It wasn’t that long ago that Jaylon Smith was considered one of the top prospects regardless of position in all of the 2016 NFL draft. The 6’3″, 229-pound linebacker from Notre Dame was a mortal lock to be taken among the first 10 picks after a 2015 season that saw Smith tally 114 tackles en route to winning the Butkus Award as college football’s top linebacker.
Of course, that was before Smith tore his ACL and MCL in Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State. Now, ESPN’s Todd McShay predicts in an early mock draft that Smith will fall all the way to the 19th overall pick and the Buffalo Bills.
“This selection comes with some risk because of Smith’s knee injury,” McShay wrote, “but if the Bills’ doctors clear him, Smith would be a great pick. He took his game to the next level this past season and is an elite athlete. Smith has experience playing inside and outside and would fit well as the weakside off-ball linebacker in Rex Ryan’s defense.”
After Smith’s surgery, a source told Brian Hamilton of Sports Illustrated the young All-American should recover fully. “What we do know is there’s going to be a full recovery,” a source said. “The repair is solid, and he’s very optimistic. We’re optimistic. And Jaylon is ready to get going with his rehab.” Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller reported recently from the Senior Bowl that Smith’s recovery has gone well. So well, in fact, that Smith should be ready in time for Week 1.
If that’s the case, as one former AFC defensive coach told Lance Zierlein of NFL.com there’s a lot to like. “He reminds me so much of DJ (Derrick Johnson) when he came out. Same frame, same speed and same playmaking ability. Both of those guys are made for the pro game.”
Zierlein agrees that the comparison with Johnson is a valid one. “In this day and age of “tweeners” being labeled “hybrid” players,” Zierlein says, “Smith is the rare commodity who is truly hybrid in the sense that he has the athleticism, speed and physical makeup to play any linebacker spot in either the 3-4 or the 4-3.”
At least one AFC Scouting Director told Zierlein’s colleague Chase Goodbread that he doesn’t expect Smith to make it to Buffalo. “He’s fast, athletic, instinctive and versatile,” the director said. “He can close quickly against the run and shows very good athletic ability and speed in coverage.”
Frankly, were we talking about a healthy Smith, his versatility, athleticism and skills in coverage are the sort of thing that makes NFL scouts and IDP owners alike drool, as regardless of his slot Smith appears destined for an every-down role.
However, we’re talking about a player who tore up his knee a month ago, and as Paul Conner of Scout wrote that muddies the water more than a bit. “Some say Smith, considered a top-10 selection before the injury, won’t be ready until the end of 2016,” Conner said. “That’s a major consideration for an NFL team, though most initial projections suggest he won’t slip out of the first round. As for the football, Smith’s strengths can also be considered his weakness. The nimble-footed LB can be light on his feet. He doesn’t go around blocks, but can’t always get through them. He’s much better at pursuing laterally. At 235 lbs, he is going to have a harder time in the trenches at the NFL level. It’s not for a lack of effort so there’s a silver lining there.”
There will no doubt be questions and prodding galore regarding that knee at this month’s scouting combine. Even if the knee checks out, a Week 1 return would be a remarkably rapid recovery, we still don’t know Smith’s likely NFL role and the chances of that role being an every-down one early on aren’t helped by all the time Smith will lose to rehab.
Add it all together, and you have a player whose IDP draft stock could fluctuate wildly over the next few months. It could well be that Smith winds up the top rookie IDP of 2016. Or virtually undraftable in redraft formats. We just don’t know right now.
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