When the Minnesota Vikings started to consider Eric Wilson as part of the 53-man roster during the 2017 season, he was a backup who could pick up the pieces if needed. The Vikings have typically had some healthy and long-term linebackers: Chad Greenway, Ben Leber, Eric Kendricks. Later in Wilson’s tenure in Minnesota, he was shifted from a backup player to the starting lineup when injuries and departures left the defense in a desperate position.
Whether or not he was exactly what the Vikings wanted at the time, he was the only option that made sense. Despite Wilson putting up some relatively normal stats, his style did not transition from a backup player to a starter as well as the Vikings hoped it would.
On the one hand, Wilson brought flashy plays that drew attention to his name, like well-timed blitzes and tackles for a loss. Wilson was fun to watch. He was fast, strong, and willing to take big risks. Last year he started 15 of 16 games and had nine quarterback hits, three interceptions, and eight tackles for a loss. On the other, these same big plays were often followed by mistakes and blown coverages that hurt the team.
Now, the defense was not in the best place when he stepped into the role as the starter last year, and he was far from the worst player on that defense. The lack of a pre-season created some awkwardness; many teams were going through identity issues that stemmed from the state of the NFL and the precarious nature of the surrounding social structure. The Vikings’ front office decided to forego any contract discussions and let Wilson walk with all of this in mind.
Instead, they brought in Nick Vigil to play linebacker.
Vigil was coming off of four years with the Cincinnati Bengals, where he lined up next to veteran linebacker Vontaze Burfict (where Vigil was able to observe what player safety should and shouldn’t look like). Then he spent one nondescript year with the Los Angeles Chargers while he searched for an eventual landing spot. Minnesota’s hope for Vigil was that he could become a staple for the defense and spread out his talent through an entire game instead of just a big play here and there. Through two weeks of play, Vigil is doing precisely that.
A head-to-head comparison between Vigil and Wilson so far this year yields a similar result, as does a comparison throughout their entire careers. Both could be classified as seasoned veterans at this point, and while Vigil has started more games in his career, both have played enough that the sample size for comparison yields valid conclusions. What can be found in the stats, if you could even qualify their differences as being all that significant, is that Vigil is more prone to stability, providing more solo tackles on average throughout his career.
The critical difference between the two players is what happens when you disregard the statistics. Through two weeks with the Vikings, Vigil has already taken up defensive play-calling in the absence of Anthony Barr. Having a player who was just brought in be able to take command of a defense after just two weeks is impressive. It shows immense drive and motivation, especially given that the players he is commanding are some of the best-regarded defensive players in the NFL.
Vigil took control of the defense in Glendale. He was seen on the field pointing out weaknesses in the Arizona Cardinals’ offense and made some excellent audible adjustments. The cherry on top was the interception he ran back for a touchdown, making a highlight out of stiff-arming Rondale Moore. While both defenses were pushed back constantly in the high-scoring shootout of a game, it was fun to see Vigil developing into his position. The improvements from Week 1 to Week 2 were apparent in the comfort that Vigil seemed to play with.
Look for Vigil to take yet another step forward as the season develops. If Barr eventually is ready to return to the lineup, look for Vigil to take advantage of opposing offenses focusing on Barr and Kendricks, allowing him to blitz more freely and jump the line for some more TFLs. The team may be going through an identity crisis at the moment as they figure out how to turn 0-2 into a winning record, but they will be relying on Vigil more than planned, and he should be up to the challenge.