Breaking Down Tavon Wilson's Rookie Year with the New England Patriots
The selection of the Illinois safety came as a huge surprise to both draft analysts and fans alike, especially after New England traded up twice in Round 1 to grab touted defensive prospects Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower.
Wilson was ranked as the eighth-best safety by WalterFootball.com and was projected as a sixth- to seventh-round pick by NFLDraftScout.com. After the announcement was made by Patriot great Troy Brown, the NFL Network's Mike Mayock called the pick "one of the bigger shocks" from the draft.
Nine months later, the shock has worn off and Wilson's play has done the talking. With that in mind, it's time to look back at the rookie campaign of New England's six-foot, 210-pound defensive back.
A Nose for the Ball
During his first NFL game against the Tennessee Titans in Week 1, the second-rounder wasted little time making an impression. In the second quarter, Wilson intercepted Titans quarterback Jake Locker in the end zone.
That knack for the big play has been Wilson's biggest triumph this year. To date, he has four picks on his resume, which have netted a total of 87 return yards.
Finding himself in the right place at the right time, the proud Fightin' Illini has also recovered two fumbles—tied for second-best on the team. In addition, he's batted down six passes—more than fellow safeties Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung.
An Asset on Special Teams
During his college days, Wilson was no stranger to special teams.
Following the draft, his former coach Ron Zook told ESPNBoston.com's Field Yates that Wilson was on the field for all but extra-point/field-goal protection at Illinois.
That effort doing the dirty work has translated to the pros. According to FootballOutsiders.com, the Washington, D.C., native has recorded 237 snaps on special teams this year. That number figures out to 49 percent of New England's special teams plays.
Struggles Against Deep Balls
While Wilson has been on the receiving end of some turnovers this season, he's also been on the receiving end of some miscues in coverage.
Against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 6, Wilson fell behind wide receiver Sidney Rice and gave up a game-winning 46-yard touchdown. The rookie got his eyes caught on the play-action fake to the running back and lost Rice downfield.
MassLive.com's Nick Underhill reported that Wilson took responsibility for the lapse after the loss:
You’ve got to make a play when you need to make it, and I didn’t. I got beat. I accept that. We were in simple coverage and he made the play and I didn’t.
Getting beat deep isn't a new flaw in Wilson's game. SI.com's scouting report documented his coverage woes back in college:
Struggles in man coverage situations and cannot stay with receivers out of breaks. Occasionally bites on play-action passes.
This is an area where Wilson must improve moving forward. If he can't be trusted against the double moves of wideouts, he won't establish himself as a Patriots starter.
A Man of Versatility
Wilson proved to be a position-savvy player at Illinois, switching between cornerback, nickelback and free safety in the best interests of the team. That flexibility has worked in his favor in Foxborough, where head coach Bill Belichick lauds versatile athletes.
Showing an ability to play both safety spots, Wilson has started four games this season due to injuries. But Wilson's most prominent action has come at the "money" position—a linebacker-type role in the dime defense.
Largely because of his proficiency in sub-packages, Wilson has logged 465 defensive snaps on defense, per FootballOutsiders.com. In layman's terms, he's been on the field for 43 percent of defensive downs.
Wilson is still a greenhorn who's learning the nuances of the NFL, but he's shown tools of a future starter.
However, the 22-year-old's playing time will be largely dictated by the pieces around him. Devin McCourty has encrusted himself as the most rangy free safety on the roster, and Steve Gregory has been solid as New England's starting strong safety.
The Patriots won't be relying on Wilson to be a starter during the playoff push. The McCourty-Gregory safety combo has withstood recent tests, and soon-to-be free agent Patrick Chung has spiked his performance in the rotation to boot.
Yet at the end of the day, Wilson's tremendous ball skills and positional adaptability make him a second-round talent who won't be on the sidelines for long.
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