Some NFL rookies sit in the background, observing, learning and easing their way into the action at the professional level. Others are thrown into the fire, many times forced into action because of a team's lack of talent. Patriots second-round draft pick Eugene Wilson, a 5-10, 192-pound corner out of the University of Illinois, would appear to have the best of both scenarios.
At the Patriots mandatory three-day mini camp earlier this month Wilson worked with the first defensive unit for much of the practice action. And while that action says something for the fact that last year's starting corner, the aging Otis Smith, is recovering from a 2002 season-ending pectoral injury, it also says something for the talent the young corner brings to the table.
As a three-year starter for the Fighting Illini, the scouting report on Wilson was that he was an athletic, instinctive type athlete with a knack for breaking up passes. He finished his career tied for sixth in school history with 11 interceptions. He also shattered the school's previous pass deflections record of 26, by recording 60 in his 45 career games.
With that track record Wilson comes to New England with the requisite confidence needed for NFL-level cornerback play, although he admits the new experiences can be intimidating.
"I am just going through the experience and I am just like a rookie, kind of in awe and just trying to go along with the flow," Wilson said of his work in the Patriots offseason program and mini camps. "So far it is going pretty good."
Good indeed, as while Smith did sit out the camp practices, there were plenty of other options for the coaches at corner including veteran free agent Tyrone Poole, and returning veterans like Leonard Myers and Ben Kelly. In fact Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick said following the mini camp that both Wilson and fellow rookie Asante Samuel are moving along well in their early NFL development. At one point in the camp when Ty Law left practice early the two rookies were manning both corners with first secondary.
"Asante and Eugene both did a nice job of coming in," Belichick said. "We've worked them in a couple of positions in their set, inside and outside, and I think that they are starting to get a feel for what we are looking for. There's still quite a bit of learning because we were checking coverages and making formation adjustments and that type of thing. I think that they have shown that they should be competitive in training camp."
For Wilson, the opportunity, even in a non-contact setting, to work on the same field with guys like Law, Lawyer Milloy and Rodney Harrison, is one that he believes can only improve his own skills.
"It felt cool," Wilson said of lining up with the Pro Bowlers. "I mean I felt like I was just out there to play and I just went out there and did my job.
"For them to get me out there with the first group and just get adjusted to the speed and everything, it's been challenging but at the same time I'm learning. So I am just looking forward to learning more every day."
And the rookie knows that things will change dramatically when the pads go on in late July, the time when he will really get a chance to show his stuff and earn his playing time. Right now he is just worried about doing everything he can to improve his chances.
"I can't really say how good I am against any other competition because I haven't been there yet," Wilson said frankly. "Right now I am just working hard and trying to improve and just hoping to make the team better."
By the looks of it he will be given every opportunity to make the team better. Whether it is in action as a starter, reserve, nickel back or in return work on special teams, Wilson's immediate future is wide open. Not only can he benefit from the experience of the talented group of veteran defensive backs that are around him, but that group ensures that Wilson won't be thrown out on the island that is life as an NFL corner until the coaches are sure he is ready.