It wasn't long ago that Eugene Wilson's NFL career was off to an unexpected and almost unbelievably successful start. Selected as a cornerback in the second round of the 2003 draft, Wilson entered the starting lineup at a different spot -- free safety -- in Week 2 of his rookie season in the wake of the Lawyer Milloy fiasco. Over the ensuing two years Wilson became one of the better young playmaking safeties in the game - eight interceptions, 16 passes defensed, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries - all while collecting a pair of Super Bowl rings.
As fulfilling as his first two seasons were, the more recent 2005 and 2006 campaigns ended in nearly equal disappointment. The '05 season included 16 starts but also saw a huge drop off in Wilson's playmaking, due at least in part to the early season injury loss of veteran safety cohort Rodney Harrison. Things got even worse last fall when a hamstring injury held Wilson to just four games played before ending the season on injured reserve.
Once the rising star in the New England secondary, Wilson is now simply looking to revive the healthy, playmaking ways of his early NFL career. Make no mistake, heading into the final season of the five-year contract he signed as a rookie Wilson knows that in many ways the 2007 season will be a big one for him.
"Most definitely," Wilson responded quickly when asked about the coming season. "This is a year for me to come back and show I still have it. I feel like I do. It's just a matter of just going out there and showing it and just staying healthy."
That process took a positive first step in June's veteran mini-camp when Wilson took his usual spot alongside Harrison in what projects as the Patriots top defensive lineup. Despite missing the bulk of last season, Wilson was happy with his work sliding back into the secondary, even if the work came in mesh shorts.
"I haven't been on the field in a while. It's good to get back out here and back in tune working with the guys," Wilson said. "I feel like I'm moving well. I'm knowing my responsibilities and I feel like I'm right back into the groove."
The safety's struggles of late are even more obvious when juxtaposed to the playmaking ascent of fellow 2003 draftee Asante Samuel. While Wilson was limping through his fourth season, Samuel tied for the NFL lead with a career-high 10 interceptions as he played out his own rookie contract. Now the franchised cornerback is threatening to sit out the first 10 weeks of the new season.
Wilson remains close with his defensive back draft classmate, but heading into his own contract season won't let Samuel's situation infringe on his own status. While Samuel's value may never be higher Wilson's two-season slump has left mostly questions on his own resume of late.
"Me and Zant, we are real cool. We talk quite a bit," Wilson said. "Zant, he's doing what he has to do on his end and we are just doing what we can do out here with who we have.
"I am just out here to do what I can and do what I need to do on the field and then everything else will just work itself out off the field."
And beyond the desire to prove he still has "it" Wilson, like the rest of his Patriots teammates, is also driven by the slowly fading pain of the dismally disappointing end of New England's 2006 season. The injured free safety was left, like the rest of Patriots Nation, as a TV viewer while his defensive teammates ran out of gas on the Indy turf. Think watching Peyton Manning and the Colts pass their way to a comeback victory and eventual Super Bowl title was tough on fans, imagine how it felt to a guy who, if healthy, could very well have done something to stop it.
"It was tough not being out there. It was tough for us not to get that win," Wilson said. "But that's in the past and we are moving forward and we are just going to try to get it done this year."
Leaving last season and its disappointing AFC title loss in the past, Wilson hopes for a return to the early days of his career, back when he was the up-and-coming star of the New England secondary that was playing its part in championship success.
"You love to be out there with you teammates and back out there playing and going hard," Wilson said. "Now that I'm back out there everything is good. I'm just going to keep working hard and trying to help the team get better."
Because it wasn't all that long ago that things couldn't have gotten any better for both Wilson and the Patriots.