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2024 NFL Draft

Payton Wilson Ready for Different Kind of Challenge with Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers rookie linebacker Payton Wilson is ready for an NFL transition with a more-defined role, but greater responsibility.



Pittsburgh Steelers ILB Payton Wilson
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Payton Wilson with coach Grady Brown during the team's rookie minicamp at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on May 11, 2024. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH Like all rookies, Payton Wilson, the Pittsburgh Steelers third-round pick at linebacker, will have to make a transition to the NFL. But that transition is often a very personalized one, depending on the strengths and weaknesses of the player, the role they had in college, and the role they’re hoping to earn in the NFL.

For some, like Steelers first-round pick, tackle Troy Fautanu, it will be about switching sides, moving from left tackle in college to right tackle in the NFL. Undrafted rookie Beanie Bishop will be changing his position, from outside cornerback at West Virginia to the slot in the NFL. Offensive lineman Mason McCormick will be transitioning from being the starting left guard and the best player on his team at South Dakota State to being a swing backup, responsible for knowing three positions as a part-time player.

Payton Wilson will also be dealing with that, as he moves from being not only the best player on the NC State defense, but the best linebacker in all of college football, to potentially being fourth on the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker, depending on the heath of returning starter Cole Holcomb.

Pittsburgh Steelers Payton Wilson

Payton Wilson, NC State Athletics

But he will also be dealing with a different role, or perhaps a more well-defined one. As the best player on NC State’s defense last season, Wilson moved all over the field. He played 490 snaps as a traditional in-the-box linebacker, but also 173 snaps as an outside edge rusher and and another 52 as a hybrid defensive back, per Pro Football Focus.

With the Steelers, his role is going to be a lot more predictable. While the versatility that made him a do-it-all defender for the Wolfpack was one of the things that attracted the Steelers to Wilson, they are not going to have a third-round rookie running all over the field. To start, he’s going to be given one job, and asked to master it.

“I’m truly an off-ball linebacker here,” Wilson said. “I’m going to be playing the Buck or the Mack, or the Mike in the Dime. In college, I literally played everywhere. Being at NC State and having to do a bunch of different things, I’m just excited to be an off-ball linebacker and continue to be the best me.”

As he said, Wilson will likely learn all three of the Steelers’ linebacker positions. Once very different — think of Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams as the prototypical Mack and Buck linebackers — the advent of more and more complicated passing schemes has made the two roles a lot more similar and interchangeable than they used to be.

The other thing Wilson is learning is to call the plays. The Steelers have almost always used a linebacker as their green dot communicator on defense, and Wilson was the one calling the plays at rookie camp, even though he’d only had a copy of the playbook for a few weeks.

“It’s been super cool,” he said. “It’s a lot different than what we did in college. So it’s just kind of awesome to be learning on the fly. Coach [Aaron] Curry is one of best coaches I’ve ever been around and the way he simplifies the game and he explains it having played it before, it’s special. He really simplifies it for me to be able to go out there and play fast like I do.”

So the transition for Wilson will be one of individual simplification — one role instead of many, and a part-time one instead of a full-time one at first — but also one of increased responsibility and required knowledge throughout the defense that will be a strong challenge for the first-year pro.

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Edward Carmichael
Edward Carmichael
May 14, 2024 11:23 am

as a true Steelers fan, the I’m looking forward to both starting ILB’s Payton Wilson and Patrick Queen along with NG Keeanu Benton a lot of speed, quickness, physicality up the middle also having two ILB’s that can cover also it going to be hard to run and pas in the middle of the field