On Jan. 1, there was likely no player that NFL coaches and general managers were drooling over more than Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith.
He was as big a blue-chip prospect as any getting ready for the 2016 draft. He was a lock for the top five picks. There was even growing sentiment that he would be the No. 1 overall pick.
Then tragedy struck.
Early in the Fiesta Bowl game between the Fighting Irish and Ohio State, the unthinkable happened. Smith suffered a gruesome injury, tearing both his left ACL and LCL – similar to the injury Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson suffered (MCL instead of LCL).
The primary difference between Peterson’s injury and Smith’s isn’t that A.P.’s happened on Christmas Eve and Smith’s happened eight days later. The difference is that, while many doubted Peterson could make it back from an injury so severe that the conventional wisdom said would take a minimum of one year to recover from and two years to get back to pre-injury form, he was already under contract and was going to get paid in 2012 whether he played or not.
Smith is scheduled to be drafted in less than a month and it is going to become a case where organizations are going to be playing a game of professional chicken waiting to see which one of them moves first.
He got probed and prodded by just about every NFL team doctor in the at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, about five weeks after he had surgery. The results weren’t good. The buzz around Indianapolis was that not only did it appear that Smith’s injury will keep him out of the entire 2016 season, but that there may be nerve damage around the injured ligaments that some doctors fear may be degenerative and Smith may never be what he was before the injury.
What was Smith prior to the injury?
He was a rarity among linebackers in that he had played in both a 3-4 and 4-3 defense and excelled at both – to the point that there wasn’t an NFL defensive coordinator from the first pick of the first round to the last that wouldn’t pull the trigger on signing him, regardless of scheme. Smith was scheme-proof.
The curious case of Jaylon Smith is that, if you look at anybody’s mock draft, from Viking Update’s to others, you won’t see Smith’s name anywhere.
It should have been easy. If he doesn’t go to Tennessee at No. 1, the QB-starved Cleveland Browns would draft the linebacker denied them when their franchise moved to Baltimore. The first year the Ravens were in existence, they used a first-round pick on a kid named Ray Lewis who had a ton of upside and was viewed as being scheme-proof … just like Smith.
But, you will see Laremy Tunsil or Jalen Ramsey being associated with the Titans these days, not Smith. As for the Browns, despite getting rid of one headache (Johnny Manziel) and potentially adding another (Robert Griffin III), you’ll see Cleveland linked to quarterbacks Carson Wentz or Jared Goff, not Smith.
As you scroll down the list, you can keep searching for Smith’s name. You aren’t going to find it, despite the fact that most rankings still list Smith as the best linebacker in the class – despite his injury.
Yet, when it comes to general managers, head coaches and other top war room personnel, the draft is the purest form of currency in the NFL in an era of growing salary caps where most teams can afford to keep the players they want.
The draft is the primary legal tender in the multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry and, as of now, the 31 teams that have first-round picks (the Patriots were stripped of theirs) likely aren’t going to use their pick on Smith.
The funny thing about the NFL is that injuries happen. And players come back from injuries and often perform as well or better than they did prior to getting hurt and putting their professional drawing power at risk.
Most don’t have the severe injuries when they’re first entering the league. That’s the curious case of Jaylon Smith. He could end up being a perennial Pro Bowler and, if a team sees that potential, one of them is going to select him knowing that is in the long-term best interest of the franchise, even if he shouldn’t play as a rookie.
How different is that from a quarterback like Daunte Culpepper, who sat for a year and was better for it. He was drafted in 1999 with the intention of playing in 2000. Where is the difference with Smith?
If the Vikings medicos are convinced that Smith will recover – they have a history of being witness to the miraculous – would it be crazy to use the 23rd pick in the draft on him?