INDIANAPOLIS – Arguably the most talented player in the draft held court at Podium B for about 8 minutes on Friday at the Scouting Combine. Next, he did a segment on SiriusXM NFL Radio just outside the media center at Lucas Oil Stadium. Finally, he talked to a small handful of reporters who wanted to hear more from the talented, intelligent and articulate linebacker.
The player was Jaylon Smith. And from Point A to Point B to Point C, he walked with an obvious limp.
If healthy, Smith – the Butkus Award-winning linebacker from Notre Dame – would be an obvious top-five pick. Instead, after leading the Fighting Irish in tackles and ranking among the team leaders in tackles for losses and passes defensed, he sustained a devastating knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl vs. Ohio State. Smith tore his ACL and LCL. He reportedly sustained nerve damage, as well, though Smith disputed that.
Even without the nerve damage, Smith would be looking at perhaps nine months on the sideline. Under the best of circumstances, that would take him into October to start his version of training camp. Maybe he’d be ready to play in Week 8 or 9. Or perhaps his comeback would take another month longer. Or maybe he’d miss the entire season.
It’s what every team has to take into account. Can a team invest a valuable first-round pick and hand out a big contract – Damarious Randall, the No. 30 pick of last year’s draft, pocketed a $4 million signing bonus and $6.4 million guaranteed – to a player who might be sidelined for one-fourth of the contract?
“It’s a long-term decision for whoever drafts me,” Smith said. “I’m a guy who will be around for a while playing at an elite level. An impact player.”
Among those teams that will have to consider the obvious risk vs. the equally obvious reward are the Green Bay Packers, who had a formal interview with Smith on Thursday night. Smith spoke in glowing terms about that interview on Friday.
“Yes, yes, I love them,” Smith said. “Mike McCarthy, wow, that was a great meeting.”
Assuming the medical staff’s report to general manager Ted Thompson doesn’t take him completely off the team’s board, Smith and Green Bay seem like a good fit.
First, the Packers are a perennial playoff team. They certainly are a team that can afford to stash their first-round pick on the physically unable to perform list, where he could stay through Week 11 and not have to be added to the roster until before Week 15.
Second, with McCarthy planning to move Clay Matthews back to outside linebacker, there is a void at inside linebacker. How better to fill that spot over the long term than with a player with Smith’s versatility? Smith played all three linebacker spots in Notre Dame’s 4-3 scheme. If healthy, he’s got the skill-set to serve as a traditional inside linebacker on one play and then move to the line of scrimmage and blitz on the next.
Third, even with Matthews, the Packers needed an every-down player at inside linebacker. Last year, they brought in Joe Thomas – a player they cut at the end of training camp but signed off Dallas’ practice squad a month later – to play on third down. Smith has the athletic ability to handle those chores.
“The one thing I bring is the coverage aspect of it,” Smith said. “Multiple ways that teams can use me. Whoever drafts me, they’re going to get a heck of a player.”
Smith hopes to be a top-10 pick. A medical re-check in April will determine just how far Smith tumbles – and whether the Packers will have a chance to gamble on a talented player who might not contribute much, if anything, as a rookie.
“I’m going to be a very impactful player for a very long time,” Smith said. “It’s just getting healthy. That’s all I can focus on.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.