On the second day of the 2016 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys selected former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith. Smith's selection ends a precipitous fall down the draft board for a player once considered a bona fide top-five prospect. Smith will also be reuniting with his brother, running back Rod Smith, on the Cowboys.
For the duration of the draft process, Smith dealt with every manner of discussion about the condition of his knee. During Notre Dame's appearance in the Fiesta Bowl, a block landed by Ohio State offensive tackle Taylor Decker sent Smith tumbling to the ground, causing the linebacker to hyperextend his left knee. After the game, doctors diagnosed Smith with a torn ACL and LCL, turning the once universally prized NFL prospect into one of the more debated topics of the 2016 NFL Draft.
Top players coming off serious knee injuries have heard their names called in the first round before. In 2003, the Buffalo Bills selected Miami's Willis McGahee 23rd overall after the running back famously blew out his knee near the end of the 2002 National Championship Game. More recently, offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi suffered a torn ACL in Texas A&M's bowl game and still went 21st overall to the Cincinnati Bengals last year. Though their respective knee injuries cost both players the entirely of their rookie seasons, NFL teams determined that they each had enough value to remain first-round selections.
So what kept Smith around after Day 1? Unlike McGahee and Ogbuehi, the linebacker also suffered nerve damage in his knee. Unlike with ligament tears, sports medicine has a harder time dealing with nerve issues. Similar problems kept quarterback Peyton Manning on the sidelines throughout the 2011 season and forced the future Hall of Famer to undergo four surgeries on the affected area.
After the medical rechecks performed in mid-April, Smith still doesn't have a clear idea of when he can resume his career. Some teams may even fear that the linebacker may never play again. As a silver lining, Smith does have an insurance policy that reportedly provides a tax-exempt $700,000 payment for falling out of the first round and an additional $100,000 for each pick missed beyond that point.
Before the knee injury, Smith enjoyed a prolific three years at Notre Dame. After winning a starting job as a true freshman over junior Ben Councell, Smith recorded 67 total tackles (6.5 for loss) and steadily improved as the season wore on. His breakthrough came as a sophomore, when he nearly doubled his tackle production and became an even bigger playmaker in the backfield, registering nine tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. Smith essentially matched those numbers as a junior, his final year in South Bend. For his efforts, he won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker.
But Smith's skills, rather than his stats, have teams intrigued. Few linebackers in this or any recent class have the variety of tools the Notre Dame star possesses. Smith quickly diagnoses plays and reacts accordingly. He regularly cleans up mistakes made by his teammates.
Smith has also shown the ability to cover wideouts and tight ends, an attribute of ever-increasing value in the pass-happy NFL. While not as proficient in coverage as a defensive back, Smith can stick with assignments and even make plays on the ball.
While Notre Dame didn't utilize Smith as a primary pass rusher, he did generate pressure when called upon. Especially when blitzing from the second level, Smith builds up a head of steam and can pack a wallop when he arrives at the quarterback.
Ultimately, Smith's upside proved tantalizing enough for an NFL front office to pull the trigger. He may not take the field until a year or more from draft day, but, if his health allows, Smith could become one of the better off-the-ball linebackers in the NFL.