Mack Wilson doesn't enjoy looking back on how he felt in the weeks following a knee injury suffered in training camp last season.
Wilson, a fifth-round pick from Alabama in 2019, thought about quitting football. He wasn't sure if he'd be able to play linebacker again in 2020 after hyperextending his knee, and he questioned whether it'd even be worth it to push himself back and play in the NFL.
Those feelings didn't go away when Wilson returned in Week 3 and played the rest of the season. His 39 tackles last season were a sharp decline from the 82 he recorded as a rookie. His body didn't feel right — both physically and emotionally — and he always felt as though he were a step behind the player he remembered being when he entered the league.
"That's how down I was," he said Friday before the Browns' eighth practice of training camp. "I never felt like I was myself – I didn't feel like I was producing on the field, I couldn't move like I wanted to, I was missing plays I knew I should make. I was in a dark place."
"Mentally, we go through a lot as football players. When I got hurt, it was one of my worst moments in my life."
Check out photos from the eighth day of Browns Camp at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus
Now, those days are behind Wilson, and it's showing in his performances in camp.
Wilson has been one of the top linebacker participants in first team periods and has showcased a similar blend of speed and movement he displayed in 2019, when he won the Maurice Bassett Award given to the most outstanding rookie of training camp. His work ethic was praised by linebackers coach Jason Tarver and head coach Kevin Stefanski after the first week of 2021 training camp, and it's clear Wilson is ready to take the leap he originally hoped to make before his injury in 2020.
"He is running really well," Tarver said. "He is finishing to the ball well, which is our No. 1 thing for linebackers is to run because we have to be able to run across the board. He has put himself in a position to compete by being in shape. He is in much better shape. He is lighter, but he has more lean muscle mass."
To be specific, Wilson said he lost six or seven pounds but gained four pounds of muscle and arrived at training camp weighing 237 pounds. He was in the gym once and, at times, twice a day to ensure his body was more than ready for the grind of training camp.
That work was why Wilson was able to make one of the top plays of training camp on Tuesday.
Wilson's defensive teammates erupted on the sidelines when he made a leaping catch in the end zone on a high pass targeted for tight end David Njoku. The pass was well-placed — Wilson was just fast and jumped high enough to place both hands on the ball. After he made the pick, he jogged 100 yards to the other end zone with a few teammates trailing behind him.
"I felt like my old self," he said. "I told myself before we came back to practice that I'm going back to my college mindset where I just felt free. I felt like every time I was on the field, I was the baddest person out there. That's the mind space I'm at right now, and that just keeps me going."
The training camp finish line is still weeks away, but Wilson has stacked an early strong case to earn one of the three starting spots in the LB rotation, one that includes several young and speedy players in Anthony Walker Jr., Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Jacob Phillips, Sione Takitaki and Tony Fields II, among others.
More big plays will be needed from Wilson to win the job, and he has no shortage of confidence in making them. The lows of last year are gone, and his focus is on proving it on the field in 2021.
"I'm just taking it one day at a time, having fun and competing," he said. "I'm just having fun and being there for the rest of the guys in the room."