Overview: To read the dailies, Josh Wilson was fighting for his job last preseason. The specter of Kevin Hobbs haunted his every failure. Kevin Hobbs was adored by coaches. Kevin Hobbs was the most improved player on defense. Kevin Hobbs is six feet tall. Here's to preseason journalistic potboiler.
Wilson started the season at nickel and eventually replaced the injured and ineffective Kelly Jennings. Not the cover man Jennings was in 2007, Wilson more than made up the difference with big plays. Though picked on at times, Wilson showed a lot of promise and had what must be called a good sophomore season.
What Went Wrong: Wilson is indeed short and has problems against taller receivers. I think Wilson must learn when to drop cover and just bury the shoulder. A good tackle can be a great pass defense. He could also improve his timing on jump balls. Concerns about him biting on the double move loom, but were unwarranted in 2008. He'd occasionally bite on a break, but his recovery speed was more than adequate. He whiffs attempting to press and that skill may never develop. His overall cover skills are suspect and teams target him a lot. He fails to convert blitzes into sacks.
Quintessential Game: Seattle at New York
The Wilson train takes all passengers, but is nonstop until the end zone: One play really defines Wilson's quarter.
3rd and 9 from the Giants 26. The play after The Good Play. New York breaks 4 WR, Rb, SG. Seattle in a 3-3 nickel. My beloved 3-3 nickel. The action is on the left. Wilson is at second corner, or left CB, opposite Domenick Hixon. Deon Grant plays opposite slot receiver Amani Toomer. At the snap, Toomer runs a wheel route. For the uninitiated, that's horizontal towards the sideline and then up field. Hixon diagonals in on what becomes a squared in. Grant and Wilson, in part because they are playing off, avoid picking each other out of the play, and each retains coverage. Kind of. Grant is nails, picking up Toomer and running step for step with him down the sideline. Wilson fails, running a looping route over Grant, over Toomer and only sorta towards Hixon. Hixon is easily open after his cut, receives and suffers a vicious hit from behind by Wilson. The quality of coverage and vague dirtiness of the tackle is Brian Russell like.
What Went Right: Wilson can play the ball while keeping coverage. His ball skills are very good. He's dangerous after the pick averaging 33.8 yards per return. He's a great open field tackler and brings the hammer forcing three fumbles in 2008. He's fast enough to recover on almost any route and has some hops to supplement his height. He's a developing blitzer and so fast off the snap that he's nearly unblockable on nickel blitzes.
Quintessential Game: Arizona at Seattle
Here's Wilson's list of non-special teams plays that accrued an official stat, and the context of that play. In parentheses is a running tally of the yards allowed that Wilson is directly responsible for.
- First and ten, Josh Wilson's assignment, Larry Fitzgerald, receives for nine. (9)
- Third and one, Wilson's assignment, Fitzgerald, receives for three and the first. (12)
- Arizona attempts an end around, Anquan Boldin holds Wilson. Net lost yards: 10. (2)
- First and ten, Wilson's assignment, Boldin, receives for nine. (11)
- Kelly Jennings' assignment, Boldin, breaks tackles by Jennings and Brian Russell and receives for 45. Wilson tackles. (11)
- First and ten, Wilson's assignment, Fitzgerald, receives for 33. (44)
- First and ten, Jordan Babineaux's assignment, Boldin, receives for nine. Wilson tackles. (44)
- Third and four, Babineaux's assignment, Steve Breaston, receives for six. Wilson tackles. (44)
- First and ten, Wilson is assigned Jerheme Urban, picks Kurt Warner's pass, returns the ball 58 yards. (-14).
- First and ten, Wilson's assignment, Fitzgerald, receives for eight. (-6)
- Third and seven, Wilson's assignment, Fitzgerald, receives for 21. Wilson forces Fitzgerald to fumble. (15)
- First and ten, Boldin is targeted on a wide receiver screen, Fitzgerald attempts to block Wilson, but Wilson squirts under and records the tackle after only 4. (15)
Outlook: Wilson turns 24 next week. Happy birthday, Pistol. Wilson will add a little muscle weight and lose a little speed, but from a tools standpoint, the next few years probably represent Wilson's peak. The most improvement will come from skills growth. That's tricky to project. Ball hawk corners can go poof in an instant. The interceptions disappear and suddenly their cover skills are exposed. It's encouraging that three of Wilson's four picks came on good coverage, because being in the right place at the right time on a tipped or errant pass is not repeatable. It's possible Wilson puts it all together, matches his already great ball skills with good cover skills, or that Wilson plays over a good enough pass rush to have some of his cover skills hidden, but I think Wilson's future is as an exceptional nickelback: Matched against lesser receivers; Playing more zone; Allowed to blitz; And not asked to play on an island against the bigger, craftier or taller receivers of the NFL. An athletic, versatile, active and sometimes game breaking nickelback is a heckuva player.