Patrick Graham, who spent the last two seasons coaching the defensive line (he’s now in charge of the linebackers), said Wilfork’s biggest contribution may have come in the film room.
“I know for me, personally, as the D-line coach, ‘V’ was invaluable in terms of the input that he was able to give and to be around for those [younger] guys and just do a good job with them,” Graham said. “Vince has always been a guy that you can put on the tape and Vince’s presence is there, as far as the example.
“He’s always done a good job and I’ve always been appreciative of his help that he’s given me as a coach and how the players are able to go to him for advice as well.”
Vellano shined early, then ceded playing time to Siliga, who was signed to the practice squad in October and promoted to the 53-man roster before the 12th game, against Houston. Jones became a starter after Kelly’s injury, and his six sacks were second most among NFL rookies last season.
If there is a silver lining to be found in the injuries to Wilfork and Kelly, perhaps it was the experience the young players gained. Now New England has added first-round pick Dominique Easley and sixth-round pick Zach Moore to the defensive tackle group as well.
“Those guys grew a lot,” Wilfork said of last year’s newbies. “Every year we try to make a smooth transition and be able to do a really good job of teaching guys how we play, how we do things around here.
“It won’t be hard for [Easley and Moore] to catch on. They’ve been doing a really good job; haven’t had any problems out of anybody. Everybody is excited. If you stay excited, good things will happen.”
Expectations for the Patriots’ defense are high this year.
Wilfork gave a very simple answer for how to manage those expectations.
“Do your job each day. Do your job; you come to work every day to prepare, to get better each day, you’ll be fine,” he said. “Never get too high, never get too low, just manage expectations and put one foot in front of the other each day.
“Your goal is to get better. Help the team, help one another get better. That’s what we’ve been doing and we’re going to continue to do that. As long as we do that, we’ll be OK.”