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2024 NFL Draft

Steelers Showing No Fear of the Injury Bug in Draft Evals



Pittsburgh Steelers LB Payton Wilson

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers adapted a slogan during their 2023 backs-against-the-wall stretch run that “scared money don’t make money.”

They might be applying that to their NFL Draft process, as well. The Steelers took a big swing with NC State linebacker Payton Wilson in the third round, stopping the projected second-round pick’s big slide down draft boards.

Wilson dealt with a litany of issues at NC State and in high school. Throughout his career, Wilson has dealt with knee injuries, shoulder injuries, and some questions about a concussion. From what is known about his medical history since high school, he has undergone over ten surgeries. That includes surgeries on both shoulders and multiple on his right knee. It was reported on draft night that he does not have an ACL in one of his knees.

It seems clear that several teams did not want to take a chance on Wilson, despite his extremely productive senior season at NC State, when he was the Bednarik Award winner as the best defender in college football and the Butkus Award winner as the best linebacker. He was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and a consensus All-American.

Athletically, Wilson is extremely gifted. His 4.43-second 40-yard dash was the fastest of any linebacker at the 2024 NFL Combine. From his pro day, his short shuttle (4.20 seconds) and three-cone drills (6.85 seconds) scored 9 and 9.56 out of 10, according to RAS. His overall score is a 9.89.

When Wilson came to Pittsburgh for a top-30 pre-draft visit, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin was the one showing him around. Austin is not a doctor. The Steelers’ medical staff cleared Wilson. Austin knew the football player was one he liked.

“I look at the tape that I see,” Austin said. “I let the doctors handle all the medical stuff. My job is to grade the tape as a football player, and what I think and how he helps our defense. He brings some speed to our defense, he brings some physicality to our defense, and ability to cover guys. That’s what I look at.”

That’s been an over-arching philosophy for the Steelers the last few years. George Pickens in 2022, Darnell Washington and Cory Trice in 2023 and even Troy Fautanu in the first round this year were all players who draft-day slides were because of injury concerns. The Steelers don’t seem to be concerned.

For the record, neither is Wilson. He said teams asked about what he’s changed in his process — he was fully healthy in 2023 — that might keep the injuries behind him. He thinks they are.

I think a lot of it was just how I’ve stayed healthy these last two years and being able to maintain that productiveness that I’ve had,” he said. “I think I’m one of the most productive players in this year’s draft. That’s the feedback that I got. If I’m able to stay healthy, which I plan on doing — that’s kind of the way I live my life now. I’m very religious about my maintenance programs and my nutrition — I can be one of the best linebackers in the NFL.”

Wilson also said that he’s learned to never take any play for granted after spending so much time missing the game. Back healthy, he’s leaving it all on the field.

“When you turn on my tape, you can kind of see that I play with my hair on fire,” he said. “I think that’s truly because of what I’ve been through and just understanding that you can’t take this game for granted, because no one in the world knows when that last snap is going to be. Everything that I’ve gone through, I’ve really learned to trust my Lord and savior Jesus Christ as wells continue to play the game like it’s going to be taken away from you. So I just play as hard as I possibly can and play as hard as I possibly can.”