How do you define a starter? Is it a title reserved only for those on offense and defense? Does it belong to the eleven players on either side of the ball with the most snaps? Does it merely mean the players who take the field on the opening drive?
When the Patriots took unknown safety Tavon Wilson in the second round of the 2012 Draft, everyone projected him to be a starter. He had to be a starter with that draft position. Wilson was a three year starter in college, but he only manaed to crack the conference "Honorable Mention Team" in his final two seasons. He wasn't on the radar of most scouting agencies and if he was, he was considered a late round prospect.
Wilson has not been a "starter" on a defense over the past three seasons. The players drafted after him offer a laundry list of players who have developed towards the best in the league at their position, from the Chargers defensive tackle Kendall Reyes, to the Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David, and the Ravens guard Kelechi Osemele. The fact that these players would have filled needs for the Patriots inspires a twinge of regret for how the draft played out.
Looking over his tenure with New England, Tavon has been viewed with a different lens than most second round prospects under Bill Belichick. He's not an outright disappointment of a pick like Ras-I Dowling, nor is he a star player like Sebastian Vollmer. He falls under the same category as Jermaine Cunningham- a head scratcher whose value just doesn't quite align with the draft pedigree.
He needed to be a starter. Instead, the Patriots brought back a former second round flame out in Pat Chung to start on defense- and Chung was sixth on the team in snaps in 2014.
But what is a starter? Tom Brady and Devin McCourty are clearly starters. Dont'a Hightower and Julian Edelman are definitely starters. But is Logan Ryan a starter? Is Michael Hoomanawanui? Kyle Arrington? Danny Amendola?
There's a class of football players that aren't quite considered starters, even if Belichick values nickel players as starters. Shane Vereen and LeGarrette Blount share snaps. Arrington and Ryan are situational. Amendola, Hoomanawanui, Tim Wright, and James Develin all shared snaps as the fifth skill player on the Patriots offense.
All of these players could technically be considered "starters" by most measures of the word. They're on the field for the opening drive, they're in the top eleven for snaps by players on their side of the ball, they spend a fair amount of time on offense or defense.
But what if you heard that Danny Amendola only had 36 more snaps than Tavon Wilson over the course of the season? And what about if you heard that Tavon outsnapped players like Duron Harmon and Tim Wright? And what if you knew his snap count was closer to Shane Vereen than to Brandon Bolden? Would that change the narrative to think of Tavon is less of a depth role, and closer to the grouping of fringe starters?
It all comes down to special teams snaps. Wilson played 324 snaps on special teams, which was the most by any Patriot this season. More than Matthew Slater. More than Brandon Bolden. More than Chris White. When pointing out Belichick's favorite core four players (those who play all kick and punt plays and returns), Tavon is at the top of the list.
No, his snaps aren't as glamorous as a traditional starter, but he's on the field just as much. When you hear that Belichick loves to invest in special teams players, Wilson at the poster child. No, he wasn't drafted to be on special teams, but it's where his value has been realized.
If you value Wilson in the traditional lens as a player who is a disappointment if they aren't on offense on defense, then he hasn't met the expectations that come with being a second round pick. But when looking at what he offers as a whole- the team's leading special teams player and a dime package safety- it might make sense to adjust the lens.
Every snap is important in the NFL and special teams is no different. If a defender makes a bad play and the opposition picks up five extra yards, the defender will be torn to shreds. If a special teams player allows five extra yards to the other team, it doesn't arouse the same displeasure. The end result is the same: giving the other team five fewer yards to go.
As a former special teams coach, Belichick appreciates the value of having talent on every single unit. Players like Wilson deserve to be considered starters for their impact on the least appreciated phase of the game.