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Tough beginning turning into sweet finish for Raiders rookie

Updated December 22, 2023 - 9:21 am

Raiders defensive lineman Tyree Wilson lined up a shade to the left of Vikings guard Blake Brandel before one play Dec. 10 at Allegiant Stadium.

Wilson exploded once the ball was snapped. He flashed a lean to the left, then darted to the right to catch Brandel off balance. Wilson’s second NFL sack was soon a foregone conclusion. The seventh overall pick in April’s NFL draft wrapped up Vikings quarterback Joshua Dobbs to send relief through a fan base concerned with his development this season.

That one overpowering rep showed the speed, explosiveness and power that enticed the Raiders to select Wilson that high in the first place. It came during his best game of the season — he had four total pressures and three quarterback hurries — as the team moved him around the line of scrimmage to deploy his talent in new ways.

Wilson took another step in the right direction against the Chargers four days later. The former Texas Tech standout had two pressures, two hurries and two tackles in another performance that showed he’s hitting his stride.

“He’s constantly getting better at practice,” Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham said. “I think it’s so important, especially in this game, that how you practice becomes game reality. We all talk about that, you’ve heard that, and in practice, between periods, the time before practice when he’s out there, he’s putting in the work and then they’re seeing the results. And couldn’t be more proud of him in terms of how he’s improved.”

It was always going to take time

Every level of the Raiders organization understood it would be a process getting Wilson on track.

That’s often the case for rookies. Wilson’s learning curve was even more pronounced because he suffered a serious foot injury in November 2022.

It cut his final season at Texas Tech short and wiped out his entire offseason. Wilson was rehabbing his injury instead of focusing on football like the rest of his draft classmates.

“He didn’t have a normal offseason,” Raiders interim coach Antonio Pierce said. “He was rehabbing in the month of December, couldn’t run his 40(-yard dash), couldn’t do anything at the combine.”

Wilson couldn’t take part in the Raiders offseason program, either. He didn’t get cleared to practice with the team until the second week of the preseason.

“It set me back quite a bit,” Wilson said. “Just coming in here and having to restart the whole rehab process under them and not being out there actually learning the game or get back into rhythm.”

Wilson isn’t making excuses. Expecting him to pick up where he left off before his injury — at the NFL level, no less — after so much time off was unrealistic.

“I hadn’t played football since last November. That’s a long time to be off the field,” Wilson said. “You lose the feel, you lose some of the technique.”

Late starting point

Wilson’s rehab process meant he was eight months behind his fellow rookies by the time the season got started.

“The whole year was about catching up,” Wilson said. “But I had to jump in head first and just be in goal mode and see where it takes you.”

There were some trying moments.

He was a clear step behind at the snap of the ball the Raiders’ first game against the Broncos. He was still in his stance while everyone else was moving.

Weeks went by before Wilson made an impact. His grades on the website Pro Football Focus plummeted to levels associated with draft busts. It was easy to wonder if the Raiders missed the mark.

“I’m sure early on he was frustrated, as we all were,” Pierce said.

It helped that the organization understood the situation. The Raiders had Wilson’s back. It didn’t quiet all the outside noise, but it balanced things out.

“It reduced the pressure,” Wilson said.

He did his best to cope. He knew he wasn’t playing to his potential.

“I’m my biggest critic, and I wanted to be the best version I could be,” Wilson said.

Wilson stayed quiet and continued to work.

He didn’t want to fight back with a bunch of excuses. He wanted his play to serve as his largest advocate.

“I didn’t use it as a crutch,” Wilson said. “I just came in with a great attitude every day and just kept working with the understanding I’ll get my time to show what I’m all about.”

The Raiders believed throughout Wilson would turn a corner the last month of the season.

That’s showing on the field. The fact he is playing in different spots on the defensive line is a clear sign he understands his assignments and is ready to expand his game. His performances have put all his physical gifts on display as well.

“It’s a long season, so you’re gonna have ups and downs,” Wilson said. “But for me, it’s always about right now. I came in and got more comfortable, started to get the confidence back, and now I just feel like I’m getting in my stride and I’m going to finish the year the right way. Turn a lot of heads going into the offseason.”

Set up for the future

Wilson’s goal is to finish the season as strong as possible.

If he does that, and stays healthy, he’ll also be set up for an offseason dedicated just to football. It’s something he’s looking forward to.

“I haven’t had an offseason, a real offseason, in a long time,” Wilson said. “So I’ll be able to focus on certain things and excel at certain things. And I’ll be happy to come back with that juice and ball out with the boys.”

The Raiders are excited as well. They see the promise Wilson has.

“It will be good for him just to get in here with our training staff and nutritionists and everybody, just change his body even more,” Pierce said. “I mean, the sky’s the limit for him, and it’s what he wants to get out of it and the work that he’s going to put into it, which I would be surprised if he’s not here each and every day.”

Wilson will have a perfect role model to learn from as well. Raiders star pass rusher Maxx Crosby lives almost full-time at the team’s facility during the offseason. He and Wilson should be joined at the hip all spring and summer.

“When (Crosby) shows up probably two weeks after the season’s over, (Wilson will) be here right with him,” Pierce said. “And you’ll have no better mentor and leader to follow than (Crosby).”

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsignore@reviewjournal.com. Follow @VinnyBonsignore on X.

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