With the offseason workout program in the rear-view mirror, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 87 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with fourth-year linebacker Mack Wilson.
Name: Mack Wilson
Position: Off-the-ball linebacker
Jersey number: 30
Opening day age: 24
Size: 6-foot-1, 235 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 UFA)
What is his experience? 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 did hear his name called in the draft, albeit on the third day.
Despite his lack of draft pedigree, Wilson was able to make an immediate impact on the Cleveland Browns’ defense as a rookie. His future looked bright after he played 88 percent of defensive snaps that year, but he was unable to build on his momentum. Wilson’s defensive playing time decreased each year between 2019 and 2021, and he was used more as a role and special teams player by the end of his tenure. Before getting traded to New England earlier this offseason, he appeared in 45 games as a Brown.
What did his 2021 season look like? Even though he appeared in 31 games over his first two seasons in Cleveland, Wilson was no lock to make the Browns’ roster heading into 2021. Not only was he coming off a challenging sophomore campaign that saw his opportunities on both defense and special teams decrease, the team also added a pair of off-the-ball linebackers through the draft. Despite that and the team reportedly fielding trade calls for him, Wilson did find himself on the 53-man squad come the regular season.
However, his third season in Cleveland was more of the same for Wilson at least as far as his defensive contributions are concerned. Appearing in 14 of 17 games, the Alabama product took the field a career-low 193 times out of 1,120 possible snaps (17.2%). Aligning primarily off the ball, he was used as a role player who saw most of his action versus the run. Accordingly, 26 of his 33 tackles happened in the running game; one of his tackle attempts was missed for a rate of 2.9 percent — by far the best of his career.
Wilson had less of an impact in the passing game, even though a lack of opportunities again hurt him. He was called upon to rush the passer on just two occasions and did not register any quarterback disruptions. Furthermore, he was targeted on eight of his 79 coverage snaps; opposing QBs were able to complete five of those attempts for a combined 38 yards. Those numbers are not necessarily bad, and there is an argument to be made that Wilson played better football as a part-timer rather than a starter.
While his defensive playing time decreased for a third straight year, Wilson’s special teams usage sky-rocketed: after playing just three kicking game snaps in 2020, he was on the field for 180 in 2021 (of 425; 42.4%). Moving between five units — kickoff return and coverage, punt return and coverage, field goal/extra point blocking — he was one of the Browns’ top performers in the game’s third phase and ended the season with a career-high nine special teams tackles, tied for most on the team.
However, Wilson’s time in Cleveland was coming to an end. Even though he had a good year in the kicking game and ranked sixth on the Browns in playing time share, and despite his defensive performance being quite solid for a role player, the organization decided to part ways with him before the 2021 league year was over. On the first day of the legal tampering window in March, Cleveland agreed to send the three-year veteran to the Patriots in exchange for fellow linebacker and 2019 draft pick Chase Winovich.
What is his projected role? 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, 235 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 snaps in the kicking game to help replace veteran linebacker/special teamer Brandon King.
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. His skillset is intriguing, though, 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. Additionally, he offers the positional flexibility to be used on five special teams units.
What is his special teams value? Wilson offers plenty of experience in the kicking game, having seen regular action in the game’s third phase in two of his three years in Cleveland. As noted above, he was used on five units during his final season with the Browns: his former club used Wilson on both punt and kickoff coverage, the two return teams, and the field goal/extra point blocking unit. He will likely play a similar role in New England, even though his defensive usage might dictate his special teams opportunities.
What is his salary cap situation? When the Browns sent Wilson to New England in exchange for Chase Winovich, they did not part ways with all of his contract. His $77,201 signing bonus proration for the 2022 season remained in Cleveland as dead cap, meaning that only his $2.54 million salary transferred to the Patriots. That number is also Wilson’s cap hit with his new team. That means that he does not carry any guarantees, and that releasing him would move the entire $2.54 million off the club’s books.
How safe is his roster spot? Based on his contract situation, Wilson cannot be seen as a lock to make New England’s roster heading into the final season of his rookie contract. That said, unless the 24-year-old completely fails to adapt to the so-called Patriot Way and disappoints in training camp and preseason, he should still make the cut. Not only is the team’s off-the-ball linebacker depth relatively shallow — Ja’Whaun Bentley, Raekwon McMillan, Cameron McGrone and Wilson are the top-four at the position — his special teams experience is also valuable.
One-sentence projection: Wilson will make the Patriots’ 53-man roster and be a regular as both a rotational off-the-ball linebacker and a core special teamer.