PITTSBURGH — When you’re a 3-10 football team starting at a rebuild, you don’t have many silver linings. And the 2023 Patriots are no different.

But there are some notable exceptions, and Mack Wilson is near the top of the list.

Wilson, acquired in the 2022 trade that sent Chase Winovich (now retired) to the Cleveland Browns, became borderline unplayable during his first season in New England. Over the final five weeks, he didn’t see a single snap on defense while spending all his time on special teams. And the lack of playing time was warranted, as Wilson struggled to pick up the nuances of the Patriots defense.

We weren’t alone in being surprised to see New England re-sign Wilson to a one-year contract during the offseason. Some people with the Patriots reportedly “were stunned” that Bill Belichick decided to bring back the young linebacker.

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But Belichick, in a decidedly unamusing season, is getting the last laugh.

Wilson enjoyed a solid training camp that translated to a decent first half of the season, with the 25-year-old seeing 85 defensive snaps over the first seven games. But the Alabama product has taken off in the second half, and he was rewarded with 126 snaps over the next six contests.

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Wilson capitalized on the opportunity, providing speed, physicality and playmaking at the second level. It all led to Thursday night, when he delivered arguably his best game in a Patriots uniform.

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Wilson registered three tackles, including one for a loss, one sack and one pass breakup in New England’s road win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. And he nearly had a pick-six when the Steelers ran a goofy trick play near the goal line.

After that play, Wilson got a literal high-five from Belichick. And the Patriots head coach gave the ascending linebacker a verbal high-five during his Monday morning video call.

“Mack’s had a really good year for us,” Belichick said. “He’s had a really good year. I think the additional time, familiarity with the defense has allowed him to … I mean, Mack’s very athletic. He’s a tremendous athlete. Fast, explosive, very strong, and a very talented player. But, I think it’s allowed him to play faster and aggressively.

“He still has his full role in the kicking game. He has a big role on defense. He’s emerged into the pass rush, grouping on third down with a couple of the guys that we’ve lost there. And he’s retained that through his performance. And I would say overall discipline and communication and role in the defense. You could say that about a lot of the guys, too. But, certainly, he’s had an outstanding year for us. He just continues to really get a little bit better every week. It’s great to see the growth and the production that he’s had.”

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Jabrill Peppers’ eyes lit up when he was asked about Wilson inside the locker room.

“He’s a hell of an athlete,” Peppers said Thursday night. “He’s smart, twitch, ferocious. And he just wants to win, man. … He just wants to win. It’s definitely fun playing with a guy like that, man, who leaves it all out there.”

For the season, Wilson has 26 tackles (three for a loss), one sack, one forced fumble and three pass breakups. He saw 27% of defensive snaps over the first 13 games, which would rank as his most since he saw 43% with the Browns in 2020.

Wilson also currently grades as the 11th-best linebacker by Pro Football Focus, seven spots behind Jahlani Tavai. Ja’Whaun Bentley currently ranks 30th.

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Entering the season, New England’s linebacking corps was viewed as a potential weakness. There wasn’t anything behind Bentley and Tavai, both of whom are solid players but don’t have the kind of sideline-to-sideline speed teams covet in modern linebackers. Wilson, who’s worked closely with Jerod Mayo, has changed all of that.

Once an afterthought in New England, Wilson is earning himself a big payday — and the Patriots just might cut the check.

Featured image via Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports Images