FOXBOROUGH -- Already, having not even completed his rookie season, Patriots safety Eugene Wilson can legitimately be called an impact player. You might even consider calling Wilson a great player; that is, if you define a great player as one who makes those around him better.
In an alternate universe, the Patriots and Lawyer Milloy came to an agreement in the offseason on the restructuring of his contract; he's the safety alongside Rodney Harrison, and Wilson and fellow rookie Asante Samuel are reserve cornerbacks. The Patriots, without a true free safety, are playing a lot more two-deep zone, and, while they're winning, Milloy isn't exactly thrilled about his statistics suffering again because he's so far away from the action. Harrison isn't on anyone's All-Pro team or being mentioned as a Pro Bowl snub because, in this alternate universe, he's a left or right safety and not a strong safety, and as a result has not been in position to amass three sacks, a forced fumble, or a team-leading 140 tackles.
Back to reality. Harrison and cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole all enjoyed some of the finest seasons of their careers in part because of a converted corner who is just beginning his. When New England released Milloy before the season opener, one may have figured the Patriots' secondary had a chance to get by without a four-time Pro Bowler. No one would have imagined it would get better. It has, and Wilson's steady play has a lot to do with it.
Wilson has started the past 15 games as New England's last line of defense. Moving a rookie corner who never had played safety began as an experiment designed to combat Philadelphia's three-receiver sets. Looking back, it's a stroke of genius, only because, in both tackling and pass coverage, rarely has Wilson looked out of position.
"I've made a lot of improvements," he said this week. "I'm real comfortable back there. It's just a big change from when I first started, not knowing anything about it, to where I'm pretty much on top of everything."
Once in a while more than Harrison. The 10th-year veteran forgot his assignment on Buffalo's third play from scrimmage last Saturday, which ended in a Mike Vrabel interception, but, fortunately, the rookie remembered. "I drew a blank," Harrison said, "and Eugene got me in the right place. He told me I had the back out of the backfield. I did that a couple of times that day. Little things like that show he's progressing as a player. I hate admitting that, because he makes sure I don't forget about it."
Most of the media forgot about Wilson for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Wilson, who tied for the league lead in interceptions among rookies with four, received one vote out of 50 for the award, which went to Baltimore's Terrell Suggs Tuesday. Wilson, though, meant just as much as any rookie to his defense.
For starters, his speed, range, and instincts manning the middle of the field allow Harrison to play in the "box" more than he would have had Milloy been here. "I wouldn't be able to play my natural position," Harrison said. "I probably wouldn't have been able to do the things I've done this year.
"When you have two guys with similar styles of play [Harrison and Milloy], it's tough to throw one back in the deep part of the field, because our first two steps are forward, not backward. I don't think I could have had the statistical year I had."
Law and Poole also benefited from Wilson in that they've been able to cover more aggressively because they have confidence in Wilson's ability to cover a lot of ground and come to their rescue in not a lot of time.
Wilson's cornerback pedigree also makes life easier for Bill Belichick, Romeo Crennel, and New England's defensive staff. They don't have to bring in an extra corner in passing situations. "Having another cornerback on the field, for a defensive coordinator or a defensive backfield coach, that's a dream come true," Belichick said. "That's a real luxury. You're not worried about matchups. It takes a lot of the load off making defensive calls."
Several long-distance phone calls made it possible for the Patriots to end up with Wilson, the first of New England's two second-round picks in April, taken 36th overall out of Illinois. Be thankful that the Washington Redskins were so hot after kick returner Chad Morton in the offseason. They needed a fifth-round pick higher than No. 166 to give to the Jets as compensation for signing the restricted free agent, and Washington got No. 140 from New England March 6 in exchange for the Patriots moving up six spots in the third round, from the 81st overall selection to 75th.
On draft day, the Patriots swapped the 19th overall pick for Baltimore's second-round pick (No. 41) and first-round choice next year. New England then used No. 41 and the third-rounder it received from Washington to move up to Houston's slot (36) and nab Wilson. Now, eight months later, Wilson and the Patriots have a chance to end the season in Houston -- at the Super Bowl.
Milloy (who, by the way, also was the 36th player selected in his draft) was saying two weeks ago how surprised he was at how well Wilson (5 feet 10 inches, 192 pounds) tackles. Harrison still talks about Wilson's open-field takedown of Ricky Williams in Miami Oct. 19 that prevented a long run. Wilson laid a big hit on Rod Smith in Denver Nov. 3. He drew a $7,500 fine from the league (leading with his helmet, he would win his appeal) for a hit on Dallas's Randal Williams.
The Patriots may have their safety for the next decade. In Year 1, Wilson posted 66 tackles (according to coaches' grades), including 54 solo stops, and nine deflections. He closed out victories over the Jets and Giants with interceptions. Of course, he still has plenty to learn. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning taught him quite a few lessons Nov. 30, when they attacked him for two touchdowns. But that's where the cornerback in Wilson comes in.
"One thing Eugene has been able to do is learn from his mistakes and not come back the next week and consistently repeat those mistakes . . .," Harrison said. "He understands that it's not about how you play one week, but how you play consistently."
Wilson has played free safety as though he'd played it all his life.
"He's a cornerback playing free safety, but he's turned into a legitimate free safety," Harrison said. "He has all the physical tools. It's just a matter of putting it all together mentally. With a couple of years of experience, if Gino can continue to tackle consistently, there's no way in the world he shouldn't be one of the best young free safeties."