Mike Zimmer wasn’t sure about the Vikings’ linebacker depth 19 days before the season opener, questioning his reserves during an interview with reporters after training camp. Perhaps second-year player Eric Wilson has given the coach a little less to worry about, even if a 6-foot-5 question mark named Anthony Barr looms over the linebacker room heading into 2019.
In his third NFL start, Wilson, 24, led the Vikings’ defensive showcase Sunday at Detroit with seven tackles, including three for a loss, during a 27-9 victory over the Lions and their hapless offense. It was easily the best game of Wilson’s young career and the kind of one that builds confidence in the depth moving forward.
“I thought the linebackers played well all over,” Zimmer said. “They were not going to let Barr affect the game [Sunday], which we kind of assumed that would happen. So, that’s why some other guys were going to get opportunities.”
Wilson and Ben Gedeon stepped into larger roles with Eric Kendricks’ 40-game start streak ended because of an injured hamstring. It was the Vikings’ fourth absence from a starting linebacker this season. Without Barr or Kendricks against the Saints, Bears and Lions (twice), the Vikings defense still gave up only 14.5 points on average.
“I think we did a solid job,” said Gedeon, who filled Kendricks’ middle linebacker role in the base 4-3 defense and also finished with seven tackles. “Eric Wilson had a great game.”
Wilson, who played collegiately at Cincinnati after transferring from Northwestern, has started twice for Barr and once for Kendricks. He did a bit of everything Sunday, stalling LeGarrette Blount for a 1-yard loss, catching Theo Riddick in coverage for a 3-yard loss and sacking Matthew Stafford on fourth down.
“I thought he did well,” Zimmer said. “And that’s why these CFAs that come in here — these college free agents — the more of these kinds of guys we can get to help and hopefully develop into football players are big.”
Like any player this early into an NFL career, Wilson has a long way to go. The good news is Wilson’s issues described by coaches and himself sound a lot like the early critiques on Kendricks, who is one game from tying a franchise record with four consecutive seasons as the Vikings’ leading tackler to start his career.
“I tried to make smart plays and play fast,” Wilson said. “But on the same page, I need to work on not playing too fast and allowing it to create seams inside. I guess choosing my shots and which [ones] I take is definitely something I need to improve on.”
Wilson was blocked out during a first-down catch by Riddick and appeared to overrun his gap on Blount’s 10-yard run in the fourth quarter. His learning curve is recognizable to Zimmer.
“Yeah, I think it’s really similar [to Kendricks],” Zimmer said. “He kind of gets so excited, wants to get someone and sometimes gets there too fast and gets out of position.”
To be fair, Wilson had good reason to get worked up Sunday. He attended high school in Redford, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, where he still has friends loyal to the Lions. His friends and family members have been “caught in a hard spot” this season, Wilson said, because two of his three career starts have come against the Lions.
“For me to get an opportunity like this in my home city with family members watching, it was phenomenal to have that energy,” Wilson said. “I don’t know if you could tell, but I was hyped up the whole game, ready to do whatever I had to do to help us win.”
Mission accomplished for Wilson. Vikings brass has reason to be better assured about the linebacker room now, with Barr still unsigned beyond this season, than when Zimmer first wondered aloud whether they had enough players in the middle of his defense.
“Yeah, confidence keeps building,” Wilson said.