When Albert Wilson reported to the Chiefs’ practice facility early last week, receivers coach David Culley greeted him with some fairly surprising news; he would be making the first start of his young NFL career against Arizona.
“I came in and they told me they were going to go with me,” Wilson said with a smile. “I prepared for it all week.”
But the rookie, who went undrafted last May, didn’t tell his family and friends. At least not at first.
“I just went with it,” Wilson said with a laugh, “then I spread the word Saturday and Sunday, let everybody know I was going to start. I was just making sure everything was going (right) during the week, that I had everything good and ready to go.”
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In other words, Wilson didn’t want to raise his family’s expectations in case it didn’t quite work out. Say Donnie Avery, who underwent core muscle surgery roughly two months ago, started feeling better. What would happen then, Wilson worried.
It turns out Wilson had nothing to worry about.
“I just thought Donnie needed to step back; he wasn’t quite up to full speed the week before,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “It wasn’t anything of effort or any of that. With Donnie, he is just coming off that injury and I thought he needed a little more time.”
So in stepped Wilson, the 5-foot-9, 200-pounder rookie from Georgia State, who was asked to go toe-to-toe Sunday with the 6-3 Antonio Cromartie and 6-1 Patrick Peterson, who form one of the league’s best — and lankiest — cornerback tandems.
Wilson held his own, too, catching four passes for 53 yards. Aside from Jason Avant, who caught five passes for 64 yards on Sunday, Wilson’s catches and yardage total were the highest of any Chiefs receiver not named Dwayne Bowe since Junior Hemingway, who missed the Arizona game with a concussion, caught four passes for 50 yards in a loss to San Francisco on Oct. 5.
“Albert has been playing well; he did a nice job,” Reid said.
Perhaps even more telling; Wilson’s number of targets (eight) was the most of any wide receiver not named Dwayne Bowe since Avery had 13 in the season opener.
While some of that likely had to do with the way Arizona defended the Chiefs — lots of man-to-man coverage outside — it could also be a reflection on quarterback Alex Smith’s budding trust in the rookie, which Wilson has worked hard to earn.
“I’m all about the playbook,” Wilson said. “I feel like if I know exactly what I’m doing, I have an advantage over the DB. And if I don’t, that’s when you start playing slow.
“So I feel like my speed is something that (gives me) an advantage over people, so if I know exactly what I’m doing, I’ll be able to play as fast as I can.”
But adjusting to the NFL hasn’t just been about learning the playbook. He’s also had to sharpen up his route-running. In college, he says he mainly ran short option routes and slants to take advantage of his run-after-the-catch ability.
“Routes where I can get a little separation and able to get out into the open field, just little quick routes,” Wilson said.
Wilson showed some of the same niftiness in the open field Sunday. His first catch (on a square-in route) only went for 6 yards, but his his next two (on drag routes) went for 13 and 22 yards, with most coming after the catch.
However, Reid’s offense demands more from its receivers. For Wilson, that means becoming comfortable with routes like curls and comebacks, too. One of Wilson’s catches Sunday came via a comeback, which went for 12 yards.
“I just have to learn how to break it down and start it back up,” Wilson said.
That said, Wilson knows he still has plenty of room to improve. He dropped at least two passes — a high throw on a tunnel screen in which he could have made a leaping grab — and another on a dig route late in the game, which Wilson said he was at fault for because he should have lined up slightly different at the line of scrimmage.
“Those balls were catchable,” Wilson said.
These are the kind of lessons that come with experience and playing time, even though the process can be sped up a bit with a little help. To that end, Wilson says Avery did a good job of shepherding him through his first start.
“He’s an experienced guy, he just knows the game,” Wilson said of Avery. “From splits to DBs doing things to telling you how to breathe during a game.”
How to breathe?
“Sometimes you get excited, and you just overwhelm yourself,” Wilson said. “He was just telling me that every play on the way back (to the huddle), don’t say anything. Just continue breathing until you get back. It helped me out a lot.”
When it comes to the handful of plays he left out on the field, however, there’s only so much Avery can do for him. Wilson knows it’s up to him to make those plays so he can keep seeing the field.
“I was OK with it, I’d say,” Wilson said of his performance. “But I wasn’t satisfied.”