Cleveland Browns rookie linebacker Mack Wilson’s NFL career could not have gotten off to a better start. Against the Washington Redskins, he intercepted two passes, returning one for a touchdown, and earning a near-perfect 97.7 grade from Pro Football Focus.
He was also given the Maurice Bassett award, which signifies the best rookie in Cleveland’s training camp. He also wrapped up the preseason with a solid performance against the Detroit Lions. But in between, Wilson struggled, and showed why despite his talent, he isn’t quite ready for significant game action.
Projected as a second-round pick, Wilson slid all the way to the fifth round for a number of reasons, including possible character concerns (which have been completely unjustified to this point), and a general lack of polish. Alabama head coach Nick Saban advised Wilson to stay in Tuscaloosa for his senior year, and he was probably right.
Wilson is a talented player, but he still lacks the mental aspect of the game, and because of this, is not a complete linebacker. Zone coverage is his strength, as was evident in the preseason. Even if he never improves other parts of his game, he’ll always have a role because of this skill.
Where Wilson struggles is diagnosing run plays quickly and then tackling with consistent technique. He missed four tackles against Indianapolis and Tampa Bay, and allowed receptions on all five of his targets for 49 yards and a touchdown.
It’s all about consistency with Wilson at this point; he’ll make a great play and then commit an obvious mistake, or he’ll have a perfect 80% of a play, but the other 20% ruins the rep. He’s certainly improved since the start of camp, but he still has a long way to go before he starts seeing the field on a consistent basis for things other than special teams.
On this play, Wilson is able to quickly knife though the line and has the runningback for a four-yard loss, but misses the tackle. He has to be able to finish these opportunities. Unfortunately, this would happen again.
On the same drive, Wilson has the chance to sack Jacoby Brissett on fourth down, but overruns the QB, allowing Brissett to sidestep Wilson, move up in the pocket, and deliver a first-down throw to tight end Eric Ebron.
It’s not just overruning that Wilson had trouble with; he also struggled to properly diagnose plays that involved motion. Here, he is completley oblivous to the QB handing the ball off to the WR running a jet sweep, instead focusing on the RB running the fake. Even as the camera pans down to follow the ball carrier, Wilson is still focused on the RB on the other side of the field.
Overall, the Colts game was rough for Wilson, and there was more of the same for him against Tampa Bay. Really the only thing of note he did the entire night was showcase poor effort on a red zone touchdown to tight end Jordan Leggett. Wilson was playing zone coverage and Leggett found an open spot in the defense. While Mack Wilson jogged over thinking he had no shot at the play, Leggett ran towards the sideline but was forced back inside by a Browns defender, only to get into the end zone. Had Wilson been running full speed, he would have been able to prevent the score.
Wilson rebounded with a solid outing against the Detroit Lions, but still had a few miscues. Here, he does everything right; engages the lineman with power, sheds the block, and latches onto the ball carrier. The problem is he also got dragged five yards forward before his teammates were able to help him out.
Wilson does a great job here. He quickly diagnoses the flat route, closes in on the tight end, and wraps him up for no gain.
He’s flashed both good and bad this preseason; that’s no surprise, he’s a rookie. He’s probably more talented than the majority of players chosen in the fifth round, and could end up being a starter in Cleveland in the near future. But not right now. Both he and fellow rookie Sione Takitaki have plenty of things to work on, and will be used primarily on special teams for the time being.
They’re depth right now, but that’s not a bad thing; the Browns are finally in a position where they don’t need to rely on late-round rookies to start immediately. They can afford to wait for Mack Wilson to figure things out.