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Carolina Panthers

Payton Wilson on being a top LB, Luke Kuechly and inspiring his North Carolina town

Payton Wilson NC State ISO

RALEIGH, N.C.— Coming into Tuesday's Pro Day, NC State linebacker Payton Wilson could have sat back, rested on his laurels, and pointed to his NFL Combine numbers when anyone asked if he was going to work out for scouts in Raleigh.

Instead, he took part in drill after drill. Linebacker drills and any other rep scouts would allow him to have in-between corners, receivers, and other skill players. In a way, the day was a relief for Wilson, who is in contention to be the first linebacker off the board come April.

"I love football," Wilson quickly quipped when asked why he wanted to work out on Tuesday after such a strong Combine showing. "The position drills are a lot different than running a 40, jumping a vert. I think I move really well, and any time that anybody wants me to get me on the field and see movement—I think that I'm probably one of the better linebackers around the country in movement—so anytime anybody wants to do that, I'm all up for it, and I'm willing to go until they want to stop.

"I kind of knew what the situation was going in, kind of fighting for LB one, first linebacker taking off the board. But everyone said that I had an amazing day. Felt like I was the best movement linebacker there, and obviously, the 40's going to speak for itself."

North Carolina State linebacker Payton Wilson runs in the 40-yard dash during the NFL football scouting combine, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The movement is what Wilson hopes scouts focus on over the next few weeks­, he said of the Combine. This despite running the fastest 40-time at the Combine among linebackers (4.43 seconds).

"Everybody's going to want me to play off-ball backer, so mike or will, teams think that I can play both," Wilson shared. "It's just a matter of what system I get into, who they have on the team, and where they need help."

Wilson shared he has six team visits already on the calendar for the coming weeks. He's been training in Florida during this time, though, and that will remain his biggest focus.

"Just back to training, training as hard as I can because I feel like I'm headed into the most important season in my life. So wherever I go, I want to show up in great shape and great football shape and just continue to be the player that I was this past year."

No matter the system, no matter the team, and no matter the personnel, Wilson, a born-and-raised North Carolinian and Carolina Panthers fan, plans on emulating one particular linebacker.

"I think every linebacker should try to be Luke Kuechly, considering he was literally the best to ever do it," Wilson stated. "Obviously, his career was shortened due to (concussions). But I think if he had had the longevity that other linebackers had, there would be no question of who is the best linebacker ever."

Kuechly has gone from hero to mentor for Wilson over the years, helping him navigate life off the field in hopes of making it to the NFL. But it's how Kuechly has helped him on the field that might best help Wilson achieve his dreams.

"I've talked to him about how he breaks down film, and we talked about that through the last few years, and just everything that he's told me is some of the reasons that I played the way that I did this year," Wilson said.

"He literally knows what plays coming and (other NFL players) say he knows 95 percent of the plays that are coming. And a lot of that is studying film but I think his instincts was the best I've ever seen. And it's just been awesome trying to mimic that and recreate that because like I said earlier, I think he's the best football player to every play."

Kuechly was the first linebacker taken in the 2012 NFL draft when the Panthers selected him ninth overall. Most national mock drafts have projected Wilson as an early day two selection, although has put Wilson in the first round of two recent mock drafts.

North Carolina State linebacker Payton Wilson (11) celebrates after catching an interception during the second half an NCAA college football game against UConn in East Hartford, Conn., Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

Wilson finished his final season with 138 tackles (eighth most in the country), six sacks, and three interceptions. He was named a unanimous All-American, first-team All-ACC, and ACC Defensive Player of the Year. He also won the Butkus Award, given to the nation's top linebacker, and the Chuck Bednarik Award, which honors college football's best defensive player.

Regardless, if Wilson can mimic the part of Kuechly's career that saw him at the top of his position, it could set up the next generation of linebackers out of the Carolinas.

"I would just say, no matter where you come from—Hillsborough is a small town, especially when I was growing up. I don't even think there was 9,000 people in the whole town—but I mean, just chase your dreams," Wilson preached.

"At the end of the day, no matter where you come from, who you are—you know, my brother (Major League Baseball player Bryse Wilson) is the first person I think to ever go play professional sports out of our high school; I'm definitely the only one in football to take it to this level. So, you know, just having great parents around and just continuing to chase your dream, continue to believe in Jesus Christ, and understand that He has a plan for you.

"And just work as hard as you can every day because you hear it all the time, people are out working you and I promise it's true and you know, you don't want that to be the case. So just keep the mentality that you can make it, and one day you will."

The Carolina Panthers were busy in free agency this week, signing multiple players on both sides of the ball. The first wave arrived on Thursday and Friday, getting a tour of Bank of America Stadium, meeting coaches, teammates and taking in their new home.

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