The Vince Wilfork Era in New England officially ended on Monday, as the veteran defensive tackle signed a two-year contract with the Houston Texans.
Wilfork, who was in Houston on an official visit, announced the news on his Twitter page on Monday afternoon, and the team made it official a short time later.
In his initial statement and in comments later circulated by the Texans, Wilfork said the coaching staff there made things “feel like home” for the player and his family, and it’s not hard to understand why: Romeo Crennel, his first defensive coordinator with the Patriots in his rookie season, serves the same role in Houston; more recent Patriots coaches Bill O’Brien, now the Texans’ head coach, and George Godsey, the Texans’ quarterbacks coach, are in Houston, and his former teammate Mike Vrabel (linebackers coach) is also on the staff there. He’ll also be reunited with former teammates Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer, who are expected to compete for Houston’s starting quarterback position.
Add in the chance to play with superstar defensive end J.J. Watt and last year’s first overall pick, Jadeveon Clowney, and Wilfork is in a good situation.
“Me and my family, we’re excited to be here in Houston and playing as a Houston Texan,” Wilfork said in quotes circulated by the Texans. “My goal is to help this team win as many games as possible and bring winning to this town. I think we deserve that, so that’s my No. 1 goal.”
Wilfork mentioned he wants to bring fun along with his experience.
“I look at it as a great fit. Being here with a coach that coached me as a rookie in RAC [Crennel], a coach that played with me in Vrabel, also Billy O. being there for a couple of years and Godsey,” he said. “Being able to have a chance to play with a dynamic player such as J.J. Watt, getting Clowney going and [Brian] Cushing and Jonathan Joseph and all those guys, and the offense and what they bring to the table, it’s a young, exciting team to be around.
“My goal is to just bring leadership, bring a lot of fun, and bring a lot of experience. I’m not a coach by no means, but at the same time, I’ve been on another level where I’ve won a lot of games and won Super Bowls. If guys want to know what it takes or how it feels, I’m here for that. At the same time, I think we can do a lot of damage here ourselves, especially winning ball games, and that’s the key.”
The Patriots told Wilfork this month they would not be picking up the $4 million roster bonus on his contract, making him a free agent for the first time in his career.
In a Twitter post at that time, as he did again on Monday, Wilfork thanked the Kraft family, the Patriots organization, and its fans for supporting him through 11 seasons.
“I played in four Super Bowls and won two. I’ve been very blessed and privileged to play up there and learn from the best coach that’s ever done it [Bill Belichick],” Wilfork said. “Also to play with one of the best quarterbacks that’s in the game [Tom Brady]. From my teammates, there’s nothing but love for them. They are brothers to me.
“The fans have always treated me with respect. We had a lot of fun. I had a lot of fun in New England and I’m going to cherish all of that because at the end of the day, I’ve been there for 11 years, so it’s hard to close that door on my teammates, my fans, my coaches, and the owner. That’s something that’s going to be missed.”
The 2004 first-round pick was a stalwart on the field for New England, a five-time Pro Bowler who was selected as a first- or second-team All-Pro four times. Off the field, he matured into a respected leader, serving as a team captain for several years, and more recently, as a mentor to younger players such as Sealver Siliga and Chris Jones, both of whom were thrust into larger roles when Wilfork suffered the only major injury of his career, a torn Achilles’, four games into the 2013 season.
He also was active in the community, with an annual bowling event held on the first night of the NFL Draft for his foundation, which raises money for diabetes research. Wilfork’s father, David, died of complications from the disease.
In a statement, Belichick was highly complimentary of Wilfork.
“Few players reached or will ever reach the special level of Vince Wilfork,” Belichick said. “He is a great champion and one of the classiest people I have ever been around — just a kind, genuine and giving person who was all about our team, football, winning and bringing joy to others.
“There may have never been anyone at his position with as much strength, toughness, intelligence, instinctiveness and athleticism. He is the best defensive lineman I ever coached, an all-time great Patriot whose place on our team will be missed but whose remarkable career as a Patriot will be remembered forever.”
New England is scheduled to play in Houston this season.
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The Patriots hosted wide receiver Stevie Johnson, 28, on Monday. Johnson played with the Bills for the first six seasons of his career before he was traded to the 49ers last offseason. Johnson started just one of 13 games in San Francisco and caught just 35 passes for 435 yards and three touchdowns . . . The details for Alan Branch’s contract with the Patriots were posted on Monday. It’s a two-year, $4.3 million deal with $700,000 guaranteed, though there’s an $800,000 roster bonus the team must pick up at the end of the 2015 league year to trigger the 2016 season . . . The Patriots officially announced the signing of former Bills TE Scott Chandler.