Following the 34-20 win over the Detroit Lions, Eric Kendricks effusively praised Eric Wilson. “I don’t know that anyone’s playing at a higher level than Eric Wilson right now,” Kendricks said. “That man is a walking turnover.”
To date, Wilson has intercepted three passes, recovered two fumbles, and forced one himself. Not every entity agrees with Kendricks’ assessment, however. PFF, for example, has graded Wilson as the 25th-best off-ball linebacker in the game, smack in the middle of 50 qualifying players. Arif Hasan has also expressed concern, noting that Wilson is exceptionally poor in run defense.
This is an important thing to reconcile. With Anthony Barr on IR with a torn pectoral, this is Wilson’s chance to earn a starting job. If he can play well enough to render Barr expendable, the Vikings could save over $7M in cap space next year by cutting him, and around twice that in future years. But they shouldn’t cut or trade Barr just to save the money if Wilson’s play isn’t up to par.
Wilson has played 534 snaps on defense to date and created a turnover on only six of them. On the other 528, there are some issues in his play that must be corrected if Wilson is to be a long-term starter on the Minnesota Vikings’ defense.
In coverage, Wilson has played very well. He has allowed the sixth fewest yards per cover snap in the league, and the lowest passer rating when targeted (largely thanks to the three picks). His coverage grade from PFF is only a 63.8, which is good-not-great. Part of this is due to plays like this, where Wilson doesn’t earn 100% of the interception. He has the wherewithal to snatch the ball, but doesn’t necessarily beat anyone in coverage. He’s just in the right place at the right time.
The same concept applies to the two fumbles he recovered that someone else forced. But his coverage isn’t the issue: Even the most harsh evaluator would concede that Wilson is a starting caliber linebacker in coverage. It should be noted that Barr has a unique impact on the pass rush that Wilson cannot replicate, and it would require more improvement elsewhere to counteract.
It’s the run game that is his real hurdle.
Wilson is a liability in the run game. This isn’t surprising, since Wilson converted to linebacker in college from safety. As such, he plays smaller than the ideal linebacker. Unfortunately, this isn’t a secret, and teams can tailor their plans to attack it. Here’s one such example (sound on):
Barr, four inches taller and 26 pounds heavier, doesn’t invite such exploits. But beyond physical capability, Wilson has a much more glaring issue. In run defense, you have to process things very quickly. At safety, you get more time to watch plays develop before reacting. At linebacker, offenses are trying to set up their creases and seams before you can process it. Wilson has been incredibly indecisive in run defense, allowing chunk plays. Here are two examples:
Sometimes some simple deception can run Wilson out of position. Here, an option play catches Wilson watching the linemen instead of the ballcarriers. He steps out of position, and to get back in position, he needs to go through Laremy Tunsil.
To make matters worse, Wilson’s next best option is as a sub-package linebacker. That means he’d only take the field in situations that call for three linebackers. Those are typically against two-tight end and two-running back packages and involve vastly more run defense than pass defense. Many of the passing downs in those situations would include play-action, stressing his processing speed even further. If Wilson has a place on defense, it may be as a sub-package nickel linebacker for a team looking for more rotation at the position than the Vikings.
Wilson’s disruptions shouldn’t be discounted. The other two interceptions are very good plays in coverage that add to his long-term outlook. But if defenses can predictably abuse your backup linebacker, you shouldn’t make him the starting linebacker. Even if it saves you a buck or two.