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Christian Wilkins

Steve Marcus

Christian Wilkins, a 6-4, 310-pound defensive tackle, responds to a question during a news conference at the Intermountain Health Performance Center/Raiders Headquarters in Henderson Thursday, March 14, 2024. Wilkins joins the Raiders after spending the last five seasons with the Miami Dolphins.

Christian Wilkins had excelled with relative ease through every stop of his football career when he was younger, both from an individual and team perspective.

The defensive tackle dominated in high school at Suffield Academy in Connecticut, racking up titles and accolades en route to becoming one of the top recruits in the country. He then contributed immediately at Clemson University and eventually became a cornerstone on two national championship teams in three years.

But everything changed for the worse after the Miami Dolphins selected him in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. The Dolphins were one of the worst teams in the league in Wilkins’ rookie season, especially defensively, and even he wasn’t much of a bright spot.

Some wondered if Miami overdrafted Wilkins at No. 13 overall because of the way several defensive linemen taken later outplayed him, including close friend and former Clemson teammate Dexter Lawrence with the New York Giants.

“I worked so hard and didn’t have much result or production,” Wilkins said.

But Wilkins made a choice to keep working as hard as he could through the tribulations, and it delivered him to something he never imagined—one of the biggest contracts for a defensive player in NFL history.

New Raiders general manager Tom Telesco and now-permanent coach Antonio Pierce made Wilkins one of the centerpieces of their franchise with a four-year, $110 million deal (about $84 million is guaranteed) at the start of this year’s NFL free agency.

The 28-year-old instantly became the fifth-highest paid defensive player in the NFL. It’s a monstrous contract that drew some raised eyebrows considering Wilkins has never reached a Pro Bowl in his five professional seasons, let alone made an All-Pro team as is typically a precursor to landing so much money.

But the Raiders are confident Wilkins will live up to the price as he enters his prime because of the insatiable work ethic he showed to transform from an underwhelming rookie to a consistent gamebreaker the past two seasons.

“My mindset is I want to be great at what I do,” Wilkins said. “Just be my best and whatever that means for me, I can live with the results. I can be happy knowing I put my all into this. So that’s what I try to do every day.”

Complacency has never affected Wilkins, and it seems even less likely in Las Vegas considering the player he will be lining up next to—edge rusher Maxx Crosby. Wilkins’ new partner-in-crime signed his own four-year, $94 million deal two years ago, and is known as one of the hardest workers in the NFL.

When Wilkins arrived to the Raiders’ Henderson facility for the first time early in the morning of March 14 to sign his contract, Crosby was already in the weight room working out. Unlike most of their defensive-linemen peers in the NFL who work as part of a rotation, Crosby and Wilkins rarely come off the field.

The duo should immediately vault the Raiders to having one of the best defensive lines in the NFL.

And, yet, at the same time, free-agent contracts as large as the one Wilkins signed don’t have a strong history of panning out positively.

Most of the winningest franchises in the NFL over the past two decades have prioritized homegrown talent out of the draft and targeted bargain deals in free agency. Many scoff at the idea of pegging a large portion of the salary cap to a single player from a different team.

Some have compared Telesco’s acquisition of Wilkins to the first free-agency move made by Dave Ziegler, the Raiders’ last general manager who started his tenure with a disastrous three-year deal extended to edge rusher Chandler Jones. The former All-Pro Jones was not a factor in his only season in Las Vegas before being released amid a series of bizarre incidents last summer.

The parallel between Jones and Wilkins is flawed, though, considering the former was on the downside of the NFL’s aging curve at 32 years old upon joining the Raiders.

A fairer Wilkins comparison could perhaps be made to the Raiders’ last big free-agent coup before Jones — left tackle Trent Brown in 2019. The Raiders wooed the then-26-year-old Brown away from the New England Patriots and made him the highest-paid offensive lineman in the league.

The contract proved to be an albatross as Brown played in only 16 of 32 possible games with the Raiders before they traded him back to the Patriots for virtually nothing in return.

If Wilkins turns out as poorly as Jones or Brown did, the Raiders will be hamstrung for the duration of his contract.

They’re banking on his attitude minimizing that risk.

“We definitely talked a little bit about the possibilities and things we can do, but it’s going to have to be built,” Wilkins said of a conversation he had with Crosby. “It’s definitely a process and a journey. It’s just going to have to start with getting to know each other better. And not just us, but it’s going to be a team effort. It’s going to take all 11 guys on defense at all times to make this thing work and to do good things here … No one man is better than the other.”

Despite signing Wilkins, the Raiders still have financial flexibility for now largely because they’ll go into next year allotting minimal resources at the sport’s most expensive and important position—quarterback.

Their second-biggest free agency signing was quarterback Gardner Minshew, who signed a relatively cheap two-year, $25 million contract. Las Vegas could also draft a quarterback or stick with second-year player Aidan O’Connell at the position, but both those routes would put their starter on a cost-controlled rookie deal even cheaper than Minshew’s.

Combine all the factors, and the Raiders believed Wilkins could be the missing piece to lift the team to contender status.

It’s been a whirlwind for Wilkins, whom the Dolphins passed on locking up long-term in back-to-back seasons despite his ascension as one of their best players and a team captain. He gets emotional and still can’t fully comprehend how he turned into one of the highest-paid defensive players in the league.

“The way it looked for me after my rookie year,” Wilkins said, “I didn’t think I’d be in this position.”

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.

Article written by #LasVegasSun