FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When it comes to deciding which player the New England Patriots can least afford to lose this season, or any season, the answer is easy. Tom Brady tops the list. That’s a given.

For the sake of debate we ask: Who’s next? Which player, beyond Brady, can the Pats ill afford to have off the field for any extended period of time? Who’s next on the priority list, especially in wake of all that’s transpired during the offseason?

Is it Vince Wilfork? Aqib Talib? Danny Amendola? Chandler Jones? Stevan Ridley? Jerod Mayo? Someone else?

Rob Gronkowski is already injured and on the physically unable to perform list, so he’s off the board in this exercise. His absence might factor into the answer for some people, though.

My pick?

Wilfork immediately came to mind. It’s hard to go wrong with the defensive lineman. He’s a force. But I’m going to throw a curveball. Having watched Talib the past few weeks in training camp and how the secondary follows his lead, not to mention how the defense fell completely apart after his departure in the AFC championship game against the Baltimore Ravens, there’s a strong case to be made for the cornerback.

He may not be in the same shutdown league as Darrelle Revis (witness him getting beaten deep by speedy DeSean Jackson last Friday night in Philadelphia).

But Talib’s importance to the Patriots’ defense is significant just the same. In a short time he’s come to provide an attitude, a fearlessness and a moxie the Pats didn’t have previously. Guys feed off him. You can see it daily.

Plus, his ability to take on the top receivers with man coverage allows the Pats to do more with schemes and blitz packages. Without Talib, they play vanilla. More importantly, without him the secondary becomes a house of cards.

What’s further, Talib never allows a sub-par play to throw him off his game. He’s just as likely to come back with a big interception or pass breakup a play after getting beat — an opportunity he was not afforded Friday night, being limited to one series.

Currently there’s little or no depth at corner, especially with Alfonzo Dennard’s status still up in the air pending court appearances on a possible violation of his parole.

The Pats have enough trouble as it is defending the pass. Without Talib you might as well shove them right back down in the bottom of the league.

His value is not lost on an NFL Network analyst, Solomon Wilcots.

“During that AFC championship game, he had Anquan Boldin tied up. If he stays healthy they could have gone to the Super Bowl. The game changed,” said Wilcots, a former defensive back, of Talib in a recent conversation.

“This guy is fearless. He doesn’t twitch against the top receivers in the league. He’s got that kind of swagger. That’s why it was vitally important they brought him back. He makes their secondary totally different. He’s a special player.

“When you talk to real good scouts in the league they’ll tell you he’s the type of player who’s born, not made. You can’t make those guys. They’re just born. Period.”

OK, count another vote for Talib.

Heath Evans, a former Patriots fullback and another NFl Network analyst, cast a different vote. When posed with the question, he jumped on the Wilfork bandwagon.

Former Patriots tight end Christian Fauria also went with Wilfork, then gave an honorable mention to linebacker Rob Ninkovich.

“I’d probably lean toward Vince, being a knee-jerk reaction based on they don’t have a lot of depth on the D-line,” the WBZ analyst said.

“They have Tommy Kelly, Marcus Forston, Vince, that’s pretty much it. Tommy Kelly isn’t going to play every down so as far as stopping the run, being that cog in the middle, I’d say Vince. I can’t say anyone else.”

Pondering it a bit more, Fauria cited Ninkovich.

“He’s my favorite player on the team in terms of what he does. He can play every position on the team,” Fauria said. “He can play defensive end, he can play the mike (linebacker), he can tell everyone where to go, he can replace Mayo, he can replace (Dont’a) Hightower, he can replace (Brandon) Spikes, he can play that spot.

“If you want a different presence on the end who gets sacks He made so many plays last year, I think people kind of forget that about him. If you’re scouting this team, this is a guy I’m worried about.”

If Jones evolves into a player who registers 10-plus sacks a year, would that elevate him on the importance meter? What if Amendola recreates the Wes Welker role and catches 100 passes a year from Brady? Or how about Ridley? It would seem tough for the offense to be effective without a running game.

They’re all in the mix, and perhaps a few others. ESPN analyst Damien Woody also chose Wilfork without much hesitation but mentioned Mayo as well.

“With all the unrest on offense, the (players on) defense need to be the ones who stabilize until the offense settles in and Brady breaks in a lot of those new players,” Woody said. “So along with Vince, I’d go with Mayo right after that.”

Fauria conceded it’s a difficult question, given how well the coaching staff patches the holes when someone goes down.

Food for thought all the same.


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