'Walking turnover' Eric Wilson stabilizes Vikings, forces tough choice

EAGAN, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings linebacker Eric Wilson is akin to Allstate in the eyes of his teammate Kris Boyd.

Maybe that's because, as the insurance company's tagline says, the Vikings' defense is in good hands with the fourth-year linebacker. Or it could be that Wilson's play, in a year of ups and downs, provides a level of insurance for a unit trekking through a season of transition.

Wilson can't pinpoint the origin, but it's a moniker that implies that his teammates can count on him to be there when things go awry. And it isn't the only nickname he has been given. After a win against the Detroit Lions, his fellow linebacker Eric Kendricks called him a "walking turnover." Wilson and Kendricks are tied for first among all linebackers with three interceptions, and Wilson leads his position in combined interceptions, forced fumbles and opponent fumble recoveries (six total).

The past two seasons, Wilson, a former undrafted free agent, never played more than 35% of defensive snaps. That changed two games into 2020, when starting linebacker Anthony Barr tore his pectoral muscle in Indianapolis and underwent season-ending surgery.

Wilson has played every snap since then and provided stability for a unit plagued by injuries. In addition to Barr, rookie Troy Dye missed five weeks while on injured reserve, and health issues prevented Cameron Smith and Ben Gedeon from seeing the field this season.

Kendricks was an unexpected late scratch after he reinjured his calf in warm-ups before Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Wilson said he was a little shocked to learn the news roughly 30 minutes before kickoff and watch his role change yet again, moving him from outside to inside linebacker.

You know who wasn't shocked? The coaches who have relied on Wilson at every turn.

"Ever since Eric's been here, he's been able to back up both positions when Anthony and Eric were in there, and whoever went down, he just went in in that position," co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Adam Zimmer said. "It's something he's done in the past, which helps, but it's a real tribute to the kid, how he just steps in and doesn't miss a beat playing a completely different position in the sub [package]."

With Kendricks set to be sidelined against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, FOX), Wilson will be there to fill the void. Minnesota uncovered quite the insurance policy in Wilson, who seemingly overnight went from being the Vikings' No. 3 linebacker to being a replacement for both of the team's Pro Bowl stars.

His growth in his first three seasons has Wilson in line for a big offseason. He will be an unrestricted free agent and can earn his worth after proving that he is more than just a reliable backup.

"I think this year we have had a lot of moving parts and a lot of different personnel and a lot of young guys that have stepped up in multiple positions," Wilson said. "To be able to be that insurance and be someone who will be there and get everyone on the same page and be able to communicate to the D-line and the linebackers and the DBs and make sure we're on the same page ... I think that's really important."

Eight years ago, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Wilson were paired as freshmen roommates at Northwestern. After redshirting in 2012, Wilson transferred to Cincinnati and started 24 of 38 games. In 2017, the two were reunited with the Vikings after Odenigbo was picked in the seventh round and Wilson signed as an undrafted free agent.

Their friendship picked up where it left off in college. They bonded off the field and traveled internationally together with Barr, Kendricks and defensive end Danielle Hunter.

Odenigbo made the practice squad his rookie season, and Wilson earned a spot on the active roster through special teams. Seeing Wilson progress from a "17-year-old immature boy into a man" was an inspiration to Odenigbo.

"So Eric and I, we used to hang out all the time, and this year, he doesn't hang out with me anymore," Odenigbo joked. "He's just focused on football. For moments like that, with Barr going down, with Kendricks going down, he's built for that. What he does off the field, on the field, it's just the gold standard. Having guys like Eric around, it's just really good for this defense."

Said special-teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf: "I wish we could have 10 Eric Wilsons. I know everybody says that, but I always kid around with him and some of these other guys, like, 'Hey, leave your spit sample somewhere so we can clone you.'"

Wilson has seized the opportunity presented by Barr's injury. Through 12 games, he has 90 tackles (second on the team behind Kendricks' tally), three sacks, five pass break-ups and three interceptions. He has played well in coverage, allowing the ninth-fewest yards per cover snap (0.78) and the lowest passer rating of any linebacker (71.8, minimum 80% of snaps).

The Vikings, who used a second-round tender on Wilson as a restricted free agent last offseason, will have a decision to make for 2021. Do they go back to the Barr-Kendricks duo or roll forward with Kendricks-Wilson?

Barr, who is under contract through 2023, has the Vikings' third-highest cap hit next season ($15.5 million). The Vikings could move on and gain $7.7 million in cap savings, but that option comes with a $7.8 million dead cap penalty -- a potential nonstarter. A more realistic option would be presenting Barr with a contract restructure. The Vikings could also look to trade him, but his season-ending injury makes his market uncertain.

It's unlikely that the Vikings will pay to keep all three of their core linebackers, given that every team relies on nickel defenses. But Wilson has earned his payday in Minnesota or elsewhere.

"I feel like he's coming into his own, definitely," Kendricks said. "He's already in his own. He understands what kind of player he is at this point, and he knows what he brings to the table. He goes out there with that confidence and that know-how, that experience now under his belt, and he just goes and does it."