When a team is assembled throughout the off-season, there are clear positions that need to be filled. The goal should be always be to be as well rounded as possible, along with not having any significant flaws. That hasn’t been the case in Atlanta over the past few seasons. While another two thousand-word article can be conducted about how foolish the "get more physical" motive was, the Falcons did make some solid under-the-radar moves in 2014.
Jon Asamoah proved to be as good as advertised. After years of trying to make Garrett Reynolds into a right guard, the front office finally invested in a capable right guard to replace Harvey Dahl. Dwight Lowery dealt with his fair share of missed tackles and assignments early in the season. By the end of the season, he became reliable in fulfilling his coverage duties and breaking up several passes. Everyone should be in favor of bringing Lowery back, especially since it shouldn’t cost very much. It’s not like Dezmen Southward is capable of starting at free safety in 2015.
That brings us to the final under-the-radar signing in Josh Wilson. Besides Tyson Jackson, no other free agent signing raised more eyebrows than Wilson. It wasn’t necessarily expensive, but nobody looked at this move as an asset. The contract was only signed for a one-year deal that made fans somewhat relieved. The 29-year-old cornerback from Maryland seemed to be on the downside of his career. After promising stints in Seattle and Baltimore, Wilson received a three-year deal for 13.5 million to play for Washington.
After becoming one of the better nickel corners in the league, the Redskins were impressed by his overall versatility. Wilson showed in Baltimore that he was able to play on the outside as well. It was surprising to see the Ravens let him go without much resistance. He was a fairly solid player, if you watch these highlights from 2010. It has become common knowledge that Ozzie Newsome doesn’t like to overspend on keeping marginal players that are expendable, unless it involves quarterbacks.
Wilson’s three-year tenure in Washington ended up becoming a major disappointment. On a defense that struggled to rush the passer when Brian Orakpo was injured, Wilson was picked on significantly. It became a weekly guessing game on who was going to get targeted more between DeAngelo Hall and Wilson. The fact that Washington won the division in 2012 with that cornerback tandem is bizarre. It’s also a telling fact at how mediocre the NFC East was.
Whenever a cornerback has high tackle numbers, you have to make the assumption that they are allowing catches at a significant rate. After having a combined 28 passes defensed in 2011-2012, Wilson had just seven in 2013. That is a disappointing number for a starting cornerback to have in sixteen games. The 2013 season was dark for Wilson, who was on the receiving end of several highlight reels. Anquan Boldin made him look silly on numerous occasions during a Monday night game. While Boldin had a massive size advantage on him, some of these receptions weren’t from being outmatched. Wilson simply lost him in man coverage on one-on-one situations.
The infamous Steven Jackson touchdown run sent Wilson five yards back into the end zone. As Jackson lowered his shoulder, Wilson fell back like he was crossed over by Allen Iverson. The final embarrassing moment was from showing off his "ball skills" in covering Jerel Jernigan. He may have been waiting for safety help, but the inability to properly position himself to make a routine pass-breakup was alarming. There was no indication that he knew where the ball was going or tried looking to gain any inside leverage on Jernigan.
At 29 years old, it seemed like the undersized Wilson was on his way out of the league. He became a punch line in Washington, which has had their fair share of below-average cornerbacks over the past decade. From watching those plays, reading Redskins’ fans critique of him, and being rated eightieth by PFF in 2013, the signing of Wilson seemed nonsensical. Why sign a player that seemed to be on the downside of his career on a rebuilding defense?
Wilson seemed far more effective playing on the inside rather than on the outside. Even though he was used in various ways in Baltimore, his success from being a nickel corner was apparent. Washington mostly played him at right corner and he was being targeted on a weekly basis. When Wilson took Robert McClain’s place in week five against the New York Giants, an upgrade seemed imminent. Despite a lackluster pre-season, Wilson seemed rejuvenated in covering slot receivers.
The challenge of covering one of the best slot receivers in Victor Cruz was enticing. Wilson ended up with two passes defensed and held Cruz to just three catches for 23 yards. He never looked back after that performance, as the once-shaky cornerback brought stability to a troubled position. Wilson had his bumps from having to deal with a non-existent pass-rush. There wasn’t much of a change to his below-average ball skills. It became an every other week tradition to wonder how Wilson dropped such an easy interception.
On a defense that had so many issues, there were far more concerns than Wilson’s stone hands. His ability to cover and make plays on third down is what many fans noticed. The strong performances in covering the likes of Cruz, Golden Tate, and John Brown had won fans over. Some may question this praise from his negative PFF grade. That grade seems to have been downgraded from defensive holding penalties and missed tackles. Those are some of the negative tendencies that remain within his play.
Just like in every sport, the cliché quote of "what have you done for me lately" applies in this situation. A cornerback that has reestablished himself in proving to be reliable deserves to be rewarded. It’s evident that he won’t be expensive to re-sign. Some may worry about him turning 30 years old, although that shouldn’t apply to a nickel or backup cornerback.
My realistic hope for the cornerback rotation is a good old-fashioned training battle for the nickel corner position. That battle should feature Wilson, Ricardo Allen, and a mid-level free agent signing. Byron Maxwell’s price tag and unspectacular play doesn’t interest me. While Wilson’s play could very well decline I’m willing to let that play out rather than overspend for a position that isn’t flawed. Robert Alford deserves the chance to prove himself as a starting cornerback.
The possibilities are endless for an under appreciated cornerback rotation. If the pass rush can show some semblance of improvement, that should lead to more opportunities for interceptions. With the coaching staff (hopefully) over McClain’s shortcomings, this group should prosper towards greater heights. Wilson will endure his issues of penalties and dropped interceptions. What you will get from him is being constantly around the ball when thrown his way and making key stops on third down. Let’s reward one of the few mild surprises on a horrendous defense.