Last year at this time, the Minnesota Vikings had to execute excruciating decisions on player personnel like Linval Joseph, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, and Mackensie Alexander. Those men left for other NFL teams as the Vikings were amid a re-tooling on defense.
It didn’t go well.
With a litany of injuries, Minnesota’s 2020 defense finished 29th in the NFL via points allowed – unfathomably bad for a team coached by Mike Zimmer. Now, Zimmer’s employment and the foundation of the team hinge on a return to defensive normalcy in 2021.
Thankfully, general manager Rick Spielman does not have to make as many difficult choices on free agents this month. The team parted ways with almost-lifer tight end Kyle Rudolph last week, but he was not technically a free agent. The two names to monitor for existing free agents are Anthony Harris and Eric Wilson.
And on Saturday, Bleacher Report’s Alex Kay forewarned a cautionary tale on the potential re-signing of Eric Wilson. He wrote:
“The Vikings have gotten plenty of mileage out of Eric Wilson after bringing him back last season on a cheap one-year deal as a restricted free agent. Their linebacker unit dealt with multiple injuries, and Wilson filled the void, totaling 122 tackles, three sacks, two fumble recoveries, a forced fumble, eight passes defensed and three interceptions in a career year. The athletic Wilson displayed good range and coverage skills but had some trouble shutting down the run, which hurt Minnesota given how much he was on the field. Unless he improves in that department, Wilson would be better off deployed as a situational defender, but he may get paid as an every-down linebacker on the open market. With the Vikings in the red, it may not be worth the cost to keep a player who isn’t an all-around linebacker when his salary could reach $9 million per year over multiple seasons.”
One of the Worst Run-Defending LBs in NFL
Here’s the deal: Wilson is flashier and arguably more athletic than teammate Anthony Barr. He is a pretty good pass rusher and an astute pass-coverage linebacker.
But he does not defend the run well – at all.
His 2020 Pro Football Focus against-the-run grade was 38.3. That is atrocious. In 2019 (his last full season of production), Anthony Barr posted a run-defense PFF grade almost double that of Wilson. No matter how one spins it or rationalizes Wilson’s performance, he is an incomplete NFL defender when compared to Barr. The UCLA alumnus, Barr, is certainly not a flawless player – Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen can tell you all about it – but he does check more boxes than Wilson.
And that is probably why Barr’s contract is significantly larger than anything Wilson will fetch in 2021 regardless of the team.
Stats Look Good, Though
In Kay’s aforementioned breakdown of Wilson, he highlights Wilson’s 2020 stats. Indeed, these numbers are noteworthy and will be the reason a team – maybe even the Vikings – signs him on the dotted line. But Wilson received ample opportunity to tally those numbers and not just because of playing time. The Vikings defensive line was uncharacteristically leaky in 2020, so the back end of the defense was constantly under siege. Therefore, some of Wilson’s output can be reasonably attributed to a “someone has to make the tackle” mentality. When Zimmer’s front four are ripping and roaring per usual, linebackers and defensive backs are not asked to shore up the opposition quite as much. 2020 was different. Young cornerbacks underwent rapid maturity, and linebackers accounted for tackles that defensive lineman should have created.
Again – Wilson’s numbers are impressive and should not be classified as bogus. Yet, recall that his overall PFF grade in 2020 was a pedestrian 53.5. PFF did not assign that score by accident.
$9 Million Per Year Too Much
Kay also noted that Wilson might command $9 million per season from his next general manager.
For the Vikings – that ain’t happening.
Minnesota already allots several gold bars in the investments of Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr at linebacker. In a recent press conference, Spielman even acknowledged (kinda-sorta) the reality of letting Wilson walk because so much money is tied up in Kendricks and Wilson. There is nearly no way imaginable that the Vikings could bring Wilson back for $9 million per year – unless they traded Anthony Barr, Adam Thielen, or some other high-priced asset.
Would you do that for Eric Wilson? Doubtful.
Kay is probably accurate that Wilson will not return to the Vikings – especially at a salary upward of $9 million. A Vikings linebacker like Todd Davis would be a more affordable option, and he tackles well, too.