Undersized linebackers are nothing new to the Carolina Panthers. When Jon Beason was selected in 2007 he weighed just 237 lbs, extremely small for a middle linebacker, and when Thomas Davis was the 14th overall pick in 2005 he tipped the scales at 230 lbs. For that reason alone I find it amusing that so many are willing to knock Lawrence Wilson for his size, after weighing in at 229lbs at his pro day. Make no mistakes, he will need a year or two in an NFL strength and conditioning program to become a complete linebacker, but where he was selected Lawrence Wilson represents value.
Looking at what Wilson does well he reads like the perfect linebacker- great sideline to sideline speed, excellent tackling technique, great motor, hard worker... there really isn't a knock on him other that size. Perhaps Wilson's greatest attribute though is his football IQ; he represents another player the Panthers drafted in 2011 who may not be ideal in size, but exceeds in smarts.
During his four year career at UCONN Wilson amassed 438 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 5 INTs and 4 FF. The reason for this is an almost unnatural ability to diagnose plays prior to the snap and always find himself in the right place at the right time. Ultimately, this meant that where Wilson lacked in size he made up for in smarts, meaning he didn't often need to fight through blockers because he was already in position to get to the ballcarrier.
More on Lawrence Wilson after the jump...
With the exception of his intelligence, Wilson falls into the category of 'jack of all trades, master of none'. There isn't any one area he really excels at physically which makes it tough to predict what role he can play at the next level. Ultimately, he looks like a poor man's Thomas Davis- a talented, intelligent player who's too big to play safety, but too small to play any linebacking position except the weak side. Given where we took Wilson, this could be a lot worse.
Despite starting this piece discussing the undersized nature of Beason and Davis, we do need to touch on Wilson's size. As much as we've discussed Cam Newton's size, it should be noted that Wilson is actually outweighed by Jake Locker by 2 lbs- not much, I know... but it does highlight how small he is. Though he used his smarts to make up for his physical limitations in college, there's a good chance he wont be able to diagnose NFL offenses quite so easily, meaning his road may be rougher.
Value of the Pick
Most analysts pegged Wilson as a 4th-5th round selection, based purely on his size. Honestly, it's an unfortunate situation where if he weighed even 10 lbs more then he would likely have been a 2nd or 3rd round pick- but in the size conscious NFL he was knocked severely for it. Carolina selected Wilson at the top of the 6th round, so they did get some value out of the pick.
In the right system, one where Wilson would not be required to fight through blocks on a regular basis he could start early. However, as it stands we know very little about the defensive principals of the Carolina Panthers other than making inferences based on Sean McDermott's 4-3 in Philadelphia, and Ron Rivera's 4-3 in Chicago. Either way though, little are of any consequence to Wilson, as it will be impossible to unseat Thomas Davis unless he does not return to Carolina.
Chance of starting week one: 0% if Thomas Davis is on the roster, 30% if he isn't.
Fit on the Depth Chart
Immediately Lawrence Wilson will be used to great effect on special teams, but in terms of the linebacker position I expect him to get the 3rd string spot at weak side behind Thomas Davis and Nic Harris. Harris' contract is up at the end of 2011, and at that time I believe he'll move up to backup Davis.
I first saw Lawrence Wilson in the senior bowl and saw a player who wasn't flashy, but rarely out of position. He has a good head on his shoulders and makes smart plays. If he can add 7-10 lbs to his frame without sacrificing his speed then he'll be able to contribute far more as an outside linebacker, and could be the future of the position after Thomas Davis.