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Bill Cowher gives his thoughts on Steelers rookie and NC State alum Payton Wilson

By most accounts, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafting Payton Wilson out of N.C. State in the 3rd Round of the 2024 NFL Draft was a steal. Some draft “experts” had Wilson as a late 1st or 2nd Round player, but why did this player brimming with speed, athleticism and explosiveness fall?

Most would say it was based solely on a thought he was injury prone, and currently was dealing with a knee injury.

Whatever the reason, the Steelers wasted little time making him their pick, and immediately the comparisons began. Some went the drastic route and compared Wilson to another skinny-legged linebacker who now has a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. None other than Mr. Jack Lambert.

But those who pay close attention to the Wolfpack compared Wilson to another player with Steelers connections. That would be to former N.C. State linebacker, and Hall of Fame Steelers coach, Bill Cowher. Cowher once roamed the middle of the defense for N.C. State like Wilson did before going to the Steelers.

Cowher recently spoke about Wilson, and his first impressions of the rookie linebacker who now finds himself donning the black-and-gold prior to his first professional season.

“His athletic ability speaks for itself,” said Cowher of Wilson. “It’s off the charts. You see it in his play. Some people run fast, but they don’t play fast. Payton runs fast and he plays fast. He has great cover ability. It’s probably made more for today’s game than back even 10 or 15 years ago because it’s a very wide-open game. It’s a game of speed, angles, and understanding the concepts of football. He has all of that. He’s proven that the last couple of years with his productivity.

“He has a lot of physical attributes from a speed standpoint, from a coverage standpoint. He can play off the ball, he can play on the ball. He’s a smart kid. He can play a lot of different positions. If you’re smart, productive, tough and can run, those are great qualities that I saw with the linebackers with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He has all those same qualities.

“The biggest question people had was the injuries. He kept coming back from that. He’s a very resilient young man, very passionate about playing football. It’s that combination and getting the opportunity, being in the right system, the right place, he has a great chance to be successful. He’s got to go out there and do that on a week in, week out basis.

“He’s a very resilient young man. He’s been through a lot. All the injuries and he’s come back, having to prove a lot of doubters wrong. That little bit of a chip on your shoulder, my advice is don’t lose it. Take nothing for granted. My best advice is to seize every opportunity. Don’t worry about things you have no control over. Just go out there and be you. Play with confidence. Play quick and play fast. Play physical. Be the same player he’s been his last two years, just at another level. The preparation will be a little bit different, a little more intense. It’s a more complex game at the next level. But it’s still football. It’s still about having great intuition and great instincts. He’s going to trust his own skill set and instincts and his skill set before self. Just don’t overthink it.”

Wilson caught wind of this high praise from Cowher and admitted he was a player he always looked up to when he was at N.C. State.

“That is special. He is a great person,” said Wilson. “He is one of my idols. I first met him two years ago, and my grandma grew up a massive Steelers fan, so she’s absolutely in love with Bill Cowher. When I met him, I had to let him know that. Last year he came around a few times and just being able to speak to him and gain some knowledge from him, it was truly inspirational. Not just the fact that he’s one of the greatest coaches ever, one of the greatest to ever play at N.C. State, but it’s just the person that he is. Obviously, every single person knows who he is. But if you had no clue who he was, you would never know just because of how he presents himself and how humble and how well-spoken he is.

“One of the better things that he taught me was that when you go to the NFL, it’s still the same game that you’ve been playing your whole life. It’s just played by different people. A little more talent and a little more football IQ goes into it. But at the end of the day, just go out there and have fun and try to be the best player that you possibly can be.

That bit of advice is something Wilson has never forgotten.

“It’s advice I will always hold onto because of who it came from.”

Can Wilson create a legacy for himself which results in a Lombardi trophy being added to the Steelers trophy case? Just like Cowher was able to do as a coach? That would be ideal, and it will be something to track as the Steelers prepare for the start of training camp later this month. Be sure to stay tuned to SCN for the latest news and notes surrounding the black-and-gold.


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