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Where could Tavon Wilson fit in?

Rafael Bush is supposedly the front-runner for the strong safety spot, but don't write Wilson off yet. He has a lot to offer beyond excellent special teams play.

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New England Patriots v New York Giants Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images

This was exactly the guy Bob Quinn was looking for

After writing the article last week on poor quality pass coverage at strong safety, we decided to take a look at the free agents Detroit brought in to compete to replace James Ihedigbo and Isa Abdul-Quddus as the "Detroit Lions starting safety not named Glover Quin." As I delved into Tavon Wilson’s old tape and background information on Pats Pulpit (and other places), an interesting picture dissimilar from the typical strong safety emerged.

Start with the controversy surrounding the original draft pick used by the Patriots to select Wilson back in 2012. From an unflattering article at ESPN following that draft, we can see the beginnings of the narrative portraying Wilson as the "ultimate WTF/FU pick by Belichick":

The 22-year-old Wilson was rated as the 24th safety by ESPN's Scouts Inc., considered more of a free agent than a draft pick. He wasn't mentioned in the 2012 Pro Football Weekly draft preview. USA Today's NFL draft preview overlooked him. So did Lindy's Pro Football Draft magazine.

Wilson didn't attend the NFL combine. He didn't play in any all-star games. Yes, he was invited to the new super regional combine in Detroit, but declined the invite because it came after his pro day and the feeling was that there was little else to gain.

But in that same article, you get a sense of what Belichick thought he was acquiring in Wilson: a player with a good combination of size, athleticism, and just enough skills in each phase to mold into a versatile hybrid OLB/Safety. Again from the ESPN article:

Detractors might view it as Belichick "inventing" a player who doesn't exist. Those who adopt that line of thinking will note that Wilson has good size (6 feet, 203 pounds), runs well (high 4.4s in the 40), and is smart, durable and versatile, but it wasn't like he was a big-time producer at Illinois. Doubters would say a player like that fits closer to the middle or end of the draft, not the second round.

A free agency article on Pats Pulpit from February asked if the Tavon Wilson experiment was at an end. The descriptions of what he offers and why he would leave New England sound like they were tailored to the Detroit situation:

Unlike Ebner, Wilson offers a ton of value on defense as a back-up. He can play dime. He can play goal line. He can play cornerback in a pinch. While he'll ultimately be behind rising-sophomore Jordan Richards in the depth chart, it's undeniable that Wilson is a versatile back-up.

Why he should leave: Sometimes a player just needs a change of scenery to get a shot. Wilson will be the 5th safety in the depth chart and would be a core special teams player in New England, but he could receive greater opportunities elsewhere in a safety-hungry league.

This lines up with a number of things we know to be true about how general manager Bob Quinn has been building the Lions’ roster:

  • He likes versatile players who can line up at more than one position and be effective, especially if they are going to be a backup since that can save roster spots: "As we know, we can only dress 46 players, so every roster spot that we bring to the game is vitally important. So, if a guy can play more than one spot, it adds to his value."
  • The Lions lacked safety depth with the departure of both Ihedigbo and IAQ.
  • When asked about Miles Killebrew, Quinn revealed he wanted big safeties that could run with receiving tight ends: "Yeah, I mean, we’re really not looking for the linebacker/safety hybrid. We’re just looking for good defensive backs and linebackers. Now, we’re going to be in sub defense, nickel defense for close to 70-percent of the time, so to get a guy that’s this size, that can run as fast as he can run, you know, hopefully he can have a role covering tight ends."
  • Quinn pays attention to special teams, and surely knew about Wilson's ST contributions: "I would ask him about a special-teams player on a team from three years ago, and he would know all about him," said Slater, the Patriots receiver and special-teams star. "It was great. He’s got a lot of knowledge."


Now we are obligated to wonder: If Tavon Wilson was such a good prospect, why didn’t he play more? The answer, I think, has less to do with Tavon Wilson than with the other guys on the Patriots’ roster. Their current roster is astonishingly deep at safety, and the first string pair of Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty are entrenched long time starters. Unless everybody got hurt, there was little chance of Wilson starting in place of Chung at strong safety. Everything said about second-round pick Jordan Richards here could just as easily be said about Wilson:

Well, Chung continued to improve in his second season back and Richards was unable to contribute- not due to lack of ability on his part, but because Chung was a legitimately dominant safety that could be considered one of the top ten in the league.

So instead of watching a 2nd round safety possible thrive, we had to watch Richards play special teams.

That has been the story of Wilson’s career since he was drafted. Patrick Chung, drafted in 2009, was a starting safety from 2010 to 2012. Following a one year interlude in Philadelphia for 2013 in which veteran Steve Gregory took over for New England at SS, Chung returned and promptly reclaimed his starting job. Devin McCourty, previously a starting cornerback for New England, moved back to become the starting free safety.

The situation Wilson was drafted into was a team featuring three veterans who had all started at safety for New England. The only reason he cracked the starting lineup as a rookie in 2012 was because both Chung and Gregory went down due to injury. Tavon Wilson played about half the snaps in Weeks 1 and 4, and started Weeks 5 through 8. But eventually Chung (and Gregory) recovered and Wilson went back to being a depth player.

Granted Wilson was a bit raw coming out of college and needed work, but he has gotten it in the form of four years learning in the Belichick system. How good have his coverage skills become? The Patriots actually lined Tavon Wilson up at cornerback against Buffalo on national TV last year:

He showcased his versatility and ability to adapt this past season when after playing a total of nine snaps on defense all season, he was thrust in a key role against the Buffalo Bills on Monday Night Football.

The Patriots were woefully thin at cornerback with only starters Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and reserve Rashaan Melvin who had a poor game the week before. The Pats eschewed the normal 4-2-5 look with three corners and went ‘Big Nickel’ with three safeties facing the potent Bills rushing attack.

Wilson also stayed on the field in their 4-1-6 dime look when they went to four safeties on the field. In all, he played 50 snaps in the Bills game on defense and was solid with three solo tackles.

Putting Wilson in the right situations underneath

When you read the articles on Pats Pulpit about Wilson leaving or grading the 2012 draft picks, the one thing that kept getting mentioned was Tavon Wilson getting dismantled against Seattle in 2012 and never coming back from that. I think this is revisionist nonsense: for most of the Seattle game, Wilson was okay, and all they are talking about is the late fourth quarter touchdown shown here. Tavon Wilson is the left safety in the two deep shell at the bottom right, and he gets beat by Sidney Rice on a double move corner-post route off play action:

2012 NED at SEA, 4Q (1:27), First-and-10 at the New England 46.

This play is burned into the memory of Patriots fans because it cost the team a road win at Seattle. But the exact same thing happened at St. Louis a few weeks later, and nobody ever brings that touchdown up merely because it was in the first quarter:

2012 NED at STL 1Q (12:35), First-and-10 at the 50.

I mention this because it is far worse to be beaten on that kind of throw by Sam Bradford than Russell Wilson. It also shows you that Tavon Wilson needed work when he was a rookie to get savvy to double moves and more complex coverage. It’s entirely possible that Wilson may simply never be a great deep safety. New England’s coaching staff adjusted and worked with what Wilson could do well, lining him up closer to the line of scrimmage and assigning him underneath a lot. Game-planning to Wilson’s strengths made him effective enough to line up on the outside one-on-one in man coverage or over the slot receiver as a big nickel:

2014 NYJ at NED, 1Q (7:13), Third-and-goal at the New England 13.

Wilson plays tight man coverage off the line on 88 TE Jace Amaro, preventing him from getting in the end zone on third down. This is pretty good coverage and nice tackling to prevent a touchdown.

2015 BUF at NED, 2Q (1:49), First-and-10 at the New England 34.

Wilson here is lined up over the slot receiver and zone drops to an underneath spot near the hash. Once 5 QB Tyrod Taylor makes the throw to 10 WR Robert Woods, Wilson breaks on the ball and unloads, preventing the completion:

2015 BUF at NED, 2Q (1:42). Second-and-10 at the New England 34.

On the very next play, Buffalo sends 15 WR Chris Hogan wide right with Wilson over him in loose man coverage. The route is a quick curl, and Wilson plays it perfectly:

He stays focused on his man, breaks on Hogan’s stop and look for the ball, and wraps up solidly. These are similar to the good mechanics we saw with Nevin Lawson. While the pass was still completed, the gain for Buffalo was minimal on the play. Wilson’s ability to come up from a deeper safety position and make open field tackles like this was actually quite good even as a rookie.

2012 DEN at NED, 3Q (13:17). First-and-10 at the Denver 42.

Wilson starts the play near the hash at the first down marker (the New England 48). 87 WR Eric Decker is the inside bunch receiver, and immediately breaks at the snap to the flat.

Wilson covers the distance between himself and Decker so quickly that the play goes for just two yards.

2012 NYJ at NED, OT (10:59). First-and-10 at the New York 15.

Finally, here’s Tavon Wilson coming up from the strong safety position as an underneath zone defender in cover-3 to stop 23 HB Shonn Greene from gaining much of anything on the check dump by 6 QB Mark Sanchez. I particularly like how he comes up under control and squares up to Greene.

Getting by with two starting linebackers: the 4-2-5

As the roster currently stands, the starting linebackers in base 4-3 personnel would be DeAndre Levy, Tahir Whitehead, and Josh Bynes. I’ve said elsewhere that an interesting possibility would be to use 6-foot-2 Miles Killebrew as a hybrid defender to gain experience and minimize the depth issue at outside linebacker. Tavon Wilson provides a veteran alternative: he’s had four years of development for that role in New England.

Forget about the 4-3 versus 3-4 debate. If Bob Quinn is serious when he says "we’re going to be in sub defense, nickel defense for close to 70-percent of the time," why not go to a base 4-2-5 defense with Wilson and Killebrew as the third safety on the field? When we need to go lighter and play the pass more, swap to the Quandre Diggs "true nickel" package, but otherwise Wilson (and possibly Killebrew) can replace a linebacker for better match-ups against tight ends.

Perhaps Bob Quinn wasn’t specifically looking for the OLB/SS hybrids, but he might have two decent ones on his hands. The lesson from Tavon Wilson’s time with New England seems to be to avoid lining him up deep. As long as he doesn’t let a slot receiver accelerate to full speed and run past him with a double move, Wilson is actually pretty good in coverage. Leave that job to Glover Quin and move Wilson up near the tackle box for better results. Chances are, this is also going to be a good way to limit Killebrew’s exposure in coverage.

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