The New England Patriots 2012 draft class yielded quite a haul on the defensive side of the ball, as three franchise building blocks were selected in the draft. Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, defensive end Chandler Jones, and linebacker Dont’a Hightower all enjoyed successful rookie campaigns and have a world of potential ahead of them. Dennard’s trial is something Patriots fans must keep a watchful eye on, as the ruling could potentially rob the Patriots of a player who could become a shutdown cornerback in this league.
Now those three players rightfully headline the class, but there is one other rookie on the defensive side of the ball who just isn’t getting enough credit for the rookie campaign he had.
Tavon Wilson was the Patriots second-round pick, marking the second time in a row the Pats took a defensive back in the second round of the NFL Draft. Considered a reach by most draft analysts and a terrible decision by Bill Belichick (in hindsight, they should have been asking, “How many mistakes does Belichick make?”), Wilson was anything but that as a rookie.
The Illinois product showed promise in training camp, and he had a solid preseason. In the Patriots first preseason game, Wilson had the enormously difficult task of covering New Orleans Saints star tight end Jimmy Graham, but Wilson delivered in just his first live action as a pro. Acting as the money linebacker in Belichick’s defensive scheme, Wilson managed to hold down Graham and drew praise from many Patriots fans.
In the regular season, Wilson made a splash in his first game by allowing just four yards per attempt in coverage against the Tennessee Titans. He gave up four receptions on six targets, but, according to the Pro Football Focus, those six targets went for a meager four yards per play. Wilson also notched three tackles.
After that game, he was relatively quite in four straight average performances before the Patriots took on the Seattle Seahawks. People point to this game as their reasoning for thinking Tavon Wilson was a “waste of a pick”, and they are basing their opinion on one play. One damn play.
Now, this play was a very important one, don’t get me wrong- it’s what gave the Seahawks a win in a game that the Patriots should have taken. Tavon Wilson and fellow rookie Nate Ebner were both the starting safeties on this play due to injuries, and it’s not a good recipe to have two safeties at the back end- especially when one of them (Ebner) is a project player and just can’t cover. The end result was the Patriots got burned, Wilson looked terrible, and Sidney Rice caught a 46-yard touchdown pass to give the Seahawks the home victory.
People look at that game and assume Wilson played horribly and was burned on just about every play- not the case. That catch was the only one he gave up all day, and he actually had an average game overall against the Seahawks. Wilson wasn’t good, he wasn’t bad, but he was average. However, Wilson also screwed up on the most important play of the game, and that still stings in the eyes of many Patriots fans- I don’t blame them. But it’s easy to forget that Wilson is a rookie, and that’s why they have the old phrase “rookie mistake”.
Wilson atoned for his error against the Seahawks by playing a solid game against the rival New York Jets, and this matchup turned out to be a narrow victory for the Pats. The rookie safety did allow all three passes thrown at him to go for catches (including a touchdown), but the pass defense as a whole had an off game. Wilson actually graded out positively in coverage from the Pro Football Focus, and he looked his usual, assured self on run defense.
After a pair of subpar performances following the game against the Jets, Wilson got back on track with a decent effort against the Indianapolis Colts. He looked terrific in coverage and came with a pick, as fellow rookie Andrew Luck never completed a pass on Wilson’s coverage. After the game against the Colts, however, Wilson would not see significant playing time until the huge Monday Night Football victory against another AFC South playoff team in the Houston Texans. In that game, Wilson wasn’t even thrown at in 17 snaps in total (per PFF).
Injuries allowed Wilson to play a significant role in the two Week 16 and 17 victories to cap off the regular season, as he looked assured in coverage and in run defense in both games. Wilson also made an impact as a pass rusher against the Miami Dolphins with one hurry on Ryan Tannehill. For both games in total, Wilson gave up just 18 yards on four targets.
Wilson had three tackles and allowed just five yards per attempt in the lone playoff game he played in; the one against the Texans.
When you look at the numbers and re-watch the games, you’ll see that Tavon Wilson was a positive part of this New England Patriots secondary. He’s not a spectacular player and doesn’t make any big plays, but he’s as consistent as it gets. I think that’s what the Patriots need the most at strong safety going into the 2013 season; consistency.
I hate it when some fans call Wilson burn-prone, because it’s obvious that they are just looking at the one play against the Seahawks. He did get burned in the worst possible circumstances, but he only gave up four receptions of 20 yards or more this season. Wilson allowed just 11.4 yards per completion in 2012, and he did a good job of limiting opponents after the catch (just 70 YAC allowed).
I’ve heard Bill Belichick praise Wilson for his intelligence, and he looks wiser beyond his years of experience when he plays. Wilson is as sure of a tackler as you’ll find on this team, as he missed just three tackles (PFF) in 2012. Wilson also made a strong impact in run defense, and that’s a hard fact to dispute. His solid coverage skills, his ability to track TEs, his solid run defense, and his assured tackling make Wilson a solid, underrated component of this Patriots defense. I know this may seem radical, but Wilson deserves at least a look at a starting spot in 2012. A few Pats fans agreed with me on this when this came up on Twitter, and Wilson is an under-appreciated player even among Pats fans.
Even if Wilson doesn’t get to start, he deserves plenty of playing time as a backup safety due to his solid all-around ability. He won’t “wow” you with anything, but consistency is key. It’s not easy to succeed at the safety position as a rookie, so it’s quite remarkable that Wilson was PFF’s second-highest graded player among DBs on the Patriots. Devin McCourty was obviously some distance ahead of him, but Wilson graded out better than Alfonzo Dennard and Patrick Chung, as well as light year’s ahead of Aqib Talib and Steve Gregory.
Wilson is already the New England Patriots second-best safety, and he did so just as a rookie. I implore you to dig into the numbers and take a look at every play (not just a few that stand out to you) when researching Tavon Wilson, because I’m sure you’ll find that the former Illinois standout showed that he has plenty more to prove to the Patriots in 2013.
You can follow Joe Soriano on Twitter @SorianoJoe.