NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
The date was April 27, 2012. The scene was New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. The event was Day 2 of the annual NFL draft. And the pick at No. 48 overall was in for the New England Patriots.
League commissioner Roger Goodell introduced legendary Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown to announce the team’s selection. Brown did just that.
“With the 48th pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the New England Patriots select Tavon Wilson, safety from Illinois.”
Crickets, followed by confused cheers erupted in the audience. The majority had no idea who the 22-year-old Fightin’ Illini defensive back was.
“Now that’s one of the bigger shocks to me so far,” said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock.
Wilson was not invited the NFL Scouting Combine. Nor did he play in any all-star games. Many evaluators had over 20 safeties ranked ahead of him. He was regarded as a late-rounder or undrafted free agent. He was not seen as a top-50 draft choice.
But as we all know, the 6’0”, 210 cornerback, free safety and special teamer was a second-round pick in the eyes of head coach Bill Belichick. And for all intents and purposes, he played like one during his first season in Foxboro.
Wilson’s rookie campaign consisted of four starts in 16 games. He amassed 41 tackles, four interceptions for 87 return yards, two fumble recoveries and six pass deflections. Not bad at all from a production standpoint. Wilson’s cumulative interceptions and fumble recoveries were tops among all rookie safeties.
By year’s end, Wilson had participated in 43 percent of defensive snaps, according to Football Outsiders. But despite seeing some starting work due to injuries, Wilson’s true niche was found as the team’s “Money” defensive back — covering tight ends and halfbacks — in dime packages.
That said, New England didn’t select Wilson at pick 48 to be a sixth defensive back; New England selected Wilson at pick 48 to be an eventual full-time starter.
So how did he fare when given the nod at strong safety over the injured Steve Gregory in 2012? Is that where his long-term fit with the Patriots lies? To get a better feel for his current and future potential, I re-watched Wilson’s four starts from last October and noted some takeaways.
Week 5 versus Denver Broncos — 10 Tackles
– In deep shell, but changes field to run down tight end Joel Dreessen in the flat.
– Bites on underneath route in seam, which allows wide receiver Demaryius Thomas to beat single-man coverage over top for a big gain. But cornerback Sterling Moore forces fumble.
– Comes up from coverage to halt a Willis McGahee run.
– Looks comfortable lined up as the single-high safety, chasing down ball-carrier.
– Isn’t fooled by a collision of two receivers’ routes, pursues Eric Decker for short gain in flat.
– Hesitates on play-action fake out of shotgun, which alleviates Brandon Stokely to catch a touchdown on a double-move corner route over the middle.
Week 6 versus Seattle Seahawks — Tackle, Pass Breakup
– Mismatch over top allows Sidney Rice to reel in a sizeable gain on a post route down right sideline.
– Chung gets the work in a lot of single-high looks.
– Drops back, favoring the right side of field before realizing Golden Tate is against single coverage down left. Pass falls incomplete.
– Dropped back in cover-two, makes a lunging tackle on Leon Washington after a screen pass.
– Quarterback Russell Wilson opts not to throw down left sideline when New England’s Wilson is in man coverage.
– Drops down to cover the slot.
– Jumps up and bats down 50-50 ball intended for Ben Obomanu deep middle.
– Gets caught in between routes on play-action fake. Rice cuts inside his right shoulder, Wilson can’t recover and Nate Ebner can’t help out over top. The play results in a pivotal 46-yard touchdown.
Week 7 versus New York Jets — Three Tackles
– Jeremy Kerley jumps in front of Wilson on a corner route, securing a 24-yard gain down middle.
– Walks down to play press coverage as the right cornerback.
– Makes a nice wrap-up tackle on kick returner Joe McKnight
– Gets beat on a double-move dig route, as tight end Dustin Keller slips underneath him for a touchdown catch.
– Standup up next to line of scrimmage, turns the corner around the right tackle and tight end, holding the halfback to a one-yard gain.
– Attacks the flats to bring down Shonn Greene on a halfback check-down.
Week 8 versus St. Louis Rams — Three Tackles, Interception, Pass Breakup
– Chris Givens runs a fly route, shifting outside into inside, which causes Wilson to cheat towards the center of the field. As a result, Givens makes a 50-yard touchdown catch behind Wilson and the helping McCourty.
– Runs downhill to bring down an elusive Austin Pettis, who managed to evade multiple tackles.
– Pettis slips out to the flats and is chased down again for a short one-yard gain.
– Makes a from-behind tackle on halfback Daryl Richardson.
– Backpedals deep into the end zone, as backup quarterback Kellen Clemens pump fakes his throw, and passes toward wideout Brian Quick. Wilson jumps Quick’s comeback route and intercepts the pass down the right sideline for a 45 yard gain.
While Wilson’s versatility is great, the future of Patriots’ secondary largely hinges on whether or he is able to secure the starting job at strong safety. Devin McCourty needs a running mate in the middle of the field, and it’s up to Wilson to be that guy. If the defense plays largely out of a cover-two scheme, then that only increases his odds.
Wilson is tailored to play deep, although his first NFL season did come with some coverage miscues. Per Pro Football Focus’s premium statistics, Wilson allowed one reception every 12.5 cover snaps and .94 yards per cover snap. To put some perspective in those numbers, McCourty allowed just five receptions in 307 cover snaps.
Wilson’s first NFL season can be called success. He’s a playmaker. And a lot of his mistakes seem fixable with experience. He doesn’t, however, have time to rest on his laurels with new viable candidates in the fold at Gillette.
New England’s acquisition of longtime Arizona Cardinal Pro Bowler Adrian Wilson was not just due diligence. Belichick and Co. obviously believe that the 33-year-old could start this fall, or that he could at least serve as a second “linebacker” in sub packages and a mentor to the younger Wilson. A giant at 6’3”, 230 pounds, Wilson is unlike anything New England’s defensive backfield has ever seen before. Based on early reports, the veteran is getting a lot of work at Patriots OTAs, leading the youngsters by example.
But aside from the older Wilson — as well as the incumbent Gregory — there’s also surprise third-round rookie draft pick Duron Harmon, who could be in line to seize some work in a similar capacity to what No. 27 fulfilled last year. One might wonder why the Patriots chose to add onto the position so early in the draft with other plans already in play. Well, clearly Belichick and the rest of New England’s brass aren’t afraid to stock the pond before fishing it out.
In the best-care scenario, the younger Wilson wins the starting job. If he is unable to do so this year or next year, it will be a tough pill to swallow for the Patriots organization. But if we do know one thing, it’s that he won’t be handed the reins by default. And that tough love may help him in the long run.