Josh WeinfussESPN Staff Writer6 Minute Read
TEMPE, Ariz. — For 32 days last fall, wide receiver Michael Wilson waited to see how his football future would unfold as he recovered from a fractured collarbone.
Until late in the third quarter of a cool night in South Bend, Indiana — where the Stanford Cardinal would upset the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Oct. 15 — Wilson was on pace to be an NFL draft pick. He was leading the Cardinal in receiving yards and touchdowns when he ran a sprint-out play on a first down. Wilson made the catch to gain 3 yards but the pass from Stanford quarterback Tanner McKee was low and a bit behind Wilson, who had to all but stop his momentum in order to catch the ball. When he was tackled, he heard his collarbone crack.
He tried to move it and couldn’t.
“I’m like, ‘Come on, please — this can’t happen,’” Wilson remembered thinking.
Laying there damaged alongside Wilson, seemingly, were his hopes of an NFL career.
But both would recover. Wilson was drafted in the third round of April’s NFL draft by the Arizona Cardinals, about two or three rounds higher than some initial projections. It might not have happened without the belief of Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, who let his eyes convince him that inviting Wilson was the right move, despite inferior numbers.
One of the first thoughts to go through Wilson’s head after his injury was whether he’d have to come back to Stanford for a sixth year in order to get drafted where he had hoped. He was already in his fifth season after returning in 2022 for the COVID year offered by the NCAA, but knowing his season was over, he did the quick math: He played just 14 games in the past three seasons due to injuries. Was that going to be enough to prove he could play in the NFL?
In the coming days, it became clear to Wilson that his best chance of getting drafted any earlier than the last few rounds, if he decided to test the draft waters, would be taking part in one of the college all-star games. Wilson needed an invite, though, and didn’t think that was guaranteed.
“If I didn’t get the Senior Bowl invite or a senior bowl invite of some sort, [a sixth year] was probably going to be a really viable option that I’d have to take if I wanted to get drafted or get drafted as high as I possibly could,” Wilson said.
When Nagy started putting together his 2023 rosters, Wilson wasn’t a shoo-in.
Based on conversations with teams, Nagy had Wilson projected to be a fifth- or sixth-round prospect. The Senior Bowl doesn’t usually bring players who are graded lower than the fifth round to Mobile, Alabama. Yet, the more tape Nagy watched of Wilson, the more he liked from the injury-plagued receiver. That the Stanford staff “absolutely loved him” helped Nagy feel confident in his decision to invite Wilson, who received a rare red star on his card on the board during the Senior Bowl’s internal discussions signifying he was the coaching staff’s favorite player.
“I just had a feeling that there was more to him than what you saw,” Nagy said. “He was an easy guy to warm up to because of just the polish and the consistency, and he had a pro body with his height [6-foot-2] and his size [209 pounds].”
Wilson accepted Nagy’s Senior Bowl invitation on Nov. 16 — 32 days after his season-ending injury.
“I was like, ‘S—, thank you so much. I promise you this invite is not going to go to waste. I’m treating this pretty much like the Super Bowl, like my life literally depends on it,’” Wilson told Nagy.
Wilson had received what he wanted: an opportunity to prove himself.
He just needed to get healthy, a process Wilson was all too familiar with. He had returned from two foot injuries in 2020 and 2021 for the 2022 season.
Wilson sitting in front of a JUGS machine catching passes at 7 a.m. with a broken foot became a common sight for former Stanford wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy.
“It wasn’t just once or twice, it was every day,” Kennedy said. “What I would say is that’s the classic Michael Wilson that the Cardinals are going to get because he just has such a great work ethic and he’s so driven because he wants to be really, really good at everything.”
By the first week of December, Wilson was healthy, giving him about two months to get back in peak football shape before the Senior Bowl.
He had lost some upper body muscle because he couldn’t lift weights and his legs had gotten smaller because he couldn’t squat.
“Took December and January very, very seriously,” Wilson said. “Just put my head down, grind and then going into the Senior Bowl.”
Wilson knew what the narrative around him would be when he showed up in Mobile.
“If you’re looking at the X’s and O’s, and the lineups of what guys produced in college, I was probably the guy that was the outlier. Why did this guy get in by having 418 yards and four touchdowns my senior year?” Wilson said. “Those are very underwhelming numbers.”
Yet, Wilson impressed during the three days of practice and then in the game. To Nagy, Wilson “just looked different” when he took the field. He looked explosive and showed his speed as an outside receiver after playing in the slot at Stanford.
Then Wilson went out and nearly won MVP of the game, Nagy recalled. Wilson finished with four catches for a game-high 76 yards and the game’s only receiving touchdown.
When Nagy checked in with his friends around the league throughout the week, they kept bringing up Wilson’s name.
Between Wilson’s Stanford tape, the film from the Senior Bowl practices and one-on-ones, and talking with Cardinals quarterbacks coach Israel Woolfork, who coached at the Senior Bowl, wide receivers coach Drew Terrell felt like he could make a thorough evaluation of Wilson.
“I think it definitely helped and vaulted his draft stock,” Terrell said. “I think he was kind of an under-the-radar guy because he didn’t have a ton of games and people had questions about the injury history.
“So, I think that was a stage for him to get to go against some of the best seniors in the country, and with all 32 teams there watching every day, I think it was something that definitely exposed more people to him.”
When Arizona took Wilson with its second pick of the third round, the Cardinals completed his comeback.
“For a Power 5 guy to jump multiple rounds — most teams had Michael in the fifth or sixth round going into the Senior Bowl — so for him to get into the third, I mean, a two- or three-round jump, that’s higher than normal,” Nagy said. “It’s kind of an abnormal jump, so I think it speaks to what he did on the field and in the interviews because he crushed it in both areas.”