Wilson was considered the only true three-down back the Bengals had in the unit last year and he will get that opportunity more often in 2021.
To Anarumo, Wilson was the perfect choice to replace Bynes in a leadership role.
“You prefer (the comms guy) to be a guy at the second level of the defense because he’s tied into the front a little bit more than the safeties are and the corners,” Anarumo said. “So, you start with that. He’s used to working with those guys and used to talking to those guys. And then you want a guy that’s going to be on the field all the time as well. We feel like he can do some of those things for us. We’ll have certain packages where he’s not, but we can do different things to get the defense in there. He’s shown great athleticism, great playmaking ability, and we’re hoping it steps up this year.”
Wilson is ready to make a big jump, as well. Having a spring to build a base for training camp helped prepare him, as he had a chance to build off what he learned from his reps as a rookie. Now he and the Bengals defense are shining early in training camp.
“Last year was just trying to find your footing, trying to understand certain schemes,” Wilson said. “This year, I have a better foundation of all that stuff. It’s definitely helping me translate playing a little faster.”
While it was a learning year, Wilson said he doesn’t reflect too much, as his focus is on improving what he’s doing now.
Wilson said he was surprised last year by how NFL offensive linemen come off the ball and know who and when to block and how fast opposing offenses were, but the transition went relatively smoothly for him as he had time to adjust.
“For the most part I did a lot of good things, but there were some mistakes I made that I would like to have back,” he said. “I just said you have to learn from those mistakes and not let them happen again and keep moving forward. I think for the most part I did that last year. I think this year I’ve become more confident in the system, understanding the system better. Being able to learn under Bynes last year and how he ran the show as the Mike backer, that definitely helped.”
Wilson brings versatility and athleticism to the field as a former wide receiver and defensive back in high school. He switched to linebacker at Wyoming during a redshirt freshman season, and he went on to start all 52 games at that position over the next four years.
His athleticism was put to use against some of the best quarterbacks the Bengals faced last year, especially when they had Wilson spy Lamar Jackson to chase the shifty Ravens quarterback down. Wilson said that gave him some added confidence, and he believes the Bengals defense is built to better handle those kinds of players this season.
“I told people back home when they asked me that same question, he’s as good as advertised,” Wilson said. “It wasn’t an easy task because he’s very shifty, agile. He can move where he wants, whenever he wants. You don’t know where he’s going, so it comes down to taking good angles on the ball and understanding what he’s trying to do with the ball, too.”
Bengals coach Zac Taylor has a lot of belief in the linebackers as a unit going into this season. It’s a young group with Germaine Pratt, a third-year player, surrounded by Wilson, Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey from last year’s draft class, but Taylor said he likes what he’s seeing so far as competition heats up for playing time at the two spots the Bengals will fill with linebackers.
“I like where everybody’s at to start,” Taylor said. “They’ve really made a concerted effort. Coach (Al) Golden does a great job with those guys, playing downhill, playing physical. … You can tell their sense of urgency over what they’re doing. These three preseason games for guys are going to be huge. We want to see those guys really fighting for their playing time.”