ST. PAUL — Not even Eric Wilson was prepared for what this season had in store.
While the 26-year-old linebacker entered training camp with more on his plate as an unquestioned starter for the first time in his career, Wilson still figured to play situationally with the Vikings opting for their nickel defense on most occasions.
In that defensive package, an extra cornerback replaces a linebacker, which was never been a problem in the past with star linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr holding down the fort. Everything changed for the Vikings when Barr went down with a torn pectoral muscle in a Week 2 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
That injury effectively ended Barr’s season and thrust Wilson into the spotlight. No longer was Wilson someone that could fly under the radar and make the occasional big play. He had to be someone the Vikings could rely on to replace Barr’s production.
Early returns suggest Wilson is more than holding his own.
“He’s done a nice job,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “I think he’s starting to play a little bit more free and relaxed. He’s a good athlete. He’s a really smart guy. He’s tough and physical. He’s continuing to get better. We’ve just got to keep pushing him in the right direction.”
In his first month filling in for Barr, including the Colts game where he played a bulk of the defensive snaps, Wilson has 30 total tackles, a pair of sacks and two interceptions. He trails only Kendricks in total tackles and leads the team in interceptions.
If it appears Wilson is getting better by the game it’s because he is. His best performance came in Sunday’s 27-26 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, when he flew around with reckless abandon, sacked quarterback Russell Wilson early and intercepted him late in the game.
“In a big game like this, Sunday Night Football against a good team, it’s great to make big plays,” Wilson said. “It’s even better to win, so we have to put it all together.”
While that’s the next step for the Vikings, it appears Wilson has already taken the next step in his development. Just listening him explain his interception along the sideline exemplifies how much he’s grown as a player since going undrafted in the 2017 NFL Draft.
“I was covering the running back (Chris Carson) and I knew he was close to out of bounds, and (Wilson) was probably going to scramble,” Wilson said. “I pushed (Carson) out of bounds, got my head back around, and (Kendricks), I think (Kendricks), got some pressure on (Wilson), and saw the ball and I went up and made a play on it.”
The fact Wilson had the presence of mind to push Carson out of bounds, which meant he couldn’t be the first person to touch the ball, then had the awareness to turn and locate an errant pass, is a combination of skills few players on the Vikings possess. It’s also a perfect example of why Wilson has had success filling in for Barr.
Perhaps the only downside of Wilson playing so much on defense is he has ceded his reps on special teams. That’s where Wilson made a name for himself before getting this opportunity.
“Losing a guy like that is hard,” special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf said. “We expect it. That’s kind of what we do. We kind of groom some of these young players and hopefully help them make a big impact on our offense or our defense. I expect to keep that going. Whoever is next on offense or defense could be playing on special teams right now.”
As for Wilson, he will continue to play big minutes moving forward, hoping some of his big plays on the field can translates to wins. It starts this week against the 0-5 Atlanta Falcons.
“I like my team regardless of what has happened,” Wilson said. “I know we are a good football team, and if we can keep putting in the work to get better we will finish games.”