Finishing the 2022 season with an 8-9 record and out of the playoffs, the New England Patriots have plenty of work to do to return to postseason contention. One big part of this process will be taking care of their own class of free agents.
Quite a few players are headed for the open market, with a total of 18 players left that were with New England last year in need of a new contract. Among them is linebacker Mack Wilson, who is set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 15.
Name: Mack Wilson Sr.
Position: Off-the-ball linebacker
Jersey number: 30
Opening day age: 25
Size: 6-foot-1, 235 pounds
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
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: the Cleveland Browns brought him in with the 155th overall selection.
Wilson was able to make an immediate impact on the 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. After playing 45 games in three years for the organization, it decided to trade him to the Patriots. He added 17 more games to his professional résumé in New England in 2022.
What did his 2022 season look like? Playing a career-low 17.2 percent of the team’s defensive snaps in 2021, the Browns made Wilson available via trade in the offseason. They found a buyer in the Patriots, who themselves were willing to move on from a member of their 2019 draft class heading into the final year of his rookie deal: New England sent outside linebacker Chase Winovich to Cleveland in return for Wilson. Whereas Winovich ended up playing just eight games for his new club, Wilson saw more consistent action.
Serving as both and off-the-ball linebacker and special teamer, he appeared in all 17 of the Patriots’ games in 2022. His usage was inconsistent, though. On the defensive side of the ball, for example, Wilson took the field for 234 of a possible 1,130 snaps (20.7%) but there was quite a bit of fluctuation on a week-to-week basis. While some of it can be explained through the game-plan-specific nature of the New England defense, it is noteworthy that he did not see any defensive snaps at all from Week 14 on.
Up until that point, after all, Wilson had played 30.1 percent of snaps as a rotational second and third option at his position. His performance was like his opportunities, however: up and down throughout the year. Wilson, who was part of the starting lineups in Weeks 2 through 4 — against Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Green Bay — registered 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble, but he also missed eight of 44 tackle attempts (18.2%) and, per Pro Football Focus, gave up 14 catches on 18 targets for 143 yards and a touchdown.
His apparent demotion on defense did not impact his usage in the kicking game, though. Wilson continued to be prominently featured in the game’s third phase all year, seeing action on the punt and kickoff return and coverage teams and ending the season with 284 special teams snaps (of 457; 62.1%). Only four players saw more action than him, and only two — Brenden Schooler and Matthew Slater — registered more than his 10 tackles. However, he also was on the field for all three return touchdowns given up on the year.
Free agency preview
What is his contract history? When Wilson entered the league in 2019, he signed a standard four-year rookie deal at a total value of $2.83 million — a deal that traveled with him when he was traded to New England (with the exception of his signing bonus proration for 2022). Through performance-based escalators, however, his salary in the final year of his pact had increased to $2.54 million. In total, Over the Cap has therefore calculated career earnings of just under $4.9 million.
Which teams might be in the running? Several teams are in the market to bolster their linebacker positions, and Wilson’s experience on defense and special teams might make him an attractive low-cost option. Among the teams possibly targeting him are the Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, Las Vegas Raiders, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings and Washington Commanders.
Why should he be expected back? Wilson was a solid contributor on special teams and did have his moments as a linebacker as well. He might not be the starter the team was hoping to get earlier in the season, but he does have value as a package-specific option to improve the team’s depth — an option that would now bring one year of experience in the system to the table as well. Additionally, he likely will come cheap.
Why should he be expected to leave? Wilson does have some intriguing athletic skills, but his consistency is not where the Patriots would like it to be. Additionally, it has become clear that he is merely a role player on defense — if even that: New England removed him from that side of the ball entirely over the final five weeks of the season, in what might be a sign of things to come.
What is his projected free agency outcome? The Patriots might go into either/or territory with Wilson and fellow off-the-ball linebacker Raekwon McMillan, and we already projected the latter to leave the team. It would therefore make sense to predict a different free agency outcome for Wilson, but his demotion late in the year is a legitimate concern. Accordingly, the safer bet would be him also leaving New England and the team bringing in new depth behind starting options Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jahlani Tavai.
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