We continue our Secret Superstars series with a look at the New England Patriots. So far, the Super Bowl champions have endured one of their toughest offseasons in recent memory both on and off the field. Cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, catalysts for the defensive improvement that finally got the Patriots over the hump for their fourth championship, are gone. And quarterback Tom Brady, who normally can absolve the defense during struggles or transitions won’t be available for the first four games of the season.
But literally the biggest shoes to fill are those of departed nose tackle Vince Wilfork, the steadying force of the defensive interior for the last decade. Some might look to consecutive first-round draft picks Dominique Easley and Malcom Brown as the men for the job, but right now it is undrafted secret superstar Sealver Siliga that is ready for the role.
Searching for a Breakthrough
Siliga played college football at Utah. After his junior year, in which he was a team captain, he entered the 2011 NFL draft. Scouts viewed him as a competent run defender and praised his motor, but his perceived lack of explosiveness and pass rushing ability caused him to go undrafted.
This started a two-year period where he bounced from San Francisco to Denver to Seattle before landing in New England midway through the 2013 season. At the time, the Patriots were actively looking for defensive line help as starters Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly had been lost for the season leaving New England with one of the worst run defenses in the league
Setting the scene for Siliga’s emergence
Siliga was signed to the practice squad on October 23rd, but still had to wait a month to be given an opportunity as just six days later the team traded for veteran Isaac Sopoaga. However, it quickly became apparent Sopoaga wasn’t the answer as he accumulated a -6.0 grade in just 120 snaps.
Otherwise, for their defensive interior the Patriots were relying almost exclusively on undrafted rookie Joe Vellano and Chris Jones, a sixth-round pick of the Texans that year that hadn’t even joined the Patriots until after the season started. The team was so thin on depth that the six weeks before Siliga’s emergence saw an overworked Jones play an incredible 450 out of 463 defensive snaps for a -21.0 grade.
This all culminated in a disastrous performance for the run defense against Denver which saw 280 yards surrendered on the ground. Three days later Siliga was promoted to the active roster.
Seizing a Role in New England
Siliga took advantage of his opportunity quickly. In just 12 snaps of run defense in his first game against Houston, Siliga came up with a pair of run stops. He would go on to have 15 more Run Stops over the next six games including the playoffs on his way to a +7.1 run defense grade for the season – a stark contrast to the cumulative -45.0 posted by the rest of the Patriots' defensive interior. And among defensive tackles that played at least 25% of snaps Siliga’s Run Stop Percentage of 10.5 would have been seventh-best in the league.
Siliga impressed the coaching staff enough during his brief stint that his roster spot was secured despite missing almost all of the next training camp and preseason with a hand injury. Veteran Tommy Kelly was waived the day before Siliga returned to practice, showing the coaching staff was still confident in entering the season with him as the starter next to Wilfork.
But Siliga’s emergence was delayed once more as a foot injury suffered early against Oakland in Week 3 sidelined him for the next eight weeks as the Patriots placed him on short term IR. In a showing eerily similar to his 2013 season Siliga was in the rotation for just the last seven games of the season including the playoffs. And once again his Run Stop Percentage was impressive among players that played at least 25% of snaps – this time second-best in the league at 12.1.
Furthermore, well having 11 hurries, two hits, and five sacks in 228 pass rush attempts over the past two seasons aren’t amazing numbers they show that Siliga is more than just the pure run stuffer he was advertised as coming out of college. His 7.6 Pass Rushing Productivity score, if extended over last season, would have tied him for the 10th-best rate at his position and shows he is plenty capable of being a three-down player.
A Bright Future Ahead
Having twice shown that he can be quite an effective player for half a season the next step for Siliga is to sustain his performance over a full season. And with Wilfork gone the Patriots more than ever will be counting on him to do so. The honeymoon period of being a surprisingly effective player is over, now Siliga will be counted on to perform consistently and lead a defensive interior that is comprised completely of young or unknown players. But if his past performances are any indication of the future, there is at least one major question of the Patriots' defense that already has an answer.