UPDATE: April 29: Cowboys selected Smith in the second round.
I have never been a scout or an NFL General Manager, but I am willing to watch a ton of football. By watching about 200 snaps of each prospect, we can really get a feel for a player and then know what we are talking about a bit better. It is no exact science, but the NFL hasn't quite figured out drafting either, so we are going to do the best we can.To read more about the 2016 NFL Draft Project, Click Here.
Every year in the NFL Draft, we examine the cases of players who come with a fair amount more injury risk than the rest of the field. On New Year's Day, Jaylon Smith tore the ACL and LCL on his left knee, was carted off the field of his bowl game against Ohio State, and needed major surgery to repair it and to ensure that there was no nerve damage that would make the injury even more significant. Now, you can make quite a list of players who suffered an injury, missed the better part of a year, and still had magnificent college and professional careers. In fact, you might say that aside from missing the time for the mending of the injury, you never noticed a drop off on any level.
Unfortunately, you can also make a list of players who were never quite the same and that knee turns into the one thing that held them back from being something special for the rest of his career. Odds are, if you were to select Smith, you would do it under the understanding that anything you get from him in this healing year would be a bonus. Yes, he could return to play in 2016, but any team that selects him must do so understanding that the best way to preserve his monster upside is to not rush back from this significant and gruesome incident and perhaps consider it some sort of redshirt year.
So, to even consider that at the price he would cost - surely a 1st round pick - he better be special. And, you would be very hard pressed to find an observer who would tell you anything else about the 5-star recruit/track star who has been patrolling the middle for the Fighting Irish for the last three seasons.
What I liked:Well, the 2015 Butkus Award winner does many things very, very well. He reads and reacts to a running play by getting out in front of the blockers and getting to the ball carrier in textbook fashion and in ways you have come to expect from the best linebackers in the business. This requires great film study to be aware of what an opponent does and then the anticipation and athleticism to do something about it. He does all of this very well. He is the run and hit linebacker whom can get sideline to sideline and also upfield with fine expertise. In today's NFL where a QB spy is often the mike linebacker, Smith does this as well as anyone and can close down and tackle with great ferocity. He seldom gets lost in traffic and can cut through the mess and arrive on the other side very well. He attacks the ball and is a tackling machine. He can cover downfield, but certainly not at the elite level of Myles Jack. It seems he has some very interesting edge rush ability that can add to his value and also he seems to have some expert-level blitzing in his skill-set. His timing and ability to close going forward are quite impressive. Those close to Smith cannot stop speaking about his character and his leadership to be the perfect lead dog on a defense on the field.
What I did not like:There are times when he seems to get extremely grabby in his coverage and will definitely be a candidate for defensive penalties in pass defense if he doesn't clean up his technique a bit. He doesn't necessarily explode with power through blocks on a regular basis to get off of his man and then go make the tackle. Sometimes he can do it but there is not the same violent consistency from game to game that you want to see. USC was very good, Clemson was not. Basically, since he will be compared head to head with Jack from UCLA, you would concede that he is not quite the absurd athlete with power to match speed and that makes him 2nd-best in coverage skills down the field, as well. He also doesn't try to rock guards when they arrive to block him like the kid from UCLA does. They are similar players, but they do each have their unique traits that require the drafting teams to use them properly to maximize value.
Summary and Potential Fit For the Cowboys: Like Jack, you would have to ask how much value you place on a mike/will LB who will not be a regular pass rusher. But, unlike Jack, you have to do it with Jaylon Smith with a more significant knee situation and one that will require slow and steady progress for the first offseason where most teams want a flawless specimen who is ready to run right onto the practice field immediately.
Jaylon Smith is the type of player who many think is between the fifth and 10th best player in the draft. He is so good that it is believed that despite the gruesome injury and the delay in his comeback, he will still go before pick No. 20 to some team that can't pass up his ability. If, somehow, he were to be available when the Cowboys come to the podium at the start of Round 2, this would be the type of player that would have them sprinting to turn in their card. He seems like a "can't miss" talent who will likely slide right to a team that is already pretty good and he will push them over the top. It may not be in 2016, but Jaylon Smith will be a star very soon.