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FILM ROOM: ILB Payton Wilson is a compelling project for the Steelers

After already nabbing OT Troy Fautanu, OC Zach Frazier and WR Roman Wilson with their first three picks, most anticipated the Steelers would pivot to the other side of the ball with their fourth selection in the 2024 NFL Draft. While cornerback remained the most critical vacancy on that unit, GM Omar Khan instead opted to fortify his inside linebacking corps — grabbing NC State’s Payton Wilson with the 98th overall pick.

The selection of Wilson was lauded by the vast majority of pundits and fans. Value, for one, is a major reason why. Wilson was ranked 30th on Pro Football Focus’ big board and 44th on the consensus big board, with a considerable number viewing him as a first-round talent. After all, Wilson was one of three Power 5 players with 10-plus TFLs, 3-plus interceptions and 5-plus sacks last year, and his 89.9 overall PFF grade ranked third among linebackers to play 600 or more snaps.

While Wilson’s productivity on the field was undeniable, staying on it became a major question during the pre-draft process. Wilson saw just 51 snaps in 2021 because of a shoulder injury and also lacks an ACL in one knee because of a tear and complications dating back to his high school days. Beyond that, he’s already 24.

When scrutinizing Wilson’s tape, it’s easy to see his tremendous upside and appeal for a team desiring intensity and athleticism in the middle of its defense. At the same time, he’s not entirely polished or pro-ready for such a veteran player — which, coupled with his intangible concerns, helps explain his fall to 98.

Using the word “effort” really doesn’t do justice to how hard Wilson plays every single snap. Sure, a lot of NFL players earnestly give their best on a rep-by-rep basis, but Wilson plays each one like it genuinely might be his last.

If only we had tracking data on how many yards Wilson traveled per play, because I really think it could be well over 100 on some snaps. He’s always lurking somewhere.

On this fake double reverse-turned-pass, Wilson rushes the “passer” and then scampers all the way across and up the field for a ludicrous tackle from behind.

Against Notre Dame, this play was also unbelievable by Wilson. The ILB begins in hook coverage, then beelines to the ballcarrier — who is a receiver, by the way.

As you may have observed from just two clips so far, Wilson’s motor is always hot, and so are his tires. His 4.43 40 and 1.53 10-yard very much manifest themselves during games, granting him tremendous range and closing speed.

Here, Wilson roams all the way from the far hash to the close numbers for a tackle of Audric Estime.

On this rep against Louisville, Wilson starts in coverage, notices Jack Plummer scrambling right and hastily puts an end to that but chasing him down with a burst.

Another hallmark of strong inside linebacker play is avoiding blockers to actually make stops, and that’s generally another plus in Wilson’s game.

On this outside zone against Virginia, Wilson reads the cutback beautifully, side-stepping the wham blocker for a tackle for loss in the hole.

Back to the game against the Irish, this is an impressive rep by Wilson. The linebacker scrapes over the top, not getting caught up in traffic, then detonates on the running back.

Here, Wilson sets the edge well, detaching from one block and spinning away from Joe Alt to squeeze the RB to the sideline.

While Wilson’s traditional/most frequent position is ILB, don’t sleep on him as an EDGE player. Wilson can really make an impact by flying off the corner against the run, staying parallel to the line of scrimmage and wasting little movement to beat the RB to the spot.


Moreover, Wilson is pretty strong as a blitzer/rusher. He’s not quite a Patrick Queen — more on that in a second — but his sack numbers don’t really lie. His quickness off the ball, efficiency in using angles and relentlessness all pay dividends in tracking down the QB. These three cutups embody all of those.


So, why did Wilson slide all the way to Pick 98? It’s not just injury-related, in my opinion. I think the biggest weakness in his game right now is block-shedding.

In the games I watched of his, there were umpteen times where Wilson struggled to use his hands to escape the grasp of a bigger blocker, whether a tight end or offensive lineman.

During this counter, Wilson reads it well but is just bulldozed by the pulling tight end.

Although Wilson can often get off blocks eventually, he needs to do it faster at the NFL level. Take this run against the Cavaliers, during which can’t disengage from the TE until the RB is already past him. Yes, Wilson does make the stop, but in an ideal world, he would’ve been in much better position to curtail the run earlier.

Wilson’s attempts to shed a block late can lead to moments like this — and spinning off a block is hardly a good idea.

Additionally, Wilson’s eye discipline can be suspect. For someone who’s played as much football as he has, he still isn’t always the quickest to detect where the ball is on a misdirection or fake.

Wilson is very late to determine the football’s location on this flip, rendering him almost useless in trying to pursue the ballcarrier.

On this read option, Wilson bites on the RB possessing the ball, giving Plummer more of a lane to scoot.

As a rusher, I’d like to see Wilson implement a more methodical and deliberate plan of attack. Often, his MO seems to be just rushing in a gap as fast as possible, which is certainly capable of disrupting things. But when he turns to a more clear-cut move, such as this swipe, he’s a lot more potent. I anticipate that Queen and ILBs coach Aaron Curry will help him become more refined in this department.

While Wilson did rack up three interceptions, his coverage duties were somewhat limited at NC State, at least in his final season. For instance, one of those three picks came off a deflection. Wilson can cover the flat pretty well, but this type of play — getting in the passing lane out of the hook curl — wasn’t as frequent as I would’ve liked.

Further, even though Wilson missed just 4.7% of tackles last season, he’s sometimes guilty of overpursuing a ballcarrier.


Wilson is a fun watch on tape, making a play to jolt you out of your seat at least once a game. His meshing of a tireless attitude to make a stop, top-end speed/acceleration, hard-hitting prowess and juice off the edge give him foundational tools with which to succeed as an NFL inside linebacker.

At the same time, Wilson has work to do to be ready to play every down, particularly honing in on his block-shedding and eye discipline. The good news is he almost certainly won’t be doing that Year 1 in Pittsburgh.

Wilson projects as the Steelers’ ILB3 behind Queen and Elandon Roberts, and that feels appropriate for the Wolfpack alum. Yes, it’s not ideal to have a 24-year-old linebacker sit and wait, but both vets ahead of him are more talented, and observing their practices should go a long way.

For as much DROY buzz as Wilson has received in just over a week since being drafted, I can’t really get on board with that (let alone because an ILB hasn’t claimed it since 2018). I still wouldn’t be totally shocked if Pittsburgh adds more depth at the position in light of Wilson’s scary medical past and Cole Holcomb’s current recovery, though the room is in good stead with Queen/Roberts/Wilson/Holcomb/Mark Robinson.

Even if he begins his career in black and gold more on special teams or as a third-down ‘backer, Wilson’s responsibilities should continue to augment as the year goes along. Wilson’s raw traits give him incredibly high potential — and if he stays healthy and makes some tweaks, there’s a strong possibility the Steelers could have gotten a third-round gem.


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