Wilson, who now earns $3.259 million, is due to become a free agent in March. He is expected to cash in big time.
“I would think his market is going to be at $9 million or $10 million a year,” said salary-cap analyst Jason Fitzgerald, who runs the site www.OvertheCap.com.
It has been quite a rise for Wilson. After his rookie season, when he did play regularly on special teams, he made four starts in 2018, then six in 2019. But he didn’t become a fixture in the lineup until Anthony Barr’s torn pectoral muscle in his right shoulder in Week 2 knocked him out for the season.
Since then, Wilson has played every snap in 13 straight games. The streak is expected to hit 14 when the Vikings (6-9) close the season Sunday against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field, just down the road from Wilson’s suburban Redford, Michigan, home.
Wilson has 115 tackles and is on the verge becoming the first player other than linebacker Eric Kendricks to lead the team in that category since 2014. Kendricks had 107 tackles and was heading for his sixth straight year of leading the team in tackles but he has missed the past four games with a calf injury.
Kendricks has called Wilson a “walking turnover” because he has three interceptions and two fumble recoveries this season. He also has three sacks.
“I know I am talented and gifted and good enough to be an every-down starter and to play in this league and compete against everybody, and I have fun doing that,” Wilson said. “I take pride in confidence, working every day to get better and, yeah, it’s a win.”
Wilson didn’t want to discuss his impending free agency. However, the general belief is the Vikings have a decision to make in March, choosing between keeping Barr or trying to re-sign Wilson.
Barr has three years left on a five-year, $67.5 million deal he signed in March 2019 when he was lured back to Minnesota after flirting with the New York Jets. But his four-year Pro Bowl streak ended in 2019, and it remains to be seen how he will recover from his injury. He is on the books in 2021 to make a $12.3 million base salary with a $15.062 million cap number, numbers so hefty that the cap-challenged Vikings might ask him to take pay cut or simply release him.
For now, Wilson, 26, is focused on heading back to his home state later this week. And if history is an indication, he could come up big against the Lions once again.
In 2018, Wilson made his first NFL start at U.S. Bank Stadium against the Lions, and looked good with six tackles. Later that season, he started the game at Detroit, and had a then career-high nine tackles, including a sack.
Wilson’s career high for tackles is now 13, accomplished in a 34-20 home win over the Lions in Week 9 this season. In perhaps the best game of his NFL career, he also had half a sack and an interception.
“I guess when it’s your hometown team, you kind of get up,” said Bob Snell, Wilson’s coach at Thurston High School in Redford. “When he’s coming here, family and friends are in the stands and that kind of stuff. Whenever he’s playing against the Lions, a lot of people back here are watching him, so I think that has something to do with a little added incentive.”
Snell admires how Wilson has worked his way up the ranks since his days at Thurston High School. Wilson hoped to be recruited by Ohio State or Michigan State, but wasn’t offered a scholarship by either. He ended up at Northwestern but transferred to Cincinnati before playing a game for the Wildcats.
After going undrafted in 2017, Wilson had to wait his turn for 2 1/2 seasons behind Ben Gedeon to become the third linebacker, a position that gets about 25 percent of the snaps. He finally moved into that role midway through 2019 when a concussion sidelined Gedeon for the rest of the season. And that was his role at start of this season before Barr got hurt.
“Everything he’s gotten, he’s worked hard for,” Snell said. “He wasn’t recruited by the big schools. He wasn’t drafted. But he’s going to keep working hard. He’s not going to rest on his laurels.”
Vikings co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Adam Zimmer knows that well.
“He’s gone from a college free agent who didn’t get drafted to a guy we’ve relied on every week,” Zimmer said. “It’s a tribute to him, because he takes care of his body, he trains all the time, he’s a guy that’s always studying. … He’s earned everything he’s gotten.”
It likely will really pay off in March when Wilson signs a lucrative long-term contract. Whether it’s with the Vikings or another team remains to be seen.