By Len Pasquarelli
Striking early to ensure the on-time arrival in training camp of a potential rookie starter, the New England Patriots on Monday reached a contract agreement with defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, the earlier of the team's two first-round draft choices.
The 21st overall selection, Wilfork is just the second first-round player to reach contract terms, joining Houston Texans linebacker Jason Babin, the 27th player chosen. The former University of Miami star is the third of the Patriots' eight choices in the 2004 draft to strike an agreement.
Still unsigned among New England's choices is fellow first-rounder Benjamin Watson, a tight end from the University of Georgia, and the final player taken in the opening stanza. Unlike most teams, which sign their later draft picks first, the Patriots have concentrated on the top of their bounty. With Wilfork and second-round defensive end Marquise Hill having agreements, the team now has deals with two of its top three picks.
Wilfork, 22, will sign a six-year deal believed to be worth about $9 million-$9.5 million in "base" numbers, but which could eventually reach about $18 million if he cashes in on so-called "escalators" in the latter years of the contract. The signing bonus is $3 million but, counting a second-tier option bonus in 2005 and a roster bonus for this season, the bonuses total nearly $6 million.
There are also guarantees on base salaries in some of the early years of the contract.
A potentially dominating inside player, Wilfork is expected to compete with veteran Keith Traylor for the starting nose tackle spot in the New England 3-4 defensive front. There is little doubt the former Hurricanes star will log considerable playing time, even if he isn't the starter, as the Patriots like to rotate their linemen.
Wilfork is another key as the Pats continue to infuse youth into their defensive line. New England has chosen defensive linemen in the first round in three of the last four drafts and now has one of the NFL's youngest, but also deepest units.
Although he didn't become a full-time starter until 2003, Wilfork was a disruptive force at Miami, appearing in 36 games in three seasons, and starting 14 of them. He finished his career with 148 tackles, including 37 ½ for losses, 14 sacks, 42 quarterback pressures, five forced fumbles and three recoveries.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.