Steelers Scouting Report: LB Payton Wilson has impressive traits with injury concerns

Strengths, weaknesses, and pro comparison for Payton Wilson.
Clemson v NC State
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When the Pittsburgh Steelers rushed to turn their card in for Payton Wilson with the 98th overall pick in the third round of the 2024 NFL Draft, you couldn't find many fans complaining about the selection. Wilson was regarded as one of the best linebackers in college football in 2023, but his scary injury history caused him to slip in the draft.

Wilson, a former four-star recruit, was the fourth-ranked off-ball linebacker in the country coming out of Orange High School in 2017, per 247Sports. His production was off the charts during his 2023 season before declaring for the 2024 NFL Draft.

After watching numerous cut-ups of Payton Wilson's film before the draft, I did a deeper dive into his tape. Despite his injury history, it's not hard to see why the Steelers took a gamble on him. Here's my full scouting report on Pittsburgh's 98th overall pick.


  • Impressive range and playmaking ability in space thanks to frame and athletic traits
  • Outstanding athlete with jaw-dropping speed; ran a 4.43 at the NFL Combine
  • Plays every bit as fast as his timed speed would suggest
  • Rare height for today's NFL linebacker (6'3 7/8'')
  • Has a nose for the football; routinely involved where the play is happening
  • Good football IQ; finds himself in the right place at the right time
  • Rock-solid tackler, rarely allows the ball carrier to slip his grasp
  • Excellent feel for zone coverage; Quarterbacks have to be mindful of where he is on the field
  • Impressive hands to take the football away and can disrupt passing lanes
  • Can slip blocks and make plays in the backfield


  • Scary injury history dating back to high school; playing without an ACL in one knee
  • Tall frame, but lean for his height (233 lbs.) with short arms (30 1/2'')
  • Struggles to stack and shed blocks consistently; better at going around blocks
  • Must work on leverage at the point of attack; gets too high and be driven out of the play
  • Lacks a pass-rush plan when with poor hand usage as a blitzer
  • Old entering the NFL (24), which could limit the longevity of his career

2023 Statistics:

  • 138 tackles (69 solo)
  • 17.5 tackles for a loss (6.0 sacks)
  • 3 interceptions (6 passes defended)
  • 2 fumble recoveries, 1 forced fumble
  • 1 defensive touchdown
  • 89.8 overall grade (90.4 coverage grade) via PFF

Projected Role for the Steelers:

Payton Wilson joins a Pittsburgh Steelers roster that is suddenly deep at the off-ball linebacker position. Newcomer Patrick Queen expects to see the highest snap count after signing a three-year $41 million deal with the team in free agency. Meanwhile, Elandon Roberts will be used on early downs, and Cole Holcomb will have a significant role if he returns healthy.

Wilson will most likely be eased into action and could carve out a role early as a sub-package linebacker -- likely on passing downs. Wilson could be part of a committee at the position and will serve in a rotational role as a rookie until he proves he deserves a larger percentage of the team's total defensive snaps.

NFL player comparison: Thomas Howard

This is high praise, but I think Payton Wilson is very similar to Thomas Howard coming out of Texas-El Paso all the way back in 2003. Both are field generals with extremely fast playing speed and a nose for the football. At the NFL Combine, Howard measured in at 6'3'' and 239 pounds with 4.42 speed -- making him very similar to a Wilson from a size and athletic standpoint (6'3 7/8'', 233 lbs, 4.43 speed).

Howard was a former second-round pick by the Raiders and was a 23-year-old rookie. He played in the NFL for 8 seasons but suited up for just 3 games in his final two years as injuries set in. Howard played for three NFL teams until the age of 30 and started 78 games. He was a quality football player but never made a Pro Bowl. Payton Wilson could follow a similar career path.

Bottom line: Payton Wilson has an extensive injury history and is on the old side for a rookie, but his rare combination of frame, instincts, and athletic traits could make him a quality starting linebacker with a chance to be more thanks to his playmaking ability.