Payton Wilson’s fall in the 2024 NFL Draft, explained

Every draft cycle there is a player — or more — who waits a little longer than expected to hear their name called.

One such example from the 2024 NFL Draft is NC State linebacker Payton Wilson.

While off-ball linebackers have seen their positional value slide in recent years, given the emphasis on the passing game in the modern NFL, Wilson entered draft season as one of the top players at the position. According to the Top 100 board put together by our own JP Acosta Wilson was the 61st player overall, and the second-highest off-ball linebacker in his rankings, behind Michigan linebacker Junior Colston.

According to the Consensus Big Board compiled by Arif Hasan at Wide Left Football, Wilson was the 44th-ranked player overall, and again the second-ranked linebacker, behind Texas A&M linebacker Edgerrin Cooper.

Yet as the third round wound down, Wilson was still waiting for his name to be called. It was a surprise for a few different reasons, beyond the rankings on both the SB Nation big board and the Consensus Big Board. After all, Wilson had a stellar final season at NC State, winning the Bednarik Award (given to the best defensive player in college football) and the Butkus Award (given to the best linebacker). He racked up a career-best 138 tackles, including 17.5 for a loss (also the most in the league) with six sacks, three interceptions and 10 passes defended.

But the reason for the fall?

His injury history.

Wilson battled a number of injuries during his time in high school and college. He suffered a torn ACL during his final high school season, and a second knee injury early in his college career. He also suffered a shoulder injury that cut his 2021 season short.

That was just part of the story. On Friday night Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network reported that Wilson is missing an ACL in one of his knees:

That slide ended when the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Wilson with the 98th overall selection, making him the highest off-ball linebacker drafted by the organization since the Steelers drafted Devin Bush in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft.

Rapoport elaborated on that injury history shortly after the selection:

After the pick, Wilson talked about his strengths, and how he fits in Pittsburgh. “My versatility speaks for itself,” said Wilson. “I am able to play in the box as well as drop into coverage.

“Growing up watching the Pittsburgh Steelers defense, that is the way I model how I play. Hard, fast, physical and playing as tough as you can play. Super excited to get with everyone there and continue to elevate my game.”

Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin highlighted his production, and his instincts as a linebacker.

“He was a guy we had high on our board,” said Austin. “Liked him as a football player. Very productive, fast, really has good football instincts. All the things you want in a football player. Seeing him where he was and having an opportunity to get him, we thought that was a good thing and we like where we’re at with that.

“He brings some speed to our defense. He brings some physicality to our defense. The ability to cover guys. That’s what I look at.”

It is often said that the most important things at the annual NFL Scouting Combine happen behind the scenes, from the meetings prospects have with teams to the medical examinations. That seems to have been the case with Wilson.

Ultimately, what he did this past season at NC State — apparently without an ACL in one of his knees — may speak for itself. And if Wilson can duplicate that kind of production at the next level, the Steelers may be very glad that slide happened.

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