When the Cleveland Browns snagged Alabama linebacker Mack Wilson in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft, many fans praised the pick, and why wouldn’t they? An Alabama defender projected to go in the second, and the Browns got him in the fifth? He’s a major steal and a rookie starter, right? Not necessarily. There are quite a few misconceptions that surround Wilson, his talent, and his NFL potential. There are reasons why he was available so late in the draft, and they aren’t attitude-related.
Film Room: Why Mack Wilson Fell to the Fifth Round
Let’s first take a look at his physical traits. At 6’1″ and 240 pounds, he has good size for a middle linebacker, which is where he should play in the NFL. He participated in just two drills at the NFL Combine, putting up pedestrian numbers of 32″ in the vertical jump and 117″ in the broad jump. His Pro Day numbers included a 33″ vertical, 121″ broad, and a 4.65-second 40-yard dash.
Wilson’s testing confirmed what is evident on tape; he is not a great athlete. That’s not to say he’s a poor one, but it’s certainly less than ideal. His college teammate, safety Deionte Thompson, also fell to the fifth round, and lacks elite athleticism, although he also has a degenerative knee condition which hurt his stock.
Where Wilson and Thompson differ is instincts. Thompson excels at reading the play and knowing where he has to be to make the stop. He just can’t always get there in time. Wilson, on the other hand, is not an aggressive or instinctive player, and that’s by far his biggest issue.
This problem is clear both on tape and from looking at his stats. In his two seasons as a starter, Wilson finished with just seven tackles for loss and one sack. Rueben Foster, an Alabama middle linebacker from 2014-2016, finished his two starting seasons with 21 TFLs and six sacks. That’s quite a difference. Foster didn’t do pre-Draft athletic drills, but it’s clear that he is a much more explosive, aggressive, and instinctive player than Wilson. Wilson is not Foster, nor is he close.
Wilson is not going to be making flashy impact plays for the Browns. Those will come from third-rounder Sione Takitaki, whose instincts and athleticism far outclass Wilson.
When watching Alabama games, it’s tough to notice Wilson. You wouldn’t know that he was a potential day two prospect. His sophomore tape has some flashes, but he didn’t improve much, if at all during his junior year, and that stagnation is a large reason for his draft slide. His play was underwhelming and low-impact. You didn’t see him make many mistakes, but his impact plays were also lacking. In fact, it’s fair to see he made a larger impact on special teams than he ever did on defense.
Wilson is a reactive player. He doesn’t diagnose what the offense is going to do before they do it. He waits until the play is in motion before making his decision on where to attack. He isn’t bad at this. In fact, he could be considered good at it.
In these back-to-back plays, Georgia runs the read-option, first handing the ball to the running back and then keeping it with the quarterback. In the first play, Wilson waits until he is sure the running back has the ball and then moves to make the tackle. The problem is that by the time he decides to move on the running back, he is already at the line of scrimmage, and picks up a nice gain.
In the second play, Wilson reacts a bit quicker, aided by the pulling tight end, who completely misses his block, allowing Wilson to make the tackle for no gain. Wilson is nowhere close to Devin White or Devin Bush Jr. in terms of closing speed, but he can make plays sideline-to-sideline.
Wilson hits hard and is strong enough to get any runner down to the ground once he wraps up. However, he struggles to take the correct angles to break down in time.
Here, his angle isn’t quite hard enough, and because of that, Jake Fromm is able to slow down and sidestep Wilson before getting the first down. He should know he has outside help from the slot corner, and his mistake actually cost the corner a chance at the tackle. If he had taken a more direct approach, Fromm would have been forced to attempt to get to the edge, which he wouldn’t have been able to do because of the two defenders there.
Now that we’ve covered why Wilson wasn’t a second-round prospect that fell to the fifth, let’s shift to his strengths. He started at Alabama for two years, so there are some things that he does well.
He is a physical player who likes to take on blockers, and he does it well.
He excels at extending his arms before the offensive lineman can get his hands into Wilson’s chest, and uses great pad level and leverage. This is a very valuable skill, one that could make him an elite player if he was just more aggressive and instinctive. Hopefully that’s just a matter of him studying more film and being coached in the NFL.
Wilson’s biggest strength at this point is in coverage. He is not great in man, but he is very good in zone. He has a good feel for where the receiver is and where he is trying to go, along with excellent ball skills. His six career interceptions are no accident.
Wilson’s fit with the Browns is interesting. He should easily make the team, as Cleveland’s linebacker depth was very poor heading into the draft. He will likely play primarily on special teams and should be one of the team’s biggest contributors there. On defense, he’s almost like a worse Joe Schobert right now, without the athletic upside. The Browns will likely play with only two linebackers on the field for a majority of snaps, so his opportunities may be few. But if Christian Kirksey gets injured again or plays like he has since 2016, Wilson and Takitaki may be playing significant snaps sooner rather than later.
If you view Wilson as a direct replacement for Jamie Collins, what’s funny is that Wilson is almost the complete opposite of Collins as a player. Collins is athletic and instinctive, and he plays the game in a sudden and improvisational style, taking risks and making big plays, but also making mistakes and giving up large gains.
He may never be as good as many are making him out to be, but Wilson’s value as a zone coverage linebacker in the fifth round is hard to argue against. He’ll be Schobert’s backup and a special teamer unless something unforeseen happens, but that’s good for a fifth-rounder. The Browns are in the depth-building phase, and Wilson fills a big need.