-- I don't like throwing out too many absolutes during draft season, but as the calendar flipped to 2016, I was pretty sure of one thing: Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith would be a top-five pick in the upcoming NFL draft (assuming he chose to leave school early). But that changed on Jan. 1, when Smith suffered a devastating knee injury in his final college game. Since then, there has been plenty of speculation about the extent of his injury, and Monday's news confirmed Smith is not expected to play in 2016 and some teams have questions whether he will ever play again.
ESPN's Darren Rovell reported that Smith could collect on some of his $5 million loss-of-value insurance policy if he fell out of the first round. Unfortunately, that appears to be all but a certainty. He's a consensus top-five talent, but in speaking to people in the league, it seems like the highest Smith could go would be Day 3. With an injury of this nature, each team's medical policy will dictate whether Smith makes it on the final draft board. And if he does, it'll be up to the GM or ultimate decision-maker to measure risk versus reward.
While it's easy to understand why teams would shy away from making a high-priced draft investment in Smith, I do think it's important to have some perspective. After watching his film, I can definitively say Smith would have been the No. 1 overall player on my board had he walked off the field healthy on Jan. 1.
Here are the three biggest reasons why.
1. He's freakishly talented. Smith has a combination of suddenness, speed and fluidity that you don't see often at the linebacker position. He's not just a three-down player; he's one of the few prospects in this draft who actually impacts the game on every snap. An easy mover with quick feet and fluid hips, he can match-up one-on-one in coverage with most RBs/TEs and has great range in zone. Smith projects to the next level as a weak-side off-the-line LB, with the athleticism to get sideline-to-sideline
That makes him a perfect fit for today's NFL. As more and more teams employ spread offenses, linebackers who excel in space will continue to rise in value. Smith runs like a wide receiver, and has the kind of frame that he can continue to add bulk to. Perhaps most importantly, with the league limiting on-field team practice time, it's crucial that you bring in players who are disciplined on and off the field. Smith was one of the tone-setters in Notre Dame's practices, and I never saw him take a play off on tape. His study habits bode well for his future success in the NFL.
2. He showed a lot of improvement last season in two key areas. His biggest leap came in his ability to take on blocks. He's a bit undersized at 235-240 pounds, but he looked stronger last season, proving he can jar blockers at the point of attack. He played as an off-the-line LB for the first time in 2014, and it required an adjustment. In talking to him, Smith said that really forced him to become more of a student of the game.
The extra study time paid off: Smith had always shown natural instincts on the field, but in 2015, he took that aspect of his game to a different level. He's highly instinctive in coverage. It's one thing to be able to read the QB's eyes and tendencies based on film study; it's quite another to process that information in an instant and jump the route with explosive initial quickness. Smith's ability to see plays develop and act on it is truly rare.
3. He produced! It's not enough for top-tier players to show overwhelming potential. You want to see them dominate their competition and put up big numbers. Smith certainly did that in his three seasons at Notre Dame. Look at the chart below. He improved every season, which jives with what I saw on tape, and his consistency in his final two seasons was really incredible.
If there's one quibble, it's his lack of production as an edge rusher. He wasn't asked to get after the QB as much as his career went on, but watching the tape, he has the body control and flexibility to bend the edge tightly. In the end, Smith causes far more disruption as a pass-rusher than the numbers suggest. Because of his athleticism, he has the raw tools to continue making strides in this area.