June 17, 2015

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) For a day, at least, Vince Wilfork was with the Patriots again, to collect a Super Bowl ring at the home of team owner Robert Kraft.

His presence at the celebration served as an immediate reminder that the leader won't be in Foxborough this coming season for the first time in a long time.

The five-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman who played 11 seasons with New England and won two Super Bowls is shifting to the Houston Texans, playing alongside J.J. Watt.

''Yeah, that's the way the cookie crumbles -- especially in this game where the next man is always up,'' fellow tackle Alan Branch said Wednesday, as the Patriots completed Day 2 of their three-day minicamp. ''Big V was awesome. He was a big, big deal for the team, the city and everything to do with the Patriots,'' defensive tackle Alan Branch said Wednesday as the Patriots finished the second day of a three-day minicamp. ''He was a great guy and a great leader, but ... it's next man up and that's always the mentality of a football player.''

There is no shortage of candidates to fill the void. Branch, signed to a new two-year deal, is in the mix but not a shoo-in. Two top draft picks - Dominque Easley and Malcom Brown - both play the position, Easley coming back from knee surgery that shortened his rookie season.

''I don't feel like I'm where I need to be right now, but I feel like I'm going to get there,'' said Easley, who played in 11 games and had just 10 tackles before going down with the injury.

Asked about the difference on the field with Wilfork gone, Branch smiled and said: ''There's not another guy as big as me right next to me right now.''

Brown, who came from Texas, is 6-2 and 320 pounds, five pounds lighter than Wilfork's listed weight.

''I'm not here to replace anybody,'' Brown said. ''Whatever role the coaches give me, I'm going to take that role and I'm going to play my best at it.''

Wilfork played in 177 games with the Patriots, starting 19 games in the postseason. His absence means the defensive line needs to find cohesion again.

''The best part about this is you get to bond on and off the field,'' said Easley, who says he's happy to be back on the field because there's no other profession like playing in the NFL.

Easley said he's more comfortable entering his second season than he was as a rookie.

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NOTES: Patriots coach Bill Belichick, asked about Wednesday's spirited practice (no pads), which included some jostling among players, said, ''Yeah, we don't really need that. We're just trying to teach things. The competition will start in training camp. There will be plenty of it there. If these guys want to get after it and hit somebody, there will be plenty of chances in training camp - more than they want.'' ... Defensive end Rob Ninkovich will drive the pace car for next month's NH 301 NASCAR Spring & Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Last July, teammate Julian Edelman did the same thing for the Sprint Cup race at the same track. ... The Gillette Stadium field was flooded with 7,500 tons of dirt Wednesday in preparation for a monster truck event on Saturday.

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