Continuing the series, I wanted to move back to off-ball linebackers where the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Payton Wilson in the third round. Today’s goal is to look at and provide stat context for the position in run defense using Sports Info Solutions (SIS).

The data in this study looks at their final college season in 2023, focusing on the players who heard their names called in the draft. The goal is to see how Wilson stacked up among his peers.

Let’s start with rush snaps and total snaps to get a gauge of the players opportunities, and how often they were on the field for their squads last season:

Wilson was near the top of this year’s draft class in total regular season snaps (715) ranking fourth out of the 18 qualifying LBs. Encouraging given his several past injuries, highlighted by our Melanie Friedlander in this entrance physical article.

He was just below the mean with 257 run snaps though which ranked lower at ninth. This emphasizes less time in the situation than his overall opportunities, thus playing more in passing situations.

Next, let’s look at a very important aspect of being a quality run defender. Tackling. The chart below looks at the players tackles per game and average tackle depth, with the latter suggesting quality play up front and attacking the line of scrimmage:

Though the quantity of run snaps wasn’t near the top among his peers, he was the only LB comfortably above the mean in both data points, positively. More specifically, he averaged 10.9 tackles per game that ranked third, and a nice 2.1 average tackle depth that was fifth-best.

It is important to note that Wilson was one of the most alignment versatile players in 2023, most notably playing several snaps at edge rusher. While that versatility is generally encouraging, it could sway average tackle depth results with more snaps closer to the line of scrimmage. Not a bad thing but important context nonetheless.

This next view attempts to weigh positive and negative plays, using broken and missed tackle rates (negative plays) along with SIS positive play percentage, is the rate of run plays with the player on the field resulted in a positive expected points added (EPA) with lower percentages being the best:

Another visual where Wilson lands on the top right, meaning he was above-average in both among 2024 drafted LBs. He had a broken/missed tackle rate of just 6.4-percent that ranked third-best, which was great to learn considering issues Pittsburgh has had with tackling on the second level.

Then, he had a 37.4 positive play percentage when on the field for the NC State Wolfpack, ranking tenth. That is Wilson’s lowest ranking in the study, pointing more to team talent lacking compared to several peers that played for stronger clubs.

To close, and further the last point, here is a more total view of the players in the run game:

  • Points Saved per Play: The total of a player’s EPA responsibility on run plays using the Total Points system that distributes credit among all players on the field for a given play, with positive numbers being good. Totals are scaled up to map to the average points scored or allowed on a team level, with the player’s snap count determining how much to adjust. For run defense, that includes accounting for defenders in the box, blown blocks forced, broken tackles, turnovers, and turnover returns.
  • Points Above Average per Play: Using the same Total Points system and putting a number to their value above an average level player:

Excitedly, we see Wilson atop these results, ranking first in both points saved per play and points above average per play. So, in 2023, he provided the most run defense impact for his team in this year’s draft class. This is one element to the notion of many that Wilson was the most talented linebacker, that was thankfully available in the third round due to injury concerns.

So, Wilson was the top ranked linebacker in the 2024 draft (18 qualifiers) in points saved per play and points above average per play, meaning he had a substantial impact when on the field last season in run defense. He also had top five ranks in the following: tackles per game (third), broken/missed tackle rate (third), total snaps (fourth), average tackle depth (fifth). Fantastic.

His lowest rankings were run snaps (ninth) and positive play percentage (tenth), but each of those were close to the mean above his peers, meaning there were no glaring weaknesses in terms of his run defense stat averages in 2023.

Hopefully Wilson can carry these skills as seamlessly as possible to the NFL, which Pittsburgh would no doubt welcome and benefit from. Patrick Queen was another huge addition to the position room that will likely be the every down linebacker. While Wilson’s coverage stats were a bit more up and down, he did provide great contributions, most notably in the turnover department.

Pairing that with the fantastic run defensive data, I’m very optimistic on what Wilson can become in the NFL as early as this season (and beyond).


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