There is a substantial amount of positive buzz coming out of Cleveland Browns training camp and one of the players coming up both locally and nationally is linebacker Mack Wilson. I've heard it before and now that he's entering his third season, it's time for him to prove it.
Last season, Wilson was applauded for a great offseason and was described as making big splashes early in camp. Unfortunately, he suffered a knee injury that kept him out the rest of camp and a few games of the regular season.
Wilson would go on to play 13 regular season contests and both playoff games. To his credit, he played his best in the postseason. The issue there is he only played 29 snaps combined in those two games, but he had 5 solo tackles. Compare that to 24 solo tackles in 372 regular season snaps. In other words, Wilson was three times better in the playoffs compared to the regular season.
So perhaps Wilson experienced a breakthrough moment at the end of last year. The other possibility is the Browns just figured out how to maximize him with what he does.
In general, Wilson's issues have never been physical, so as impactful as being hurt might have been, that's not been what has held him back.
Dating back to his days at Alabama, he never knew what he was looking at in terms of diagnosing what the opponent was doing quickly enough to then react appropriately. Nick Saban, Alabama's legendary head coach had a simple way to work around the limitation.
Blitz him. That would eliminate the need to read anything, he could play faster and he could make highlight plays as a big, strong linebacker while opponents were trying to deal with the unending number of defensive threats at the disposal of the Crimson Tide.
So when he came out in the NFL Draft, he was hyped to be a day two prospect because he had all of these highlights of blowing up people in the backfield despite not being able to process effectively. Hence, Saban advised him to stay another year in Tuscaloosa.
Wilson, based on financial hardships, made the decision to leave school early because his family needed him to be an earner. A difficult choice for a young man to make, he did what he thought was best for him.
In his second season with the Browns, there were any number of plays where Wilson was completely out of position because he had no clue what the offense was doing. So while the linebacker position was widely panned for their performance, the Browns actually got good individual play from B.J. Goodson and Malcolm Smith, plus Sione Takitaki excelled as a SAM.
Going back to Wilson's rookie year, when he was forced to start as a fifth round pick, he was put in an awful position. It led to a player like Joe Schobert getting criticized heavily when it was often Wilson who was wrong and Schobert took the hits for it.
A healthier Wilson helps, but unless he has improved at being able to diagnose and react more effectively, all that physical development is for not and he risks failing to make the final 53-man roster.
Even if the Browns are the weakest at the linebacker position on the defensive side of the ball, the competition will be fierce. They might end up keeping six linebackers on the final roster.
Anthony Walker, Sione Takitaki, Jacob Phillips, Malcolm Smith, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Tony Fields II, Elijah Lee and Montreal Meander are the other nine linebacker fighting for one of those six spots.
The knee injury to Anthony Walker that may keep him out a few weeks might open up a path for more reps for someone like Wilson to prove himself, but it's still a daunting task to make that final roster.
People can certainly accuse me of being highly critical of Wilson, which is fair and accurate. I have noted on multiple occasions he can't play dead.
But for those who would say I am unfair to Wilson, the question I have is a simple one. Two seasons into his career, what's Wilson's biggest strength?
Right now, I think what he does best is blitz, which shouldn't be a surprise given his career arc. That's not terribly valuable, so he needs to show more; a genuine skill that makes a compelling argument to keep him.
Hopefully for Wilson's sake, the playoffs represented a genuine eureka moment and the buzz he's getting now is due to the fact he's picking up from where he left off in the postseason. If that's the case, maybe he can be a successful player. As it is, I think it's more likely he's destined to end up on the practice squad, providing additional depth that knows the system and providing an outlet to further develop.
Cynically, the fact that there's so much praise for Wilson right now may be to induce a trade. The Browns are happy to use the media to deliver messages they want out there. Just looking at the roster numbers, they may be looking for a way to move him to get a conditional draft pick or another player, allowing them to shrink their rotation.
Wilson has his chance to prove skeptics like me wrong. If he can earn a spot on the final roster, that would make the case he's one of the best 53 football players and he has grown as a player. It would make quite a success story for both Wilson and the Browns if he succeeds. I'm eager to see it.