The media at Chicago Bears training camp are directed to grab players for interviews as they leave the practice field. This means that after players have spent three and a half hours in the morning listening to coaches scream in their faces, getting blasted in the chops by guys running full tilt, and sweating out more liquids than most people drink in a week, the media gets their chance to speak with them.
A sea of navy and white jerseys, the players scatter when they break the team huddle and journalists and television cameras descend on the guy they covet. Superstars like Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall and head coach Marc Trestman garner sizable crowds. Other players simply walk-off, looking forward to lunch and rest, unabated by the hoard of reporters.
Wide receiver and seventh-round draft choice, Marquess Wilson was easy to spot sauntering off the practice field. Lanky, he stands 6’4″ and tips the scales at 184—though standing next to him you’d think he were bigger than this—his strides are long and salient. But it’s not his physique or the way he carries it that really catches the eye; instead, it’s his young face.
Wilson, who attended Washington State and in 2012 led all Cougar receivers with 52 receptions, is just 20 years old.
Since the Bears attend camp at Olivet University in Bourbonnais, Ill., Wilson is probably more comfortable than the rest of his older teammates.
“I’m used to these dorm beds,” he said, holding his facemask through the head of his shoulder pads. He laughed. He added that he didn’t think he was missing out on anything by being so young. If anything, it means his focus is in all the right places.
Shannon Sharpe, Marques Colston, Stevie Johnson, Donald Driver.
Recognize any of those names? All of them have compiled—and for Colston and Johnson, continue to compile—quality NFL careers. And all of these guys were drafted in the seventh round. NFL fans know all about “Mr. Irrelevant” and though this moniker has become synonymous with the last pick overall, most of the late round draft picks in the NFL could be labeled as such.
From 2010 to 2012, 762 players were selected in the NFL draft and, of them, 229 have become primary starters in at least one season, an average of 2.4 primary starters per draft. Primary starters pulled from rounds five through seven would certainly not improve these alarmingly low numbers.
The NFL, as Jerry Glanville quipped, stands for “not for long.” Glanville was obviously talking about referees, but you get the idea. Making a squad is hard enough, starting on one is an even taller order. In a league where the difference in athletic ability from one player to the next can be razor thin, it takes a special work ethic, a certain swagger, an unmistakable hunger to separate one guy from another.
Perhaps it was the sound of the lunch bell, but there was a hunger in Wilson’s eyes. After a few questions, he loosened, a confident humility in the way he carried himself and answered questions—polite, friendly, intelligent.
It’s hard to imagine this was the same kid who got suspended in 2012 for leaving a practice. Scouts pointed to this as one of the reasons his draft stock pushed him into the seventh round. At the time he was only 19.
Of course it is easy to make excuses. Young people are full of them. But the NFL, its spotlight, and expectations doesn’t have time for excuses, especially if the player giving them is starting from the bottom. If Wilson hopes to make the squad—and join the list of names above—he’ll need to sustain that hunger through August and beyond.
Evan Silva, senior football editor for Rotoworld, thinks Wilson can “develop into a starting-caliber NFL wideout if his head is on straight.” He cited that Wilson had “a lot more talent than his seventh-round draft status suggests.”
The first step to getting his head right would be finding motivation to get better. Wilson pointed out that he had already learned a great deal from watching veteran wide receiver Brandon Marshall while also studying film and route trees to round out his own game.
“I want to add my own style, own flair to my game,” Wilson noted. “Competition is making me better.”
Silva noted that at Washington State Wilson “made plays at the second and third levels of the defense” and “was sometimes dominant there.”
What both Silva and Rumford Johnny, fantasy writer and and offseason college film junkie, noted was Wilson’s lack of bulk. Scouts expressed concern that he could compete with professional cornerbacks and could struggle to find separation.
“If Wilson makes the final cut for Chicago, his best bet would be as a red zone target, utilizing his big frame and catch radius,” Rumford Johnny said.
Wilson, who hails from California, lived in Washington, and now finds himself in Illinois, is no stranger to adversity and fresh environments. He’ll have to draw on these sorts of abstractions—and perhaps add 10 pounds—to find his place in the NFL.
For now his concentration is solely on making Chicago his permanent home. He might miss his family, but he knows where he wants to be.
“My family is right here,” he said, grinning. “My team is my family.”