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2024 NFL Draft

How Early Will Payton Wilson Play for Steelers?

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Payton Wilson is already impressing with his easy transition to the NFL by calling the defense.



Pittsburgh Steelers LB Payton Wilson
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Payton Wilson during rookie minicamp at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on May 10, 2024. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — Payton Wilson is an older rookie. Already 24, Wilson will have an accelerated track to playing time considering his speed and special traits at linebacker. But his transition to the NFL is not going to just be by the numbers. He has transition in his position and responsibilities.

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 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

But he will also be dealing with a different role, or perhaps a more well-defined one. Wilson moved all over the field as the best player on NC State’s defense last season. 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 will be a lot more predictable. While the versatility that made him a do-it-all defender for the Wolfpack attracted the Steelers to Wilson, they are not going to have a third-round rookie running all over the field. To start, he will 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.”

Wilson has to do different things in Pittsburgh while maintaining the intriguing versatility he showcased at NC State. For example, he very well may blitz off the edge on late downs, much like he did with the Wolfpack. But playing stack linebacker is something that is going to be new, along with the responsibilities of calling the defense. But with Patrick Queen, Elandon Roberts, and Holcomb around the team, they should be able to help Wilson around the tough, new roles that he will have to embrace in the NFL.

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Jesus Christani
Jesus Christani
May 14, 2024 5:02 pm

All is predicated on preseason ball and preparation but my hope is to see at least 10 downs a game from Week 1 to Week 4… let’s see what the man really brings to The Pittsburgh Steelers right away… At the end of that stretch, we’ll know if he’s starter ready for The Pittsburgh Steelers — honestly, the same route Joey took to his starting position, I hope the same for Payton… he’s capable…

Last edited 4 days ago by Jesus Christani
Edward Carmichael
Edward Carmichael
May 15, 2024 6:08 pm

as true Steelers fan, ILB Payton Wilson and ILB Patrick Queen shuold be the starting ILB’s on the Steelers defense in 2024

Doug Daugherty
Doug Daugherty
May 16, 2024 12:18 pm

How is it possible that a team can come in 3rd in their own division and end up with the toughest schedule in the NFL