Payton Wilson, Steelers' 3rd-round pick, reportedly slid due to lack of ACL in knee

Payton Wilson went No. 98 overall on Friday night in the NFL draft to the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was projected to be selected higher after an impressive final year at North Carolina State, but there was a specific injury concern that reportedly scared teams away.

According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, the 24-year-old linebacker is missing an ACL in one of his knees.

“He has a multitude of injuries. First, there’s a left shoulder injury that was operated on, was not a great operation,” Rapoport said. “That certainly is a lingering injury. That’s actually not the worst of it. He has torn his ACL twice. My understanding, after talking to several sources, is that one of his knees does not have an ACL. It does not have an ACL. We’ve actually seen this in a couple of other players — Greg Lloyd, Thurman Thomas.

For Payton Wilson, he has not missed a game and [had] 150 tackles. There are some secondary stabilizers in that knee, but that’s the reason why [for his slide].”

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Despite a missing ACL and previous injuries that caused him to miss time with the Wolfpack over his five years in Raleigh, Wilson recorded 138 total tackles and six sacks in 2023. He ended up winning the Chuck Bednarik Award as the best defender in college football and the Butkus Award as top linebacker. He was also a unanimous All-American selection, first-team All-ACC,and ACC Defensive Player of the Year.

Wilson’s 4.43 40-yard dash at February’s NFL Scouting Combine was tops among all linebackers who participated.

“He was a guy we had high on our board,” said Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl 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.”

While his on-field accomplishments garnered deserved honors, his injury history is believed to be a reason why he ended up going late in the third round.

The Steelers know something about employing effective players who are missing ACLs. As Rapoport mentioned, Lloyd played without one, as did franchise legend Hines Ward, the wide receiver who played all 14 years of his NFL career in Pittsburgh.

Wilson overcome a laundry list of injuries to not only become one of the best defensive players in college, but also an NFL draft pick. He’s ready for the challenge that the next level will put in front of him.

“I think when you turn on my tape, I think you can see that I play with my hair on fire,” Wilson said Friday night, “and that’s really because of what I have been through.

“I have seen the game can be taken away from you, so I just play as hard as I can.”

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