The Eagles made a surprising free agency splash last week, bringing in former VIkings linebacker Eric Wilson. The 26-year-old was expected to be snapped up within the opening couple of days of free agency and to a much more expensive deal. Somehow, he wound up in Philadelphia on a one-year contract worth $3.2M. On the surface, this is a move that brings in a veteran to a young linebacker group without in the way of experience or elite-level talent. But when you dig into the tape, it reveals a much larger plan.
A new-look defense
When the Eagles brought in former Colts DB coach Jonathan Gannon to coordinate the defense, many understandably assumed that the team would run a variation of the cover-2 scheme ran by the Colts last year. So far, the Eagles have signed two former Vikings players in the way of Anthony Harris and Eric Wilson. This points more towards a branch of Mike Zimmer’s Vikings defense than it does a ;copy and paste; job of Indy’s shell. This would make some sense considering that Gannon worked under the Vikings Head Coach for four seasons. He also coincidentally coached Eric WIlson during this time.
The Vikings do play a lot of press-man coverage on the outside, whereas Indy typically favor zone coverage that helps filter the play inside. The Safeties, like in Philadelphia, will be asked to do a little bit of everything but the important difference is that it’s a cover-2 base…which should hopefully stop a lot of the miscommunications we have come to expect on the back end where safety help isn’t there, leaving corners exposed and blamed for assignments that weren’t theirs to begin with.
The big difference
Like Jim Schwartz, Mike Zimmer focuses on stopping the run, but he goes about it differently. Zimmer loves blitzing and values his linebackers playing close to the line of scrimmage. His ‘signature’ if you will is disguising his play by moving his linebackers right up over the A-gap. This is the first thing that jumped out when watching tape on Eric Wilson. Zimmer often played him and Kendricks down at the line of scrimmage.
This presents a whole new element for the offensive line and quarterback. Are they facing a five-man rush, or will they drop back into coverage? We never saw the Eagles do this under Jim Schwartz. In fact, the only time I can recall is against Green Bay in 2019 where Nigel Bradham was used in this way on several occasions. It stood out so prominently because we had never seen that from Schwartz before.
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What does Wilson bring to the table in pass coverage?
Wilson is certainly capable of blitzing and playing a coverage role, but his biggest strength lies in pass-coverage. He’s got great burst to his game that helps him go from sideline-to-sideline very quickly, and is light on his feet which helps him keep up with tight ends and running backs in man-assignments, and cover the middle of the field knowing that he has the requisite speed to come down and make a tackle, or carry a route vertically.
This is evidenced by his production. In 2020, Wilson racked up 122 tackles along with 3 INT’s, 8 pass breakups, and 9 QB hits. The ball production is what stands out the most and it’s absolutely what jumps out on tape too.
In the game against New Orleans, Sean Payton called two wheel routes for Alvin Kamara. Wilson matched up with the running back on both occasions. On the first, the pass fell incomplete after the linebacker carried the route into the end zone and played Kamara instead of trying to play the ball, forcing himself into the catch-radius and knocking it loose. On the second, he turned his hips early and instead of running down to Kamara, ran upfield to align with his path. This took the top of the route away from Brees who then threw elsewhere. Wilson then left his assignment and sprinted upfield to make a tackle.
Eric Wilson vs the run
Wilson might be a MIKE linebacker, but he’s someone who can play both the WILL and SAM spots due to his athleticism and ability to quickly diagnose plays. This is especially beneficial to this defense because while he’s capable of defending the run, it’s not his greatest strength. He has a tendency to get washed out of plays fairly regularly and although he can scrape well over the top at times and wraps up as consistently as you’d like, his block-shedding is less than stellar and he can occasionally be caught stuck in the mud, frozen due to misdirections in the backfield.
This oddly benefits the Eagles. They’re not signing him for his run defense as much as they are his ability to cover tight ends, hold down the middle of the field, and make big plays around the ball. Alex Singleton for instance is a far more polished run defender and someone who bursts into gaps with real haste. T.J Edwards also seems to flash plenty of promise when scraping over the top and carries a lot of gap discipline.
Given that most defenses will only be fielding two linebackers in their base package now and we can assume that someone like Rodney McLeod or Anthony Harris will be playing inside the box, Wilson’s run-game deficiencies shouldn’t be raising any kind of legitimate concern.
Eric Wilson brings a lot of prestige to a middling linebacker group and finally gives the Eagles a MIKE to lean on. We know both the Colts and Vikings value linebacker play and after watching the position effectively just being treated as a ‘placeholder’ for so long, it is exciting to see someone in the prime of his career joining a new-look defense on a cheap deal. We can expect Wilson to be lined up close to the line of scrimmage before peeling back and removing the threat of drag routes and slants, while accounting for the more versatile running backs in the flat as someone that can go stride-for-stride with them. If the team want someone to anchor this new era of defense, Wilson is a great player to at least set the tone for what we should expect from a long-term option.
Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire