Payton Wilson

Latest On Steelers’ Depth At OLB

Outside linebacker is not a position of need for the Steelers. Star pass rusher T.J. Watt led the NFL last year with 19.0 sacks, and though the team’s other starter Alex Highsmith only notched seven last year, he showed what he’s capable of with a 14.5-sack campaign in 2022. Those two are going to be on the field a majority of the time, but after watching Watt miss the playoffs last year and seeing an aged Markus Golden depart in free agency, Pittsburgh has made a number of offseason moves to solidify their depth at the position.

Last year’s rookie fourth-round pick out of Wisconsin, Nick Herbig, is the only other edge rusher returning from last year’s roster. According to Mark Kaboly of The Athletic, Herbig is getting first dibs at the OLB3-role in 2024. In his first season of NFL play, Herbig saw less than a quarter of the snaps that Watt and Highsmith did but was up there in playing time with Golden. Despite the limited snaps, Herbig made the most of his time on the field, logging 27 tackles, five tackles for loss, three sacks, three quarterback hits, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery.

That means this year’s rookie third-round pick, NC State’s Payton Wilson, will not be the first outside linebacker off the bench in his first season. Wilson also wasn’t necessarily known as a pass rusher in Raleigh, so it might just mean that Herbig and Wilson will sport different roles in 2024. Herbig may be the first player off the bench in pass rushing situations, and Wilson may be the first guy in during rushing or drop back scenarios. Wilson is on the roster as an outside linebacker for the Steelers as Patrick Queen, Cole Holcomb, and Elandon Roberts patrol the middle. Wilson was disruptive in college, sporting 48.0 tackles for loss to his name, but only logged 15.0 sacks in that time. His versatility as a linebacker with seven career interceptions and 20 passes defensed in college mean that Wilson and Herbig could both be utilized off the bench equally but in very different situations.

Another offseason addition the team made was the claiming of former division-rival Jeremiah Moon off of waivers. A former undrafted player from Florida, Moon spent his entire rookie season on the practice squad for the Ravens but made one start in eight game appearances in 2023. Like Wilson, Moon has never been much of a pass rusher but was an effective tackler during his time in Gainesville.

Joining the position room as rookies alongside Wilson are undrafted signees Julius Welschof and Jacoby Windmon. Windmon, who saw time in college at UNLV and Michigan State, is more in the mold of Wilson and Moon. Welschof, who attended school at Michigan and Charlotte, is a former defensive lineman, though he wasn’t much of an established pass rusher in college.

While Golden only played 70 more snaps in the regular season than Herbig in 2023, when Watt was injured in the playoffs, that OLB3 role became huge. With Watt being no stranger to injury over the past two seasons, who will man that role going forward is an important distinction. As of right now, Herbig is getting the first opportunity to earn that role. He’ll likely hold onto that responsibility as the top pass rusher off the bench while Moon and the rookies fill more versatile roles on the defense in 2024.

NFL Draft Pick Signings: 5/12/24

One draft pick from yesterday got missed, so we’ll mention them today:

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers felt lucky to have Wilson fall to them in the draft, and they were right to. Initial draft rankings listed Wilson as the class’s fourth-best off-ball linebacker. The three ahead of him were the first three linebackers taken in the draft, but lower projected linebackers Ty’Ron Hoppper and Marist Liufau heard their names called before Wilson, as well. Not ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, Pittsburgh selected Wilson near the end of the third round.

Steelers Draft NC State LB Payton Wilson Near End Of Third Round

The freefall is over for NC State linebacker Payton Wilson. Despite being ranked as the 48th overall best prospect, according to ESPN, Wilson finally comes off the board late in the third round at 98th overall to the Steelers. The Steelers used the top pick acquired in the trade that sent Kenny Pickett across the state to Philadelphia to select their new defender.

ESPN weren’t the only ones to like Wilson coming out of Raleigh. Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network ranked Wilson as the 41st best prospect on his board. Wilson received lots of interest from NFL teams, as well, with both the Lions and Cowboys showing interest in particular.

Medical concerns will be the main reason people point to for his fall to the back of the third round. Wilson suffered season-ending knee and shoulder injuries in 2018 and 2021, respectively, but had been healthy over his last two seasons with the Wolfpack. Ian Rapoport of NFL Network mentioned in draft coverage that one of Wilson’s knees doesn’t even have an ACL, making his collegiate accomplishments all the more impressive.

Despite starting only one game in his redshirt freshman season, following the knee surgery in 2018, Wilson led NC State in tackles. As a full-time starter again in 2020, Wilson earned first-team All-ACC honors while leading the team in tackles and tackles for loss. He rebounded strongly after 2021’s season-ending injury but really shined as a sixth-year redshirt senior last year.

In his final season with the Wolfpack, Wilson saw career highs in tackles (138), tackles for loss (17.5), sacks (6.0), forced fumbles (1), passes defensed (9), and interceptions (3) en route to unanimous All-American honors. He was given the Butkus Award for the best linebacker in the FBS and was named First-Team All-ACC after leading the conference in tackles. His injury history aside, Wilson makes plays all over the field with instincts, effort, and toughness. If his health can keep him on the field, he’ll be the kind of four-down linebacker that we don’t see often anymore.

The Steelers bring Wilson into a strong group, where he’ll have to compete for snaps. Pittsburgh upgraded the position group in a big way by signing Patrick Queen from their division rival this spring. Now they’ll add Wilson to a group that also returns starters Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts. This takes a little pressure off of Wilson, in case there are any injury bugs that still need to get worked out, but entering the NFL at 24 years old, Wilson won’t be content to sit and learn.

If health provides to limits to Wilson’s rookie year, he could step into a talented group of linebackers and potentially earn significant snaps next to Queen, who isn’t likely to come off the field very often. Depending on how he compares to the incumbent starters Holcomb and Roberts, Wilson could be a surprise third-round contender for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Draft Notes: Newton, Lions, Latu, Bills, Titans, Texans, Jets, Eagles, Broncos, Cardinals, Commanders, Giants, Panthers

Wednesday marks the final day for “30” visits during this year’s cycle. Illinois defensive tackle Jer’Zhan Newton is on the way back from a January surgery to repair a Jones fracture in his foot. Newton went through a belated pro day in Champaign on Tuesday, per Bleacher Report’s Jordan Schultz, who noted more than eight teams were in attendance. The Lions are not one of the teams Schultz named, but the Detroit Free Press’ Dave Birkett notes Newton did go through a visit with the defending NFC North champs. A first-team All-American and reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Newton played through his foot injury last season — a 7.5-sack slate. The acclaimed DT, who ranks as the No. 32 overall prospect on Daniel Jeremiah’s NFL.com big board, also recorded 14.5 tackles for loss in 2022.

Here is the latest from the draft scene:

  • Speaking of the Lions, they are also believed to be high on NC State linebacker Payton Wilson, The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman notes (subscription required). Last season’s Bednarik award winner (given to Division I-FBS’ top defender), Wilson ranks 41st on Jeremiah’s big board. In need at linebacker, the Cowboys are also believed to be intrigued by Wilson, though Feldman adds some teams are too concerned about his medical history to consider drafting him. Season-ending knee and shoulder injuries halted Wilson in 2018 and 2021, respectively, but the six-year Wolfpack cog has been healthy over the past two years.
  • The Bills have brought in two likely first-round defenders, hosting edge rusher Laiatu Latu and cornerback Cooper DeJean (via Schultz and NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport). Holding the No. 28 overall pick, Buffalo saw a concerning season from Von Miller (zero sacks after a second ACL rehab journey) and did not re-sign Leonard Floyd. The Bills also released Tre’Davious White and have not replaced him. While wide receiver is the buzz position in Buffalo given the exits of longtime performers, the Bills also have some needs to address on defense.
  • A fourth team booked a visit with Alabama tackle JC Latham. The first-round-level tackle will meet with the Jets tonight and Wednesday, according to ESPN.com’s Adam Schefter. One of seven tackles Jeremiah places among his top 25 overall prospects, Latham has already met with the Cardinals, Titans and Bears. The Jets have been linked to an O-line investment, and the prospect of moving down from No. 10 has also come up for Gang Green.
  • Both the Alabama cornerbacks expected to go off the board early in this draft booked more visits before the Wednesday deadline. Terrion Arnold met with the Titans on Monday, Rapoport adds, while Kool-Aid McKinstry visited the Eagles (via the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jeff McLane). With Darius Slay and James Bradberry set to begin the season north of 31st birthdays, the Eagles have been tied to corners. The Titans acquired L’Jarius Sneed via trade and signed Chidobe Awuzie; this would seemingly take Tennessee out of the early-round CB mix. Though, the team did lose Sean Murphy-Bunting and has seen ex-first-rounder Caleb Farley prove undependable.
  • Although the Texans have taken multiple fliers on former top-10 corners (Jeff Okudah, C.J. Henderson), they may be interested in bolstering their cornerback corps with a higher-upside player. Houston hosted Missouri’s Ennis Rakestraw on Monday, KPRC2’s Aaron Wilson tweets. A Texas native, Rakestraw (Jeremiah’s No. 28 overall prospect) allowed just one touchdown on 28 targets last season, per Wilson. The 5-foot-11 defender broke up 11 passes with the Tigers in 2023.
  • This draft features a number of tackles set to go off the board in Round 1, but the second round could produce some investments at the position. The Giants, Jets and Commanders scheduled late visits with Arizona’s Jordan Morgan, ESPN.com’s Jordan Raanan tweets. Jeremiah’s No. 49 overall player, Morgan also visited the Bills, Broncos, Cardinals and Panthers, Wilson adds, noting also the three-year Wildcats starter worked out for the Texans during the pre-draft process. Morgan earned first-team All-Pac-12 recognition last season.

Cowboys To Move Markquese Bell Back To Safety

A collegiate safety, Markquese Bell joined the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 2022 and played in just 22 defensive snaps in his rookie season. In 2023, he was moved to linebacker and given a much larger workload, and he acquitted himself rather nicely.

In 17 games (eight starts) last year, Bell racked up 94 total tackles to go along with four passes defensed and two forced fumbles. He also fared well in the eyes of the advanced metrics, with Pro Football Focus assigning him a 76.8 overall grade that ranked 18th out of 74 qualified players. His 83.5 coverage grade, perhaps a function of his safety background, was the fifth-highest mark among his LB peers.

Former defensive coordinator Dan Quinn left Dallas to become the Commanders’ head coach this offseason, and his replacement, Mike Zimmer, will be moving Bell back to his natural safety position, as David Moore of the Dallas Morning News confirms. Zimmer prefers to have good size at the linebacker spots, and Bell — who is listed at 205 pounds — does not offer that. Plus, despite his PFF rankings, Bell’s lack of size and lack of experience as an LB were exposed at times last season, including the Cowboys’ stunning playoff ouster at the hands of the Packers.

Dallas has already reunited Zimmer with former Vikings charge Eric Kendricks, who will operate alongside Damone Clark and DeMarvion Overshown. Clark started all 17 games for Dallas in 2023 and compiled 109 tackles, though the 2022 fifth-rounder sometimes struggled with the increased responsibilities. Overshown, a 2023 third-rounder, had a promising camp and was expected to take on a meaningful role as a rookie, but a preseason ACL tear kept him off the field for the entirety of the campaign.

Despite Kendricks’ veteran presence and the upside of Clark and Overshown, Moore still believes that the linebacker unit is the weak link of the Dallas defense. The fact that the Cowboys are moving Bell out of that group is further indication that they plan to select an LB in the early stages of the upcoming draft. We recently heard that the club does not plan to use its first-round choice on the position, but in Moore’s estimation, a Day 2 selection would be more than defensible.

The team scheduled “30” visits with Michigan’s Junior Colson and Texas A&M’s Edgerrin Cooper, and Moore names Ohio State’s Tommy Eichenberg and Clemson’s Jeremiah Trotter Jr.  as other potential targets. Bruce Feldman of The Athletic, meanwhile, hears that the Cowboys “really like” NC State prospect Payton Wilson (subscription required).

Dallas has starting safeties Malik Hooker and Donovan Wilson on lucrative multi-year pacts; Hooker’s deal runs through 2026, while Wilson is under club control through 2025. Therefore, Bell may not be a starting safety, but given his relative success last season, Zimmer should find a way to get him on the field often.