It didn’t exactly help Chris Wilson’s chances of sticking with the Washington Redskins for a third season when the club took Brian Orakpo, who plays the same position, with their first-round draft pick in April. But Wilson didn’t take it personally.
“Not at all,” he said. “I want to be the best, and no matter what the sport is - boxing, football, basketball - you’re always up for the challenge.”
At the time of the draft, Wilson was an undersized, pass-rushing defensive end. So was Orakpo. But Wilson was an undrafted Redskins backup and special teams player from a Division II school via the Canadian Football League. Orakpo was a highly decorated All-American from Texas, the 13th pick, and expected not only to contribute but make an immediate impact. He has a five-year contract worth $20 million, more than $12 million guaranteed.
Wilson, who earns considerably less, has since been converted to outside linebacker. But guess what? So has Orakpo. They still play the same position. Orakpo is the starter, Wilson a backup. The Redskins have other linebackers who are more experienced at the position than Wilson, whose fight to make the 53-man roster might go down to the wire.
But he isn’t worried.
“I think I have a roster spot,” he said.
Said linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti: “He’s a competitive guy, and he doesn’t worry about things he can’t control. That’s my sense with him. All he does, he comes to work, he asks good questions, he writes his notes down and he won’t make the same mistake twice. Once something gets corrected, it gets corrected.”
Wilson even believes the presence of Orakpo, who has lived up to the hype so far, is helping his game.
“What I found out, being here with Orakpo, is that there are things I take from his pass rushing and things he does as a linebacker and add it my game and vice versa,” Wilson said. “All that’s gonna do is make us a better team. We were already a dominant defense last year. We added [Albert] Haynesworth, we added Orakpo and you’ve got myself playing the [strongside] linebacker position. We’re looking to do better. And that’s what it’s all about.”
At 6-foot-4 and 247 pounds, Wilson no longer is a smallish defensive end, although he still sometimes lines up in a three-point stance and rushes from the edge in passing situations (he had a sack from that position in Saturday’s preseason win over Pittsburgh).
Though Olivadotti called Wilson “one of my bigger guys,” he doesn’t look it.
Wilson is tall and lean - “he looks like a high-hurdler,” Olivadotti said.
Wilson has five career sacks in 32 games since he joined the Redskins in 2007 after helping the BC Lions win the Grey Cup. He began his transition to linebacker during the spring.
“I didn’t see it coming,” he said. “I thought I was just gonna be a pass-rushing specialist and special-teams player. But with the God-given abilities I’ve been given, when it did come, I definitely thought it was an opportunity. Especially with the fact that they still let me pass rush, and that’s what I like to do.”
Wilson is outgoing, chatty and obviously confident. He has been overachieving ever since he was snubbed by the big schools and went on to star at Division II Northwood University, which has campuses in Michigan, Texas and Florida. Wilson attended the Midland, Mich., campus, about an hour north of Flint, his hometown.
“You feel like, not an outcast but kind of like B class,” he said. “Like, ‘Oh, you’re just a B-class athlete.’ But what are you gonna do about it? How are you gonna prove you’re not a B-class athlete? … People are gonna have their perceptions until you prove otherwise.”
The current perception is that, given his new position, Wilson is no lock to make the team.
“It’s hard, but I think I’m learning,” he said. “I think I’m doing good. I think I’m looking like a linebacker. … The big difference is technique. In the three-point stance, you’re exploding off the line. When you’re in a two-point, you’re more balanced. You have to be more attentive. As soon as you see what’s going on, you have to react that much faster.
“It’s a lot more reactive. The D-line, you want to make them react to you. You want to be the bullies. They’re like, ‘We’ve got to do something about this guy.’ At linebacker, it’s more about recognizing formations, what the offense is trying to do and just knowing everything that’s going on. You’ve got to know where your safeties are at behind you. When you’re a [defensive lineman], you don’t care nothing about where the safety’s at.”
Wilson’s chance of making the final cut is enhanced by his expanding role on special teams. Wilson has what special teams coach Danny Smith calls “big speed.”
“There’s a lot I like about Chris Wilson,” Smith said. “He’s a real man out there. He really is. He’s grown a lot from a year ago, understanding techniques, schemes and things that we do. … He’s a good studier. He’s a good film guy. He’s good at meetings. He’s good on the field.”