There has been a lot of excitement and hype surrounding rookie running back David Wilson this summer. While many expect him to have immediate success in the NFL, there is certainly reason to believe that Wilson will struggle in his first year as a pro.
When New York selected Wilson with its first-round pick (No. 32 overall), Giants fans were excited about the electrifying potential he could bring to the offensive backfield. As Virginia Tech’s primary ball carrier in 2011, Wilson rushed for over 1,700 yards, making him one of the top running back prospects in the ‘12 draft class.
Wilson has looked promising early on. He received glowing reports during OTAs earlier this summer. Some of Wilson’s highest praise came from offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, who told Jorge Castillo of The Star-Ledger, “I don’t know if we’ve had a guy as explosive, regardless of position, here…[Wilson]’s got the explosion I’m not sure how many guys in the league have.”
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves and crown Wilson the next great Giants running back, let’s take a moment to look at his upcoming rookie season realistically. After all, remember the last time there was this much hype over New York selecting a running back in the first round?
That’s right, Ron Dayne. The Giants selected Dayne, the Heisman Trophy winner and NCAA Division 1-A all-time leading rusher, with the 11th overall pick of the 2000 NFL Draft. After four miserable seasons in New York, Dayne’s career fizzled out in Denver followed by Houston.
While Wilson’s style and size are completely different than those of Dayne’s, he will ultimately have to do what Dayne could not: translate collegiate success to the professional ranks.
I’m not saying Wilson is going to be a bust, but his running style at Tech might be less effective against NFL defenses. Often times, he would rely on his superior agility, reversing his field and shaking defenders in the backfield when a play broke down. A lot of those times, the payoff was huge—Wilson had rushes of over 20 yards in 11 of 14 games last season (via the New York Times).
But let’s be honest, if Wilson plans on running like this in 2012, the results will be far less enjoyable.
Wilson carried the ball 290 times last year, but 43 of those carries were for a loss of yards. Wilson’s negative carries amassed to a total of -133 yards on the season, including three carries for a loss (-29) in the All State Sugar Bowl versus Michigan (via ESPN.com).
With stronger, faster defenders chasing him next season, Wilson’s backfield dancing will result in more carries for a loss of yards. Head coach Tom Coughlin’s patience may wear thin if Wilson is slow to progress, as he believes a successful offense is dependent on a powerful running game and disciplined ball carrying,
If there is any one thing Wilson can do (or not do) that will yank him out of the game faster than anything else, it’s failing to secure the ball. Just ask last year’s rookie running back project Da’Rel Scott—after fumbling the ball against New Orleans, Scott did not touch the ball for the remainder of the season.
Coughlin has an especially short fuse with backs who are prone to coughing the ball up. Last season at Virginia Tech, Wilson fumbled five times. He will need to have a tighter grip on the ball if he wants to be the long-term solution in New York.
At the same time, there’s no better coach for a running back like Wilson to play for. When Coughlin took over the coaching job with the Giants in 2004, he inherited Tiki Barber, a talented yet underutilized back with a fumbling problem. Coughlin quickly cured Barber’s ball control issue and turned him into an All-Pro and the franchise’s all-time leading rusher. Hopefully, with Coughlin’s guidance, Wilson will follow closely in Barber’s footsteps.
Ultimately, Wilson’s playing time will depend on the coaching staff’s confidence that he will execute his job on a given play. His counterpart, Ahmad Bradshaw, has not only proven his trustworthiness as a ball carrier but also as a pass protector. This recent study, conducted by ProFootballFocus.com, shows that Bradshaw is one of the most efficient pass-blocking running backs in the NFL. Wilson will have to prove his reliability on multiple levels if he wants to see more touches on the field and less time on the bench.
For a better idea of what the Giants’ plans are for Wilson in 2012, pay close attention to what they decide to do with running back D.J. Ware in training camp. Ware emerged as a valuable third-down option last season mostly due to his pass-catching ability. With Brandon Jacobs out of the picture, he and Bradshaw are the veteran leaders of a relatively young cast of running backs.
If Ware—who is on the bubble to get cut—makes the team, it could mean that the Giants' coaching staff is not ready to put that much responsibility on the inexperienced back’s shoulders. However, if Ware is cut, Wilson will have the opportunity for a breakout season in 2012.