FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson has had a rough year.
He watched four of his quarterback peers selected in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft after announcing his plans to return to the Razorbacks. His head coach — who helped convince him to come back for his senior season — had been fired two weeks earlier after a scandalous motorcycle ride. A few months later, his team limped to a 4-8 record, Wilson missed time with a concussion, and his less-than-stellar performance left him labeled as a "forgotten man" in this NFL Draft class.
But one thing was clear when he was asked about the gathering he’ll have watching this week’s 2013 NFL Draft: Wilson hasn’t lost a sense of humor through it all.
"I’m going to be with a small group of family just because of the situation," Wilson said Monday morning. "You don’t know where you’re going to go, so I don’t want too many people around to mourn with if it doesn’t go the right way."
Wilson and the rest of Arkansas’ 2013 draft class will find out where their professional football careers will begin when the seven-round draft begins in New York City. The NFL will hold first round selections tonight with rounds two and three on Friday night, and four through seven Saturday.
The Greenwood native is still holding out hope he’ll be one of the first quarterbacks pulled off the draft board in a class regarded as a so-so group after two can’t miss prospects in Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III last year. But Wilson is realistic, too, after many mock drafts project him as a middle-of-the-pack selection whose wait will likely end anywhere from rounds two through four.
It’s not what Wilson envisioned when he announced plans to return to the Razorbacks for the 2012 season. But ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper, Jr., said some circumstances beyond Wilson’s control made it a reality.
"He’s the forgotten man in this quarterback class now," Kiper Jr. said during a conference call with the media earlier this month. "It’s amazing. He went into the year, you thought maybe late first round, early second round, then all of a sudden kind of the wheels came off of the program."
Kiper Jr. now believes Wilson is a third- or fourth-round pick.
Three other mock drafts: The Sporting News has projected Wilson to go to the Arizona Cardinals with the 38th overall selection (second round). Peter Schrager of FoxSports.com has slotted Wilson as the 84th pick (third round) to the Cincinnati Bengals. Josh Norris of NFL.com believes Wilson will be taken by the Houston Texans in the third round, too, with the 89th overall selection.
West Virginia’s Geno Smith is widely regarded as the top quarterback prospect in the class. He may be the only first-round selection, too. But Wilson said he doesn’t have any regrets a year after Luck, Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden were among the top 22 selections in the 2012 NFL Draft.
"I think it was my best decision to stay in school. I really do," Wilson said. "Going into the draft you don’t know how many quarterbacks they’re going to take in the first round. So if you’re three, four, five on the list that’s probably second- or maybe third-round stock. I didn’t know they were going to take four or five quarterbacks in the first round last year. That’s kind of the gamble that you take. Unfortunately, they took some more. But I still think that I was prepared more by staying in school."
Wilson completed 249 of 401 passes for 3,387 yards with 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions during a 4-8 season in 2012.
It was a step back from his junior season, when Wilson led the Razorbacks to 11 wins by throwing for 3,638 with 24 touchdowns and 6 interceptions.
"I saw Tyler play extremely well taking Arkansas to a Cotton Bowl," said ESPN NFL analyst Jon Gruden, who featured Wilson in an episode of the ESPN show ‘Gruden’s QB Camp’ earlier this month.’ "I think losing Coach (Bobby) Petrino the way they lost him, losing his offensive coordinator, losing three very good receivers and having the injury early in the season against (Louisiana) Monroe derailed Tyler Wilson. I credit him for trying to hold the Razorbacks together and a lot of adversity.
"This was not his best campaign, no question about it. But he’s tough. He has some functional mobility in the pocket. He’s sharp, and I think he’s got some real leadership traits that are going to work for him at the next level. He’s going to help somebody. He needs to get with the right coach and the right system, no question."
Which team? Which system? Those are anyone’s guess.
Wilson was poked and prodded by every team during the interview process. He was evaluated at the Senior Bowl in January and the NFL Scouting Combine a month later. He worked out again at Arkansas’ on-campus pro day last month.
The Buffalo Bills were the only team to bring Wilson in for a workout after pro day this month. Buffalo has taken a close look at several quarterbacks as the draft nears.
Kiper Jr. is confident Wilson is capable of becoming a valuable pick for someone because of his toughness and his experience under Bobby Petrino.
"He looks down that gun barrel. He makes some very difficult throws," Kiper Jr. said earlier this month. "He’s the kind of kid if he slides, becomes a value pick, a nice pick, and if he gets into the fourth-round mix, which he could, third-, fourth-round mix, then there’s a kid who at one point if things would have fallen right could have been a first-round pick and I don’t think anybody could have argued with it."
Wilson said his recent experiences have taught him to be "prepared for the absolute worst" this weekend. It doesn’t mean his draft party will look like a funeral.
Wilson pointed out some of the NFL’s best quarterbacks weren’t first-round picks. He pointed out the fact Joe Montana was a third-round selection, Tom Brady went in the sixth round and Kurt Warner wasn’t drafted.
So Wilson, who continued to battle through the 2012 season despite the turmoil and chaos, knows he’ll begin his professional football career somewhere by the time the seven-round draft ends. Just getting an opportunity means plenty.
"You grow up in the yard as a kid saying you’re playing in the NFL and you’re throwing passes to whoever your favorite receiver is at the time," Wilson said. "It’s kind of cool to live that out a little bit and make it reality. I’m really, really excited."