NFL player comparisons for Steelers LB Payton Wilson

High-end, low-end, and most likely NFL player comps for Steelers LB Payton Wilson.
Cleveland Browns v Oakland Raiders
Cleveland Browns v Oakland Raiders / Jed Jacobsohn/GettyImages

The Pittsburgh Steelers might have found the steal of the 2024 NFL Draft. With the 98th overall pick, general manager Omar Khan pounced at the opportunity to add Payton Wilson to his roster. Wilson, a former NC State linebacker, was a four-star recruit coming out of high school.

In 2023, Wilson was widely considered as the best off-ball linebacker in the country after putting on a clinic with 138 tackles, 17.5 tackles for a loss, 6.0 sacks, 3 interceptions, and a defensive touchdown in 12 days. His impressive playing speed was confirmed with the NFL Combine results as he ran an official 4.43 40-yard dash at 6'3 7/8'' and 233 pounds in Indianapolis.

On paper, he's a first-round talent, but a concerning injury history caused him to slip in the NFL Draft. Wilson has had multiple knee injuries and shoulder surgery. During the draft, it was reported that he was playing without an ACL in one knee. I detail his strengths and weaknesses in my full scouting report on Wilson.

Wilson's career path largely depends on how healthy he can stay. If he can avoid the injury bug, the future looks bright. Here are my high-end, low-end, and most likely NFL player comparisons for Steelers linebacker, Payton Wilson.

High-end NFL comparison: Keith Bullock

Wouldn't this be a treat? Keith Bullock was a long-time starting linebacker for the Tennessee Titans who proved to be one of the most consistent and dependable linebackers in the game in the early 2000s. At 6'3'' and 235 pounds, Bullock had impressive range thanks to his 4.47 speed.

This aided Bullock to his lone Pro Bowl and All-Pro season in 2003 when he racked up 137 tackles, 5 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions, and a defensive touchdown. Like Wilson, Bullock was an older prospect who was 23 years old before being drafted with the 30th overall pick in 2000. He earned only 4 starts in his first two seasons and didn't break out until age 25 in 2002.

Bullock was fortunate to be extremely healthy throughout the course of his NFL career. This helped him play until age 33 in a career that spanned over a decade (10 of his 11 seasons came with the Titans).

Wilson shares a very similar size and athletic profile to Bullock. With Wilson's injury, it's not reasonable to expect him to last this long in the NFL, but that's why it's a high-end comparison. Everything would have to go right for him to see a career path similar to that of Keith Bullock.

Low-end NFL comparison: Boss Bailey

Football fans had high hopes for Boss Bailey, but he didn't exactly turn out to be his brother, Champ. The former Georgia prospect was a second-round pick back in 2003 who offered impressive traits at the linebacker position.

Similar to Wilson, Bailey stood at 6'3'' and 233 pounds with 4.58 speed. Bailey was a 24-year-old rookie who impressed from the gate. Unfortunately, his career was all downhill after his rookie season. Bailey missed the entire 2004 season in his second year in the NFL and missed 5 games in Year 3 in 2005.

Just when it looked like he was on the mend, Bailey suffered yet another season-ending injury in Week 7 of the 2008 season -- effectively ending his career at the age of 29.

If Payton Wilson doesn't turn out, it's not going to be because he isn't good; it's going to be because he can't stay on the field. Bailey played in just 64 NFL games, making 57 starts. I can see a similar career path for Wilson if he has one more major injury.

Most likely NFL comparison: Thomas Howard

After shuffling through players for an hour trying to find the perfect comparison for Payton Wilson, I may have found just the one in Thomas Howard. Howard was a former second-round pick by the Raiders out of Texas-El Paso in 2006, and he was selected early thanks to his stellar combination of size and athletic traits.

Howard stood at 6'3'' and 239 pounds with 4.42 speed -- making him nearly identical to Wilson from a size and speed standpoint. He was productive from the gate as a 23-year-old rookie in 2006. However, his production slowly decreased each year.

Following his rookie contract, Howard was a backup in Year 5 before earning a starting job on a new team as a member of the Bengals in 2011. The following year, injuries claimed his career, as Howard appeared in just 3 games during the 2012 and 2013 seasons. He retired at the age of 30, but his final notable season came at age 28.

Like Howard, Payton Wilson could start out his career strong but wear down fast. I can see a career path very similar to Thomas Howard for the Pittsburgh Steelers third-round pick.