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Saints Linebacker Martez Wilson Ready to Break Out in Rob Ryan Defense

The season ending injury to Victor Butler has brought about opportunity for a number of Saints players in training camp. I have my eye on one player who I feel is the perfect fit to fill the void. I delve into the background of Martez Wilson for this edition of "Uptown's Football Science."

Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE

For people who have watched Martez Wilson since the days he was one of the more highly-touted prep athletes from the Midwest (Chicago), the 2013 season marks the first in which he will be playing the position that suits him the finest.

One of the more versatile athletes in the entire NFL, fans and pundits alike have only gotten see glimpses of what will potentially make Wilson one of the more impactful defenders on the Saints roster. For Wilson, the ups and downs and imperilment of football mimics the same path he has taken in life. A path, at least football-wise, that will ultimately converge at the quarterback.

4.49 seconds is all the time I needed to make my own personal decision on where Martez Wilson would be the most effective going forward in the professional ranks. Going into the 2011 NFL Draft, the precedent was set with conversion guys like Aldon Smith (Missouri) and Von Miller (Texas A&M), using their versatility to laud them with high regard in relation to their respective draft status. Smith was thought to be a perfect fit for a 3-4 outside linebacker coming from a defensive end in a 4-3 defense. Likewise many thought the same for Miller, who was thought to be a top five pick making the conversion from a defensive end/stand up linebacker (Joker LB) in Texas A&M's versatile defensive scheme. Other conversion guys like Ryan Kerrigan (Purdue), and Akeem Ayers (UCLA), and Justin Houston (Georgia), were thought to be in the mix to be first round picks as well. But the player I was most interested in was Martez Wilson, middle linebacker for the University of Illinois.

Coming out of Simeon Career Academy in Chicago, some thought Wilson would be a top five pick whenever he decided to enter the draft. As a receiver, linebacker, and defensive end, Wilson garnered similar attention to fellow classmate and '07 graduate Derrick Rose (2011 NBA MVP for the hometown Chicago Bulls). With 49 receptions for 1,005 yards (9 TD's) on offense, to go along with 240 tackles, 7 sacks, and 1 interception on defense, Wilson was a bonafide 5 star recruit, one of the top 10 recruits in the nation according to ESPN.

In what was thought to be an upset, a 2-10 University of Illinois procured the services of Wilson through the relentless recruiting of head coach Ron Zook.

Wilson flashed in his first season in Champaign. His team was one of the more improved squads in all of football. Led by senior middle linebacker 'J' Leman, the Fighting Illini rode a physical defense and an explosive spread offense all the way to a 9-4 record. The late-season win over #1 Ohio State capped off a pretty magical turnaround for Zook and company. Wilson finished the season with 29 tackles and 2 sacks, which is good for most freshman, but a disappointment in the eyes of Wilson fans, as it did not measure up to the hype he had coming into the season.

His 73 tackles and 3 sacks as a sophomore was impressive, especially considering he was clearly out of position for his skill set (4-3 OLB). What the 2008 season did was show that Wilson had the athleticism and aptitude to be a force on the collegiate level. Often playing in space and filling gaps. Wilson's versatility was evident in a big way.

His sophomore year also featured an unfortunate incident where Wilson was stabbed twice in the back breaking up a fight where a former teammate was being attacked by a group of men outside a bar. The setback put an end to Wilson's season (due to the surgery the night of the incident) when it seemed it was time for him to take off. His subsequent season was marred by a scary neck injury sustained in the season opener against Missouri which resulted in surgery, and Wilson missed the rest of the season. His move to middle linebacker I felt was an odd one, but his nine tackles before the injury showed that he was pretty much capable of anything in the game of football.

After a so-so start to his collegiate career, a surging sophomore season, and a junior season that ended in a redshirt after the neck injury, Wilson vowed to earn his keep. And that he most certainly did.

His redshirt junior season was pretty spectacular in my opinion. He picked up where he left off at the time of the injury. As a middle linebacker in Illinois' 4-3 scheme, Wilson totaled 111 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 1 interception. He looked every bit the explosive athlete the Illini thought they were originally getting.

Wilson at MLB at U of Illinois
Wilson at MLB at U of Illinois

Here we have Wilson manning his MLB role at the University of Illinois. The opponent is running a jet sweep right through the teeth of the defense. Wilson must stack and shed a lineman to make the play which is coming to his area.

Wilson MLB 2

The stacking has begun. Wilson must be able to shed the lineman in the opposite direction of whatever lane the ball-carrier chooses.

Wilson MLB 3

Wilson disposes of the lineman and gets ready to make the play at the line of scrimmage.

Wilson MLB 4

Wilson makes the tackle which keeps a potentially big play at a minimum. Stacking and shedding lineman is something that Martez Wilson should've never had to do if he were playing in a scheme that fit his skill set. But nevertheless Wilson shows the type of multi-faceted player he truly is.

His ability to scrape and shoot gaps were apparent. His ability to pursue sideline to sideline were obvious. But moreover, his ability to get to the QB in blitz packages and clear pass rush situations stood out most to me. He reminded me of Clay Matthews, the pass-rushing linebacker for the Green Bay Packers who affects the offense in a multitude of ways. With one more year just like the one he had, Wilson would undoubtedly procure himself that spot in the first round like most predicted out of high school. Well, needless to say, Wilson had other plans.

As a surprise early entrant into the NFL draft, I knew Wilson would have to move mountains to even be in consideration for the first round. And to his credit he almost moved that proverbial mountain!

Measuring in at 6-4, 250-pounds, with arms measuring 34 5/8" long, Wilson recorded that 4.49 40-yard dash, while topping out at 36″ in the vertical jump, with a 10'04″ broad jump! His 1.59 10-yard split was the cherry on top for me. I had him pegged to go to the Dallas Cowboys with either their 2nd or 3rd round pick.

I believed that new Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan could use a versatile player like Wilson. His scheme is heavy on pass rush, and he often likes to use all of his best pass rushers on the field simultaneously. This leads to pass rushers having to play different positions on any given play. Why not get a player who has actually played a numerous amount of positions along the front seven? And more importantly he would've been a great player to groom and eventually replace Anthony Spencer or Victor Butler, outside linebackers you had to assume would leave for greater opportunity financially or for more playing time.

In what I deemed another upset in Wilson's career, the Saints selected him in the 3rd round with the 72nd overall pick. The Saints at the time were running an aggressive 4-3 scheme under famed coordinator Gregg Williams - and were set on making Wilson a defensive end in their scheme. As noted, Wilson has the ability to play anywhere along a front, but in my opinion his talents are best suited to be a standup rush linebacker in a 3-4 defense ala the aforementioned Clay Matthews.

Martez Wilson with an inside rush
Martez Wilson with an inside rush

Wilson is working from the stand up position at the 3-technique. Standing up allows Martez to take advantage of his quick first step.

vick Sack 2

This almost isn't fair. Wilson hits the guard with a jab step reminiscent of his former classmate Derrick Rose.

vick Sack 3

The guard is off balance and leaning like the Tower of Pisa. Wilson converts speed into power and shoves the much larger player aside creating a huge void in the blocking scheme.

vick Sack 4

From there it's clear sailing. Now it's time for that 1.59 10-yard split to come into play. Good luck escaping when this athletic freak is bearing down on you.

vick Sack 6

Ouch! That's 250 ft-lbs of torque ramming into your QB! Wilson is a specimen among specimens.

Playing sparingly in 13 games as a rookie, Wilson's first year could be treated as more of another redshirt year in my opinion. Finishing with seven tackles and one sack, Wilson would have to wait until his second year to move up the ranks on the Saints roster.

Wilson's second year showcased more of the athleticism that he was known for. New Saints coordinator Steve Spagnuolo allowed Wilson to play all over the front in his 4-3 alignment. It was closer to what Wilson was used to in college, but it still wasn't the position in the scheme that most thought he should ultimately play. Finishing with 19 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble and recovery, to go along with 2 passes defensed showed that Wilson could be factor in a sub role.

Looking ahead to Wilson's third season, the stars are aligning for him to be the breakout player on the Saints defense. Once again Wilson must learn a new defense as the Saints fired Spagnuolo after one horrendous season. This time I believe they hired the right guy.

How's this for symmetry?

Wilson finally gets to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 based alignment for none other than former Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan! Wilson gets to be moved all around the front while lining up at rush linebacker predominantly.

A season-ending injury to Victor Butler - who indeed left the Cowboys the year I thought he would in search of greener pastures - elevates Wilson on the depth chart. He has a very similar skill set to a guy like Butler, one that Rob Ryan will undoubtedly fall in love with.

But once again the injury bug has bitten Wilson, dislocating his elbow in training camp, and is due to miss possibly the next four weeks.

Wilson is facing another setback at an inopportune time. But as I have come to realize with Martez Wilson, the ups and downs he's experienced in his career - and life - have forced him to prevail under less than ideal situations. Situations in which I'm confident he will prevail. Lookout New Orleans, a star may have just been born. Or in Martez Wilson's case... reborn!

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