Steelers Draft Grades: Payton Wilson Could be Steal

The Pittsburgh Steelers may have landed a future star.
Oct 14, 2023; Durham, North Carolina, USA; North Carolina State Wolfpack linebacker Payton Wilson
Oct 14, 2023; Durham, North Carolina, USA; North Carolina State Wolfpack linebacker Payton Wilson / Jaylynn Nash-USA TODAY Sports
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Linebacker may not have seemed like an overwhelming position of need and with the way the board ended up dropping for the Pittsburgh Steelers, it seems like this was the feasible direction to go in. Just what type of player is Payton Wilson and is he really the best linebacker in the class? What sort of projection hurdles exist in his profile and just how do major analysts see this pick:

Dane Brugler: 88th overall, LB 4

“A four-year starter, Wilson played weakside linebacker in defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s 3-3-5 stack scheme. After returning for a sixth year in Raleigh, he put together his most complete season in 2023 with 11.5 tackles per game (fifth best in the FBS) and cleaned up on the award circuit, taking home the Butkus (nation’s top linebacker) and Chuck Bednarik (nation’s top defensive player) awards (first in NC State history to win either honor). Against run or pass, Wilson is quick to trigger (downhill and laterally) and has some impressive GPS numbers for both his speed and the ground covered on plays. Although he is an average takeon player and can be late escaping blocks, he never shuts it down and competes with the “every play could be my last” mentality. Overall, Wilson’s medicals will be a key factor in his final grade, but he is a rangy and instinctive player who impacts the game in different ways, because of his effort and toughness. His four-down potential will separate him from most linebacker prospects.”

Lance Zierlein: 47th overall, LB 2

“Wilson’s length and athletic profile could certainly push him up the board for some teams, but his history with injuries could tamp down his draft stock. He’s free-flowing in pursuit and is at his best as a run-and-hit hunter rather than a static defender faced with a downhill blocker. He has the burst to shoot downhill and make a tackle for loss but lacks the demeanor or play strength to consistently leverage run fits. Wilson will find himself near the football frequently when allowed to play freely and avoid the mess in the middle. He has third-down ability as a blitzer and is a talented cover man who can play zone or man coverage. Wilson has early starting potential but scheme fit and medical reports will play a big role in his evaluation.”

My Analysis: 68th overall, LB/EDGE/S (Positionless)

Positives: Blistering levels of speed that give him otherworldly range for a linebacker working sideline to sideline. A twitchy player who flashes top-level bend and short-area quickness to avoid blockers. Absolute playmaker who has a great knack for generating timely turnovers with his ability to bait quarterbacks into false throwing lanes. Has good awareness in his zone drops to be able to take away the high read and be in position to close on the underneath option. 

NC State understood his playmaking ability and often played him all over the formation with some of his most eye-popping reps coming off the edge where he flashed twitchy, heavy hands to set the edge with some eye-catching bend; would sometimes even line up at safety and patrol the deep middle, while also being asked to match wide receivers in the slot, which he did surprisingly well at. Decent tackler that showed good wrap and drive form when squared up. Motor is unrelenting and often was rewarded with punch-out fumbles from behind.

Negatives: Tall pad level makes him an easier target for climbing offensive linemen and doesn’t have the levers to match the height. Eye candy can be very deceptive when it comes to counter and misdirection runs where the flow of the offensive line tends to dictate his eyes, needs to be more aware of pullers. Plays way too out of control, too quick to trigger downhill, misses his run fit, needs to be more patient and allow his eyes to take him to the right spot. Gets his eyes lost in the trash far too often and can have him filling way too late. Serious injury history that needs to be inspected by team medical doctors before seriously considering taking him high.

Bottom Line: What position is he playing at the next level? Could he play linebacker, sure, but the eyes need some serious work and might have to operate in more of a subpackage role. His ball skills and athletic ability to cover could perhaps be rewarded at safety. His role ultimately is up to whatever the team that drafts him, but his highest return fit might be as an edge defender where he flashed his most consistent reps. High reward, high-risk return. You better have a plan.

Grade: B+

This is an interesting pick to grade because on the surface of where he lies on my board, Wilson is a solid value, but his best projected position I have for him is very unlikely to be how the Steelers end up seeing him. They will not have to force him onto the field early into a starting off ball linebacker situation, so there will be time to iron out certain details of his game.

 They always could elect to use him as a swiss army knife similar to how NC State deployed him. One thing is for certain, Wilson is one of the brightest young men I interviewed at the senior bowl and his mindset is going to fit in absolutely seamlessly with the Steelers culture. He may not have an ACL, according Ian Rappoport, but the Steelers are accustomed to having legendary players who came with similar concerns in the past.

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Nicholas Martin


Nicholas has been watching the Steelers his entire life. He has been writing about the Steelers since 2016. Prior to All Steelers, he contributed over at Behind The Steel Curtain.