For a large part of training camp, Kyle Wilson seemed like he might be the odd man out in the Saints secondary, a veteran who could fall victim to a numbers game at cornerback.
But the veteran defensive back stuck with the Saints, and he’s become an integral piece for a defensive backfield that has battled injuries all season long.
Wilson, brought in to compete at the nickel, has proven he can fill almost any spot that opens. Used at cornerback, in the slot and at free safety, Wilson turned in a tour de force performance against Indianapolis last week, stepping in for an injured Damian Swann and responding with two tackles, two pass breakups and a brilliant interception at the end of the first half.
“I look at this like a lot of people can’t do it,” Wilson said. “And I can do it at a really high level.”
The Saints signed a handful of veterans like Wilson, free agents who lasted long beyond the initial rush due to age, injury concerns or a diminished reputation, with varying degrees of success.
Anthony Spencer suffered a season-ending injury. Tim Hightower fell victim to a numbers game at running back. Josh Morgan was beat out by the rest of the receiver crowd. Kenny Phillips came back briefly as a starter, a cameo made necessary by injuries at safety. Kevin Williams, the former star, has become a leader and a rotational player on the defensive line.
And then there’s Wilson, who took the kind of heat in New York that former first-round pick Patrick Robinson inspired in New Orleans.
Drafted into Rex Ryan’s defense when the Jets selected him with the 29th pick in 2010, Wilson tried to build a career under the glare of the New York media, and although he started 28 games in five seasons, Wilson spent only one season as a full-time starter. By the time his rookie contract ended, Wilson had been relegated to a complementary role only.
New Orleans signed Wilson to a one-year deal worth the veteran minimum, a prove-it deal in every way.
“Everything from the past, I just take it as a great learning experience,” Wilson said. “I look at this as a clean slate. Obviously, it’s a different role.”
Wilson opened the season as the Saints’ dime cornerback, averaging nine snaps per game in the first three games. When Keenan Lewis returned against Dallas, Wilson was inactive.
Then his role started to expand. New Orleans quickly realized that Wilson is capable of playing multiple spots, leaning on experience gleaned in New York, and started shifting him around to plug holes left by injury.
With Lewis and Swann ailing, Wilson has logged an average of 52 snaps over the past three games, handling everything from giving Jairus Byrd a breather at free safety to playing a key role at corner in place of Swann.
Being able to switch from position to position on the fly is no easy task.
“He does it all,” Byrd, who played some cornerback in college at Oregon, said. “The angles are different. In the course of the game, if he’s coming in as a safety in a package and say a run comes out, your angles are different than at a nickel or a corner, where everything’s a side angle. It’s difficult, but he’s able to just do it.”
The more Wilson plays, the more the Saints have learned how to deploy him.
Wilson, a smaller player at 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, sometimes struggles in physical man-to-man, but when the Saints drop him into a zone, either playing underneath or over the top, Wilson has impeccable instincts, a key for a team that likes to mix up its coverages.
“He knows what the back end is doing, from the free to corner to the star, and then I think when he is at his best, he is playing his eyes to the ball in certain zone coverages,” Payton said. “He was outstanding.”
What Wilson is doing now is vastly different from the role he had to play in New York.
The veteran is no longer in a featured role.
But he’s found a home as the Saints’ fix-it man in the secondary.
“It’s a week by week thing, whatever the role may be,” Wilson said. “Whatever they ask me to do, I know I can do it.”