It's rare to find a quality player on waivers, but it does occasionally happen. When quality players are put on waivers, usually they are young and still in need of development—they become good players after spending some time with their new team.
Typically a player doesn't get enough opportunity to develop and may no longer have a solid role on the team, prompting his release. Coaching, scheme changes and injuries are all reasons a quality player might hit waivers. In the case of of linebacker Martez Wilson, all of the above are true.
Wilson, a third-round pick in 2011, was claimed off waivers by the Oakland Raiders Wednesday from the New Orleans Saints. One of the most physically gifted linebackers in his draft class, Wilson matched Denver Broncos pass-rusher Von Miller and Kansas City Chiefs pass-rusher Justin Houston in many of the combine drills.
With an athlete of Wilson's caliber, there is reason to believe he can be an impact player in the NFL in the right scheme and with the right coaching. Wilson fits Oakland's defensive scheme perfectly and could be a diamond in the rough who develops into an impact player.
Unfortunately, Wilson hasn't improved much in the last two years. Wilson was on his third defensive coordinator and defensive scheme in New Orleans, dealt with multiple injuries and was no longer a fit for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's defense.
With the Raiders, Wilson will play "SAM" linebacker (strong-side linebacker), a position that best suits his physical talent. Wilson may remind Raiders fans a bit of former Raiders SAM linebacker Kamerion Wimbley because of his build and athleticism.
In New Orleans, Wilson was drafted into defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' scheme to play SAM linebacker. Raiders head coach Dennis Allen runs a similar defense to Williams, having coached under him in New Orleans for two seasons from 2009-10.
"He's the first guy we've had in here that really fits the profile of a Scott Fujita," Williams said after the Saints drafted Wilson via the new Orleans Time Picayune.
Williams was alluding to the fact that Wilson fit the prototype of a SAM linebacker. At 6'4" and 252 pounds, Wilson has good length to set the edge against tight ends and the athletic ability to rush the quarterback.
Wilson has many of the same traits as Raiders rookie linebacker Sio Moore, who was also a third-round draft selection. Wilson is just bigger than Moore, but he's almost identical in size to Wimbley when he was with the Raiders.
Not only do the Raiders need more pass rush, but they have a thin roster and the time to develop Wilson within their scheme. One of the problems with Wilson in New Orleans is that he became a defensive end in 2012, only playing in some nickel situations.
In 2013, Wilson moved to outside linebacker in anticipation of the Saints using a 3-4 defense. Unfortunately for Wilson and the Saints (and fortunately for the Raiders), outside linebackers Will Smith and Victor Butler were injured.
Wilson and fellow outside linebacker Junior Galette were also hurt and that forced the Saints to adopt a four-man defensive front. Galette moved to defensive end, pushing Wilson's skills as a pass-rushing linebacker out of favor.
Wilson has a fresh start with the Raiders and will have a chance to play the position he was drafted to play. That alone will make Wilson a viable role player for the Raiders this season.
A Perfect Fit
While Wilson is the prototypical SAM linebacker as far as size and athleticism, he's still a player that needs some development. It will be up to the Raiders to try to put Wilson in position to use his strengths and hide his weaknesses, and up to Wilson to improve his technique.
One of Wilson's strengths is blitzing. Wilson is much better standing up behind the line of scrimmage and using his natural athletic ability to race past offensive lineman than pass-rushing one-on-one against an offensive tackle with his hand in the dirt.
It's no surprise Wilson's best game of the season came last year against the San Diego Chargers when he was mostly used as a nickel rush linebacker and not as a pass-rushing defensive end.
Rushing from a standing position outside the hip of the defensive end as the fifth rusher, Wilson excelled. This is very similar to how the Raiders use their SAM linebacker in rush situations, either coming from the edge or inside.
Wilson is comfortable blitzing from either side, but he plays high and is easily neutralized when offensive linemen manage to engage him. As a defensive end in passing situations, Wilson's pad level makes it hard for him to turn the corner.
As a 4-3 defensive end standing up, Wilson was in position to get pressure on quarterback Philip Rivers and failed. Wilson is one-on-one with a tight end, but doesn't get any pressure at all and Rivers throws a deep touchdown pass.
Wilson needs to learn how to use his length to keep offensive linemen away from his body and convert his speed to power. Wilson has long arms and can be successful setting the edge, but he doesn't always use his arms and hands to keep blockers from engaging him.
For a player with Wilson's length and athleticism, he's doing himself a disservice by not using his length both as a pass-rusher and against the run. Until he does, Wilson will probably never be an every-down player. If Wilson can learn to play with a better pad level and use his length consistently, he can still be a very good player in Oakland's defensive scheme.
The Crystal Ball
Wilson is getting a second chance because he's a great athlete with good size and length, and there's no doubt he has the physical ability to play at a high level in the NFL. Wilson has a chance to be one of those rare players that becomes very good at his second stop, but there are no longer any excuses for a lack of development.
Wilson will get opportunities to play, something he didn't always have in New Orleans. Wilson will be put in position to be successful and help the team, as well as occasionally be challenged. Wilson will no longer be an athletic player that his team struggles to find a position for and use properly.
The stage is set for Wilson to be successful and the Raiders made a smart move by claiming him. For no risk, the Raiders brought in a player that can have a big impact in the future. For a play that is claimed off waivers, that's a lot more than you can normally say.