NEW ORLEANS -- The Martez Wilson experiment, a.k.a. the conversion of New Orleans Saints' second-year pro from linebacker to defensive end this offseason, is heading to training camp.
And while the principle decision makers caution that the evaluation process is ongoing, Saints' acting head coach Joe Vitt and first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo both give an enthusiastic two thumbs up.
"So far, so good with regards to how you judge his transition,'' Spagnuolo said at the conclusion of the team's offseason program in mid-June. "Any time you do something like this, the first thing you got to have is the player has to embrace the change, and he's been terrific. He has embraced it, he wants to do it and he's passionate about it.
"So what more can you ask for? ''
Vitt, too, is enthusiastic in his evaluation of Wilson while acknowledging "nothing is permanent" until more data can be collected during training camp and exhibition season when jobs are at stake.
Training camp opens July 27.
"We're not going to make a decision until we get in pads and see how he fits on our big tackles and see what kind of power he has when he's striking,'' Vitt said. "But, up to this point, (the transition) looks real good.
"Again, it's tough because we don't have the pads on. But he's very comfortable in a 3-point stance, and with all the zone pressures that we have when we're dropping him into coverage, he may be the most advanced (defensive lineman) because he was a linebacker.''
On paper, it makes perfect sense to move Wilson from outside linebacker in the Saints 4-3 scheme to end, especially with Spagnuolo now in charge of the defense.
Wilson stands 6 feet 4 and weighs around 250 pounds, a bit on the light side, perhaps, to take on tackles and tight ends on run downs. But what he gives up in size, he makes up for in quickness and speed, either with a hand down or upright coming off the edge.
"Martez definitely has some edge pass-rush ability,'' Spagnuolo said.
Wilson played defensive end in high school, combining for 25 sacks his junior and senior seasons at Simeon Career Academy in Chicago. He excelled at middle and outside linebacker at the University of Illinois, proving versatile enough in pass coverage, on run downs and getting after the quarterback in passing situations.
So, when Saints defensive line coach Bill Johnson first broached the idea to Wilson during the offseason, the player showed a willingness to change his mindset and jumped at the opportunity to show off his vast skill set.
"I'm at my best going after the quarterback -- not just from the end spot -- but just going after the quarterback. Period,'' Wilson said. "They can line me up at end or at linebacker with a hand down or from an upright position outside.
"But I get to go after the quarterback every play.''
Well, not exactly. There will be times when Spagnuolo will want Wilson to drop into pass coverage, in both man and zone, to cover a tight end or running back. That likely would not have happened under former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who rushed his defensive linemen exclusively during his three seasons in New Orleans.
"I think I'll grow into the spot,'' said Wilson, who started two games last season, including the 36-32 wildcard loss at San Francisco. "I'm not even close to where I see myself being. No matter what position I'm playing down the road, I see myself just making plays. Making plays is what keeps you on the field.
"I see myself being a Hall of Famer one day.''
Perhaps so, but Wilson first needs to get on the field on a regular basis.
"The tell-tale sign will be when he's in there on first and second down and he's playing on a tight end and they run the football,'' Spagnuolo said. "Now will he be able to hold his ground and not get knocked back?
"Michael Strahan played in the low 260s, maybe 258, by the end of his last year with the Giants. So, it's more about leverage and using angles and all that, and if Martez can do that, he'll be OK.''
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