Saints Draft Prospects: One Of A Trio Of Playmaking ACC Linebackers Could Be Big Addition

Not necessarily a pressing draft need, one of these ACC linebackers could be an immediate contributor for the Saints defense and give them a playmaker for future years.
North Carolina State linebacker Payton Wilson (11)
North Carolina State linebacker Payton Wilson (11) / Credit:© Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlantic Coast Conference is well-known for its basketball excellence. ACC teams Duke, N.C. State, and Clemson all made the Elite Eight of this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament, with traditional power North Carolina making it to the Sweet Sixteen.

While the ACC has a long tradition of basketball greatness, the conference has also been a consistent well of talent for the National Football League.

Several ACC players will be selected in this year's NFL Draft, with more than a few expected to come off the board in the early rounds. Linebacker is one position that should be well-represented by the conference in this year's draft.

It's not a position that's considered a major need for the New Orleans Saints. However, with star LB Demario Davis at 35 and entering his 13th season, this is a spot New Orleans may look to fortify with a Day 2 selection.

Here's a closer look at three ACC prospects rated at the top of their draft class at this position.

Payton Wilson, LB - N.C. State; 6'4" & 233-Lbs.

N.C. State Wolfpack linebacker Payton Wilson (11) pressures North Carolina Tar Heels quarterback Drake Maye (10)
N.C. State Wolfpack linebacker Payton Wilson (11) pressures North Carolina Tar Heels quarterback Drake Maye (10) / Credit:© Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Payton Wilson was a state champion wrestler and standout defender at Orange High School in North Carolina. Originally committing to North Carolina, he'd ultimately flip to the rival Wolfpack in Raleigh. A knee injury caused him to redshirt the 2018 campaign, but he bounced back to lead N.C. State in tackles the following year.


A strong 2020 campaign of a team-high 11.5 stops for loss and 108 total tackles led to a 1st Team All-ACC selection for Wilson. He'd miss nearly all of 2021 with a shoulder injury, but again rebounded well the following year then finished his collegiate career with a fury last season.

Wilson's 138 tackles led the ACC in 2023, with his 17.5 stops for loss finishing second in the conference. He also led the Wolfpack in sacks (6) and interceptions (3) while earning 1st Team All-American honors and winning the Butkus Award, Chuck Bednarik Award, and ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Wilson wrapped up his N.C. State career with 15 sacks, 48 tackles for loss, and seven interceptions.

Wilson brings superior speed (4.43 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine) along with prototype size to the linebacker spot. His terrific, potentially elite range is accompanied with an impressive burst to the ball. While best in space at a weakside LB spot, Wilson has the awareness and football IQ to easily play a MLB role.

North Carolina State Wolfpack linebacker Payton Wilson (11) breaks up a pass against the North Carolina Tar Heels
North Carolina State Wolfpack linebacker Payton Wilson (11) breaks up a pass against the North Carolina Tar Heels / Credit:© Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Wilson has outstanding coverage ability. He has the agility to stay with backs, tight ends, and even some wideouts in man-to-man responsibilities. His ball skills, fluid movement, and ability to read quarterbacks in zone duties can boost an entire defensive unit. He also shows disruptive capabilities as a blitzer.

Against the run, Wilson packs a punch as a tackler but also has terrific fundamentals. He'll immediately break down a running play and puts himself in position to make plays. Wilson's lateral agility and sideline-to-sideline range often allows him to stuff a rusher before they can get to the corner.

Injuries are the biggest concern about Wilson. He'd had two season-ending ACL injuries before his sophomore year at N.C. State and another shoulder injury that put him out for the year.

Wilson will need to add upper body strength. He can get overwhelmed by larger blockers, which is also because he can be too upright when stepping into a lane. As a result, Wilson would try to finesse his way around blockers at times, leaving easy lanes open.

Payton Wilson is expected to be drafted early in Day 2 at the latest. He may be the first off-ball linebacker selected and could even slip into the first round. Wilson has the all-around skills to be an instant starter, but at the very least should be an immediate contributor in situational duties.

Cedric Gray, LB - North Carolina; 6'2" & 234-Lbs.

North Carolina Tar Heels linebacker Cedric Gray during practice at the 2024 Senior Bowl
North Carolina Tar Heels linebacker Cedric Gray during practice at the 2024 Senior Bowl / Credit:© Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Cedric Gray was fairly lightly recruited despite a standout career as a wideout and linebacker at Ardrey Kell High School in Charlotte, NC. His ultimate choice would be to attend the in-state Tar Heels, where he'd play little as a freshman in 2020. Over his next three years, Gray would be one of the top defenders in the ACC.

Gray had 2.5 sacks and two interceptions with a team-high 99 tackles (6 for loss) in 2021. His 145 tackles in 2022 led the conference and was third across the NCAA, as his 12 stops for loss, sack, and two interceptions earned him 1st Team All-ACC and 2nd Team All-American honors. He'd earn a second straight All-ACC selection in 2023 with 11 tackles for loss among his 121 total stops, five sacks, and one interception.

A three-year starter, Gray has outstanding playing speed and explosion. He has potentially elite range, made huge plays in pursuit, and has the athleticism to excel as a spy against mobile quarterbacks.

Gray was explosive as a blitzer, but also displays solid instincts in coverage. His athleticism allows him to keep up with backs, tight ends, and even receivers in man responsibilities. He displays efficient tackling angles when tracking down a ball carrier in the open field.

North Carolina Tar Heels linebacker Cedric Gray (33) makes an open field tackle against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish
North Carolina Tar Heels linebacker Cedric Gray (33) makes an open field tackle against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish / Credit:© Luke Johnson / USA TODAY NETWORK

Against the run, Gray will explode through open lanes and has a lightning closing burst to the ball. While most effective in space, he shows the ability to shed blocks quickly or efficiently work his way through traffic.

Gray may need to improve his overall feel for the game. He has yet to show that he has the natural instincts or diagnostic skills to play a MLB spot or assume the play-calling role for a defense.
Gray's aggression in pursuit can lead to over running plays, leaving easy cutback lanes for a runner.

He'll need to improve on his overall tackling technique at the point of attack. This is also an area where he can struggle when engaging with larger blockers head on.

Cedric Gray is in the conversation for the first linebacker drafted. At worst, he's likely to be selected no later than mid-late second round and has the athleticism to make an immediate impact in situational roles.

Jeremiah Trotter Jr., LB - Clemson; 6'0" & 228-Lbs.

Clemson Tigers linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr (54) calls out a play against the Miami Hurricanes
Clemson Tigers linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr (54) calls out a play against the Miami Hurricanes / Credit:© Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Jeremiah Jr. is the son of former Eagles four-time Pro Bowl LB Jeremiah Trotter. Not surprisingly, the son was also heavily recruited nationwide after a strong career at St. Joseph's Preparatory School in Philadelphia before choosing powerhouse Clemson. Playing sparingly as a freshman in 2021, Trotter still saw action in all 13 contests and earned a sophomore starting spot.

Once in the lineup, Trotter tormented ACC offenses over his last two years with Clemson. He'd lead the Tigers in sacks (6.5) and total tackles (89) in 2022, adding 13.5 stops for loss and two interceptions on his way to 2nd All-American honors. For an encore in 2023, Trotter had a team-high 15 tackles for loss among his 88 total stops, 5.5 sacks, and two interceptions while being named 1st Team All-ACC.

An aggressive in-the-box defender, Trotter has elite instincts that should adjust to the NFL quickly. His reads are instantaneous, putting him in the middle of the action constantly and rarely out of position. He makes textbook tackles on plays in front of him.

Trotter breaks down running plays like a seasoned veteran. He sheds blockers and picks through traffic to the ball extremely well. A rangy athlete, Trotter shows a terrific change-of-direction and is tenacious in his sideline-to-sideline pursuit. He maximizes his athletic ability with a strong closing burst to the ball.

An underrated but effective blitzer, Trotter is also well-rounded in his coverage skills. His zone drops and recognition is precise, and he has the ball skills to make big plays consistently. He also has the fluid athleticism to hold up adequately in man coverage against backs or tight ends.

Clemson linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr (54) makes a tackle against Syracuse
Clemson linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr (54) makes a tackle against Syracuse / Credit:© Ken Ruinard / USA TODAY Network / USA TODAY NETWORK

Trotter will need to add some upper body strength to match his aggressive nature when taking on blockers at the point of attack. That aggression can also make him vulnerable against play action or misdirection, even with his diagnostic skills.

Against the pass, Trotter can be physically overmatched against bigger tight ends with athleticism. He can be a bit delayed in transitioning into coverage from his reads at the line. Not dynamic as a blitzer, his rushes need to be precisely timed as an open space rusher rather than a player who consistently locks up with pass blockers.

With his bloodlines and collegiate production, Jeremiah Trotter Jr. has been a little overlooked leading up to the draft. Still, it would be a bit of a shock if he weren't drafted before the end of Day 2. There might be some hiccups in coverage early on as he adapts to NFL offenses. Otherwise, Trotter has the all-around skills of an every down linebacker and the upside of a play-caller in the middle of a defense.

The New Orleans Saints have one of the NFL's top linebackers in Demario Davis. However, Davis is 35 and entering his 13th season. Pete Werner is a solid complement to Davis against the run, but can be highly vulnerable in space or against the pass. Athletic LB Willie Gay is a potentially key free-agent addition, but was signed for just one year.

Patrick Wilson, Cedric Gray, and Jeremiah Trotter Jr. should all be off the board before the end of Day 2 of the draft. Linebacker may not be an immediate need for the Saints. Wilson, Gray, and Trotter all have the skills to be every down defenders. Any of the three could not just be immediate contributors, but set a defense up for future years.


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Bob Rose

BOB ROSE

Covers the New Orleans Saints as a senior writer for the Saints News Network.  Co-Host of the Bayou Blitz Podcast.