Shaun Wilson was an undrafted free agent a year ago who caught on with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He appeared in 5 games, accumulating 6 carries for 29 yards and 3 receptions for 5 yards.
When he was cut by the Bucs last month, the Redskins signed him in an effort to bolster their running back depth and special teams.
Shaun Wilson lined up as the primary punt returner for the Bengals game. With 5:25 left in the first half, he fielded a punt and returned it about 10 yards, going out of bound on the left side of the field. The return was competent, with a touch of explosion. But it was his first return of the night, with 4:40 left in the first quarter that really caught my attention. Wilson had 4 yards of separation from the Bengals coverage team, and could have gone left or right.
Wilson chose the “none of the above” option, and ran Brian Mitchell-style straight up the middle.
He broke free, and scampered for 27 yards.
The icing on the cake was that a 15-yard penalty was tacked on for an illegal tackle at the end.
When I saw that play live, I immediately opened up the Hogs Haven website, created a new story, and typed in the title: Special teams didn’t shine but Wilson looked like a legit punt returner vs the Bengals, intending to write the story on Friday. That story got derailed a bit because Wilson was injured in the second half of the Bengals game. Since his health status is uncertain, I decided to change the focus of the story slightly; it is now simply a Shaun Wilson spotlight.
Wilson is a smallish running back (5’9”. 185) who won’t likely make the roster purely on his skills as a running back. But he plays on the punt coverage team, so if he were able to prove his worth as a punt returner, he might conceivably earn the 4th RB spot as Chris Thompson’s backup and either the primary or backup punt returner.
On Thursday night, he looked decisive, quick, explosive and a bit elusive against the Bengals. I took notice because I had been disappointed by what I saw from him a week earlier against Cleveland. where he’d had two fair catches and a hesitant 8-yard return.
His two returns against Cincinnati looked like NFL-quality returns. Both were in a preseason game when the coverage units are still not ready for prime time, but Wilson himself appeared to make huge strides in a week, going from a nervous-looking, hesitant return man in Week 1 to a confident, explosive old-school, straight-up-the-gut returner in Week 2.
Wilson is also part of the punt coverage team — this is a guy ready to do whatever it takes to earn a roster spot. Unfortunately, when Wilson was covering a punt In the second half, one of his own teammates rolled up on him from behind. Wilson ended up being carted off the field.
Following the game, there were reports of an ankle injury or ankle sprain. There has been no official update from the Redskins since the game ended. I’ve been Googling “Shaun Wilson injury” every 12 hours or so since the end of the game, but I don’t imagine we’ll hear anything specific until Jay Gruden gets up to the podium again.
Like many sports fans, I love to root for the underdog. Shaun Wilson appeared to be having a nice training camp, but with his ankle injury, his possibilities for the 2019 season, as uncertain as they may have already been, become even murkier. Wilson’s only hope of earning a roster spot probably relied on him being healthy enough through 4 preseason games to make himself invaluable on special teams. With a mediocre outing against the Browns and two good returns against the Bengals, if he is not able to get back to the field for the Falcons game (and being carted off the field makes that seem unlikely) his friendly-fire injury on Thursday night could bring an end to Shaun Wilson’s hopes of making an NFL roster to start the season.