The New England Patriots’ first move of free agency week that involves an outside player was a trade. The team sent Chase Winovich to the Cleveland Browns in exchange for fellow fourth-year linebacker Mack Wilson.
Wilson’s arrival bolsters an off-the-ball linebacker group that might be in a transformation process. Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jamie Collins are all headed for unrestricted free agency, after all, and are therefore candidates to leave the organization. Regardless of what will happen with them, however, Wilson adds an intriguing skillset to the group as it currently stands.
Name: Mack Wilson
Position: Off-the-ball linebacker
Opening day age: 24
Size: 6-foot-1, 233 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022
Before arriving in the NFL as a fifth-round selection in the 2019 draft, Wilson played college football at the University of Alabama. Having appeared in 33 total games over his first three seasons with the Crimson Tide and registering seven takeaways along the way, the junior defender decided to take his talents to the pro level — against the advice of head coach Nick Saban. Nonetheless, Wilson entered the draft and had to wait until Day 3 to hear his name called.
Nonetheless, Wilson was able to make an immediate impact on the Browns’ defense as a rookie. Appearing in all 16 games, the fifth-round selection was on the field for 88 percent of snaps — second most on the team that year. Aligning primarily off the ball but moving around on occasion as well, Wilson registered 82 tackles, a sack, a fumble and an interception. But while his future appeared bright at that point, he was unable to build on his momentum.
Wilson’s playing time decreased each of the next two seasons: first down to 43 percent and finally down to 21 in 2021. While he did not receive as many opportunities as he did during his rookie season, he was able to deliver some solid performances. The 2021 season in particular was encouraging, with Wilson looking improved as both a run defender and in coverage. Along the way, he also started to make a major impact on special teams: he was on the field for 42 percent of kicking game snaps in his final year in Cleveland.
What is his projected role in New England? Wilson was primarily used as an off-the-ball linebacker in Cleveland, and the expectation is that the Patriots will also employ him that way. At 6-foot-1, 233 pounds he is lighter than the team’s usual prototype at the position, but he should get his opportunities as a strong-side defender with upside to perform on all three downs. Furthermore, Wilson is expected to see regular action in the kicking game.
Where does he fit on the linebacker depth chart? With the aforementioned Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jamie Collins still unaccounted for, Wilson currently projects as a top rotational option for the Patriots alongside Raekwon McMillan and ahead of youngsters Cameron McGrone and Anfernee Jennings. Any additional acquisitions might change this standing, though, and push the 24-year-old down the depth chart into a more specialized role.
Does he have positional versatility? The Browns used Wilson primarily in an off-the-ball role during his three seasons in Cleveland, and the expectation is that the Patriots will not suddenly start moving him around their front seven either. That said, his skillset is intriguing and would allow for a more flexible usage: Wilson possess the sideline-to-sideline range and situational awareness to make plays against the pass and the run, regardless of where he lines up.
What is his special teams value? Like Chase Winovich, his predecessor in roster spot rather than role, Wilson offers plenty of experience in the kicking game. He saw action on five units during his final season with the Browns, and will likely play a similar role in New England: Cleveland used him on both punt and kickoff coverage, the two return teams, and the field goal/extra point blocking unit.
What does it mean for New England’s salary cap? Despite Wilson getting drafted after third-round pick Chase Winovich in 2019, he carries a higher salary cap hit: his salary for the upcoming season is $2.54 million compared to Winovich’s $965,000. With only the salaries exchanging teams as part of the move — signing bonuses stay with the original club — the Patriots lost $1.58 million in cap space.
What does it mean for New England’s draft outlook? Even with Wilson now aboard, the off-the-ball linebacker position is a need for New England heading into the draft. Other moves made in free agency might change this, but the presence of the ex-Brown does not change the Patriots’ outlook very much. That is especially true given that Wilson is on the final year of his rookie contract and set to enter free agency in 2023. The team is still in need of one or more longer-term solutions.
One-sentence verdict: Acquiring Wilson is not the answer for the Patriots’ linebacker questions, but it is a start.
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