LARAMIE -- Logan Wilson was still getting used to this whole NFL thing.
In just his third game in a Cincinnati Bengals uniform, Wilson and the rest of the Bengals’ defense squared off against the Philadelphia Eagles and their starting quarterback at the time, former second overall pick Carson Wentz. On a third down midway through the first quarter, Wilson dropped into coverage and waited.
He got an assist from teammate D.J. Reader, who tipped Wentz’s pass near the line of scrimmage. Wilson was in the right place at the right time, moving slightly to his left to corral the ball as he fell to the ground for his first interception as an NFL linebacker.
“It was a cool moment for me personally,” Wilson told the Star-Tribune in a recent phone interview.
Just like he’d done after each of his 10 interceptions at the University of Wyoming, Wilson gave the ball to the nearest referee once the play was over. But this was the big leagues, where a first could be kept as a memento. The ball was retrieved and is now in Wilson’s possession.
“One of my teammates went and grabbed it for me because it didn’t even cross my mind that in the NFL you can keep those game balls,” Wilson said. “Glad he went and grabbed it so I could keep it.”
It was one of the highlights of a rookie season that had its share of ups and downs for the Casper native. Wilson, a Natrona County High graduate, was drafted by the Bengals last spring after a decorated career at UW, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, Wilson went months before he could begin practicing with his new teammates.
Zoom meetings were the norm until he finally made the move to Cincinnati in July for the start of training camp. Wilson said getting caught up on new defensive schemes and a more intricate playbook was the most challenging aspect of his transition to the NFL given the circumstances.
“You’re able to learn the basics of that stuff on Zoom, but I think nothing can replace live reps and stuff like that,” Wilson said. “It was tough. I had to learn it on the fly. I think that was probably the biggest adjustment was just trying to understand the schemes we were running, why we were trying to run it and things like that.”
But Wilson quickly caught on, and his versatility immediately earned him a spot in the Bengals' linebacker rotation.
With a strong reputation as a three-down 'backer, Wilson got the bulk of his snaps in passing situations playing behind veteran inside linebacker Josh Bynes, but the Bengals also used him as a blitzer at times. He debuted with three tackles in a season-opening loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. Two weeks later, he was in on five stops and had that first career pick in a 23-23 tie against the Eagles.
Though Wilson largely held his own, going up against hulking offensive linemen with a different level of skill and a different kind of athleticism was an eye-opening experience.
“People with that size and stature and the way they move and how fast they move,” Wilson said. “They know who to block and where to block you, things like that. I think just playing against those professional offensive linemen was kind of like the welcome-to-the-NFL moment for me.”
But the wins were hard to come by. The Bengals finished last in a loaded AFC North, which included playoff teams Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Baltimore, with a 4-11-1 record. It was Cincinnati’s fifth straight losing season but the first time Wilson had been part of a team with more losses than wins since his redshirt season at UW in 2015.
Compounding Wilson’s frustration was the fact that he wasn’t available every week to help. Wilson missed a handful of games with a concussion and a high ankle sprain, the latter costing him the final three games of the season. It was a different experience for someone who started all 52 games of his collegiate career, though Wilson said the injuries helped him realize just how fortunate he’s been with his health over the years.
"It’s always hard to deal with an injury, but it’s also the nature of the game,” said Wilson, who finished the season with 33 tackles. “When I missed that first game with the concussion, I think that was the first football game I’ve missed since my freshman year of high school. So that puts it in perspective to me like, yeah, it’s tough missing a game, but I’ve been very blessed to play as many games as I have up to this point without missing one."
Wilson wasn’t the only one hurting for the Bengals. Fellow draft class member and No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow took over as the starting quarterback from Day 1 and showed glimpses of why the Bengals pegged the former Heisman Trophy winner as the future of their franchise. He completed more than 65% of his passes with 13 touchdown tosses and just five interceptions in less than 10 full games.
Burrow’s season also came to a premature end when he sustained a torn ACL early in the second half of the Bengals’ 20-9 loss to the Washington Football Team in Week 11. Assuming Burrow’s recovery has him ready for the start of next season as expected, Wilson said he expects his new teammate to pick up where he left off based on what he’s seen from Burrow in action.
“He’s as good as advertised. He’s definitely an elite quarterback,” Wilson said. “Obviously that injury sucked, but I think he’s going to bounce back and be a really great quarterback for us.”
But Wilson’s rookie campaign had its share of highlights, too. There was the first career sack that he notched in a 31-20 win over the Tennessee Titans in Week 8, but for Wilson, nothing topped those first two career interceptions against what he called "two pretty good quarterbacks."
His second one came in Week 5 against none other than Baltimore Ravens quarterback and former league MVP Lamar Jackson.
“I don’t remember the exact specifics of it, but I think we were showing blitz,” Wilson said. “And based on the read I got from the offensive line is what made me drop out into coverage and just help out in those passing lanes underneath.”
Now fully healthy, Wilson is going through his first NFL offseason, which has started with just as much uncertainty as when Wilson entered the league nine months ago.
Last spring’s minicamps and organized team activities were held virtually amid the pandemic, and Wilson is awaiting word on whether or not teams will be doing the same thing this year. Until then, Wilson has returned to Wyoming to visit family and friends while also fitting in workouts.
Wilson recently led a training session with some of UW’s current players in Laramie before in-person classes for the spring semester started Monday.
“I planned that with them,” Wilson said. “Some of the guys that came back (to campus) early, I was just working out with them and just helping them get right for their senior years. Garrett (Crall), Ayden (Eberhardt) and Braden (Smith) were the main guys I worked with consistently.”
It will also help keep Wilson in shape as he prepares for Year 2 in the NFL, one in which he could be asked to take on a larger role in the Bengals’ defense. Cincinnati also drafted linebackers Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey last year as part of a youth movement at the position, and Bynes, a 10-year NFL vet who joined the Bengals last year on a one-year deal, has yet to be re-signed.
Wilson knows he hasn’t yet maximized his potential at the next level, but he believes his rookie season set a solid foundation for his future in the Queen City.
“I felt like I got better throughout the season, and obviously missing the last three games sucked, but that’s part of football. I was just trying to get that ankle right,” Wilson said. “For the most part, I was very pleased with how my season went. I got more comfortable with understanding the defense as the season went along, but there’s still some work to do.”
Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter at @DavisEPotter.