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Patriots could target Louis Nix to replace Vince Wilfork

We're all used to some eyebrow-raising moves being made at this point in the NFL offseason, but that doesn't mean we're prepared for all of them. The latest shocker happened Thursday afternoon when NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported that defensive tackle Vince Wilfork asked the New England Patriots for his release.

A key cog in Bill Belichick's defense for a decade, the absence of Wilfork from the team in 2014 could force them to find his replacement early in the NFL draft. Pre-free-agency mock drafts have focused on the Patriots looking at tight ends or a pass rusher, but the eventual release of the former Pro Bowler could force the team to pick a defensive tackle in the first round for the first time since Wilfork was the selection in 2004.

NFL Media analyst Bucky Brooks has the team selecting Minnesota's Ra'shede Hageman at No. 29 in his latest mock draft, but that is likely to change in the next edition with talk heating up that the team could target Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix III instead.

"He should be available when the Patriots pick. Nose tackles aren't top priorities," Brooks said of Nix. "Makes a lot of sense there. He's a Wilfork clone."

The 6-foot-2, 331-pound Nix was a dominant force for the Irish defense and could fill Wilfork's role with ease as a run-stuffing option in the New England defensive line rotation. His stock took a step back last season at Notre Dame due to injuries, but he's ranked as analyst Mike Mayock's third-best defensive tackle in the draft. Nix is still trying to show he's fully healthy after having arthroscopic surgery on his knee in November and could improve on his NFL Scouting Combine numbers at the Irish's pro day on March 20.

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Nicknamed "Irish Chocolate" with a humorous personality to match, Nix could also fill in nicely as a colorful addition to the Patriots' locker room.

Hageman is a slightly taller, more athletic option in the middle for New England at 6-foot-6, 310 pounds. Though he's more raw than Nix, there's plenty of upside Belichick could tap into with the former Gophers star.

It's also possible the team could move up and target Bednarik Award winner Aaron Donald in the middle of the first round, but that seems unlikely given what the team would have to give up in one of the deepest drafts in recent memory.

Regardless of the direction the Patriots take between now and early May, it's clear that Wilfork's potential release is yet another example of a team's needs changing early on in the draft thanks to the salary cap and free agency.

Follow Bryan Fischer on Twitter @BryanDFischer .

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