For NU's Wootton, it's all about team

Wootton came back knowing it would take his knee two years to fully heal. Scott Boehm/Getty Images

If Northwestern senior defensive end Corey Wootton had put his future before anything else, he probably would have sat out this past season and allowed his right knee to fully heal.

It wasn't that his future, more specifically his NFL future, wasn't important to him heading into his senior season after tearing his ACL in the 2008 Alamo Bowl. It's just that closing out his Wildcats career on the field meant more to him.

"I knew [playing this season] would affect my draft status," Wootton said Thursday. "I didn't want to be a selfish person and think of myself. I wanted to be out there for my teammates and help them. I was someone they looked up to and needed. I could have sat out the season and returned for the draft combine, but I didn't want to miss it."

Wootton doesn't regret that decision, but he did have to endure plenty of frustration because of it. Throughout the 2009 season, his knee didn't allow him to be the same dominant player he was the previous year.

In 2008, he was one of college football's top defensive ends with 42 tackles, 16 tackles for a loss and 10 sacks. This past season, his numbers declined to 21 tackles, six tackles for a loss and four sacks.

"Production-wise and just the way I felt, I played at about 70 percent," said Wootton, who is 6-6 and 270 pounds. "It definitely wasn't what I'm capable of. It definitely frustrated me."

Wootton slowly became able to do more on his knee as the season progressed. Even today, Wootton wouldn't say it's at 100 percent, but it is getting there and he has been told it usually takes two years for an ACL injury to completely recovery.

Wootton did prove late in the season, and again in his workouts with NFL teams, that he still can be a capable defensive end in the pros. ESPN Scouts Inc. has him ranked as the fifth best defensive end in the draft.

"The knee injury he sustained during the 2008 Alamo game clearly hindered him last year, and there is no guarantee he will regain the burst he showed before he hurt the knee," ESPN NFL draft analyst Steve Muench said. "On the other hand, he has the frame, toughness and motor to develop into an effective power end for a base 4-3 defense. We project him as a late second- or early third-round pick."

Wootton said he had heard he could be a second-round pick. Whatever happens Friday or Saturday, though, Wootton said, he'd be happy regardless of where he was selected.

"I have no clue at all," said Wootton, who will be watching the draft with his family in New Jersey. "There are a lot of teams that have expressed interest. On draft day, you never know where you'll end up. You might be higher or lower than expected.

"I'm up for anything. I'm just blessed to be in this place to be drafted. I'm pretty sure I'm going to get drafted. If I get drafted in the second round, great. If it's the seventh round, great."

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.