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Zimmer Looking for New Ways to Utilize Eric Wilson

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EAGAN, Minn. — Two years ago, Eric Wilson approached cutdown weekend with a positive mindset.

He felt like he'd done all he could as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Cincinnati, impressing coaches and the Vikings front office in spring practices, training camp and a handful of preseason games.

So Wilson waited for a call that never came, a sign that the linebacker was on the 53-man roster despite not being drafted.

"You don't know what to expect. But even when it's happening, you don't know what's going on," Wilson said of his emotions two years ago this coming weekend. "Hopefully you do all the things right. You don't want to get a phone call. Silence, in those terms, I guess that's a good thing. It means you made the 53.

"It was great," Wilson added. "Your family gets excited, you friends get excited and, of course, we get excited. All of our hard work paid off."

As he enters his third season with the Vikings, Wilson doesn't need to worry about much this weekend.

In fact, although Wilson wouldn't qualify as a starter in Minnesota, Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said he's always exploring ways to get the linebacker on the field.

"Wilson's had a really good camp," Zimmer said last week. "He's smart, he's obviously got good athletic ability, he understands the system really well.

"I'm always looking at ways to try to get him more involved in some of the packages because I like everything that he's doing," Zimmer added.

Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are the unquestioned starters under Zimmer, as the two are in for almost every situation, especially when the Vikings go to a nickel defense.

Fellow linebacker Ben Gedeon has been the starter in the base package with three linebackers, but that hasn't stopped Zimmer from being creative in trying to get multiple linebackers on the field at the same time.

"They're different in some of the things," Zimmer said of Wilson and Gedeon. "They both have strengths and weaknesses, but [Wilson has] had a good camp."

Gedeon recorded 54 tackles and three pass breakups in 2018 when he started eight of 15 games played but could be described as more of a run stopper. Wilson totaled 38 tackles, 2.0 sacks and five tackles for loss in starting four of the 12 games he played.

The 24-year-old said he's playing faster due to his comfort level of being in the same system for the third straight season. Of course, that doesn't mean Wilson has stayed complacent, as he's added to his plate each year he's been in Purple.

"I've been put at different positions, which has helped a lot," Wilson said. "I understand the whole defense and where I have to be on my Ps and Qs or where I can be aggressive. We have different communications, but yeah, I feel a lot more comfortable.

"Sometimes I have to play 'backer, and sometimes I have to play dime, and sometimes I have to play Sam (strongside linebacker), and sometimes I have to play Will (weakside linebacker). Just to be able to know each position helps to know the whole defense," Wilson added. "Whenever my number is called, for whatever position it is, I have to be ready. Whenever I'm in there, if the play is there to be made, I'm going to be there to make it."

View exclusive black-and-white images from the Vikings preseason game against the Cardinals at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Could he have pulled off that juggling act of knowing multiple spots as a rookie?

"I could have. But I don't know if it would have been as easy. I'm a lot more mature now, and I understand a lot more of the game," Wilson said. "Of course, it helps that I'm putting in work with film, but coaches do a great job of explaining it, and the veterans do a great job of helping me understand."

Wilson's versatility was on display in Week 16 of the 2018 season when he filled in for Kendricks, racking up a collection of tackles, including three for loss and a sack, against the Lions.

The Michigan native has now made four career starts, two of which have come against Detroit. And while he couldn't pinpoint exactly when things clicked for him on the field, Wilson agreed with the notion that they have.

"I don't know if I know exactly when that was, but I know I'm more confident in my game play," Wilson said. "I think it comes with the familiarity with the defense and the familiarity with the guys I'm playing with.

"I think we have a great group of guys, and we play well together," Wilson added. "For the most part, we have a good culture and a good community."

Barr, Kendricks and Gedeon have been with Wilson since he arrived in the NFL, as has 2016 draft pick Kentrell Brothers.

Wilson has developed a strong bond with Barr and Kendricks, as the trio traveled to Japan this offseason along with Danielle Hunter and Ifeadi Odenigbo. Wilson, Barr and Kendricks also took in the Minnesota State Fair on Sunday.

"It helps a lot, just to be comfortable with the guys. I can ask them any question about anything that we're doing," Wilson said of Minnesota's linebackers group. "I feel comfortable going up to them and asking … and I know they're going to help me. Anything I need, on or off the field. It's great to have a family off the field, as well."

Wilson won't have to worry about a phone call this weekend. Instead, he can get to work preparing for Atlanta and the Vikings 2019 season opener on Sept. 8.

But even as Wilson's role continues to grow in the Vikings defense, he still brings the work ethic of an undrafted free agent who had to claw his way onto the roster back in 2017.

"I think my mindset doesn't change," Wilson said. "Regardless, I have to be prepared to ball out.

"I'm going to keep that mindset and keep that mentality," Wilson added. "It doesn't matter what the circumstances are, I have to perform."

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