Nerve damage could effect Smith's short-term/long-term career
May miss rookie season
Summary: If it weren't a terrible knee injury in his final college game, Jaylon Smith would be a top-five pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Sources from across the league rave about Smith's talent on the field and the high-character individual he is off the field. There is no doubt about Smith as a player or a person, the cloudy future is all because of his injured knee.
Smith saw the field as a freshman and had 67 tackles with 6.5 tackles for a loss, one forced fumble, one interception and three passes broken up. That was just a glimpse of what
Smith could do as he broke out as a sophomore. He was all over the field for the Fighting Irish with 112 tackles with nine tackles for a loss, one forced fumble, 3.5 sacks and two passes defended.
In 2015, the junior totaled 113 tackles, nine for a loss, one sack, four passes broken up and one forced fumble - he was robbed of one by the official scorer. In the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, Smith suffered torn ACL and MCL ligaments. Shortly later, he had surgery to repair the injury and roughly seven weeks after surgery, he had his combine medical exam. The results were said to be poor as teams are concerned about nerve damage to the knee. It could cause Smith to miss his entire rookie year, and some have questioned his playing future altogether. Some sources felt the exam was too soon considering his knee was still fresh off surgery. Thus, his combine medical re-check in mid-April is going to be a huge determining factor on where Smith is drafted. If he shows positive recovery signs, his stock could really rise.
For the NFL, Smith does everything well and there isn't a weakness in his game. He has sideline-to-sideline speed to track down ball-carriers in run defense. Smith has tremendous instincts. He is very good at reading his keys and exploding through the scrum to take down running backs. Smith is strong to defend against downhill runs coming straight at him and has functional strength to get off blocks. He has the potential to be one of the top tacklers in the NFL as he is very good at finishing the tackle and is fabulous at getting in position to make the stop.
Smith is an extremely rare prospect for pass coverage. As a professional, he could be a tremendous linebacker weapon to neutralize receiving threat tight ends and help against receivers in the middle of the field. Smith is fast enough to run with tight ends down the seam and not allow separation. His athleticism and ball skills could make him a great asset to take away receiving tight ends like Jimmy Graham, Travis Kelce or Tyler Eifert. Smith is so quick and natural in coverage that he can even help cover slot receivers. As for running backs out of the backfield, Smith also is very good at blanketing them. In zone coverage, he is skilled to pick up receivers coming into his area and keeping them from getting open. Smith also is a dangerous blitzer when given the opportunity to rush the passer. He explodes around the corner, and his pass-rushing skills are an underrated aspect of his game.
For the NFL, Smith would be a perfect fit as a Mike (middle) linebacker in a 4-3 defense and also could play Will (weakside). In a 3-4, he could play inside linebacker. If healthy, Smith should be a three-down starter quickly and he could reach Pro Bowl-level early in his NFL career. If the knee injury doesn't have any long-term impact on Smith, he could be one of the steals of the 2016 NFL Draft. Smith could be back in contention for a late first-round pick according to sources at multiple playoff teams if his combine medical re-check goes well. If it doesn't go well though, he will probably go on the second day of the 2016 NFL Draft. Smith could even slip to the mid-rounds.
Player Comparison: Luke Kuechly. I generally avoid picking the best players in the NFL at their position, but Smith reminds me of Kuechly. Both are superb sideline-to-sideline tackling machines in the ground game and are excellent in pass coverage. They have tremendous instincts and are versatile athletes. If Smith is healthy, I think he could be a Kuechly-type linebacker in the NFL.
NFL Matches: Green Bay, Minnesota, Houston, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Dallas, Baltimore, New York Giants, New York Jets, Atlanta and Buffalo
There are a ton options for Smith depending on how his knee checks out. The Packers need to improve their inside linebackers, and Smith could make a ton of sense to them in the early rounds. Staying in the NFC North, the Vikings could let Smith rehab for a year and then have their replacement for Chad Greenway.
Houston would be a perfect situation as well. Smith could rehab for a year and then replace Brian Cushing in 2017. Smith and Bernardrick McKinney could be a dynamic tandem for the Texans. There are a few other similar situations that are possibilities for Smith. Cincinnati could use a young linebacker to groom behind Rey Maualuga. Kansas City is in the same boat with Derrick Johnson.
Dallas would make sense for Smith. The Cowboys' defense has missed Sean Lee when he's been out with injuries, and the veteran has a hard time staying healthy. Smith could be a perfect fit in Rod Marinelli's defense as a Mike or Will (weakside) linebacker. Lee could play in 2016 and then Smith could replace him after that.
Baltimore cut starting inside linebacker Daryl Smith this offseason and Arthur Brown has been a disappointment. Smith could form a dynamite duo with C.J. Mosley.
The Giants have been missing a difference-maker at linebacker for years, plus Jerry Reese likes freak athletes. On the second day of the 2016 NFL Draft, Smith could be an option for New York. Staying in the Big Apple, the Jets need a young inside linebacker. David Harris is aging, and they need an upgrade next to him.
These teams are other options for Smith, but could be less likely because they may need a more immediate contribution. Buffalo has to replace Nigel Bradham and could use a difference-maker at linebacker for Rex Ryan. The Falcons need a difference-maker at linebacker, but with the seat warm in Atlanta's front office, the team may not have the time to wait on Smith.