By Chris Emma–
INDIANAPOLIS (CBS) — More than a 40 time, hand size, vertical jump or the Wonderlic, by far the most important test prospects must pass are the medicals.
Notre Dame star linebacker Jaylon Smith suffered a gruesome knee injury during the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day. It was a horrendous scene as he writhed in pain on the turf — a torn ACL, LCL and apparent nerve damage.
At the NFL Combine this week, Smith has done and said all the right things, but the medical reports speak louder than words.
“I view myself as the best player in the draft,” Smith said Friday. “It’s just a matter of waiting, enjoying the process and controlling what I can control.”
Smith had 113 tackles last season. He’s long been projected as a top-10 pick. Stanford coach David Shaw was once asked what stands out about Smith. He replied, “What doesn’t?” Smith is viewed as a complete player.
Questions have arisen regarding Smith’s health, with little clarity to whether he suffered nerve damage. Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that he suffered nerve damage to the ankle and knee, with teams believing he will miss at least the 2016 season.
In a bizarre back and forth with reporters, Smith denied he suffered nerve damage but then said his nerve is healing. Smith anticipates a full recovery and that he’ll be the same, dominating player at 100 percent health. He just couldn’t say precisely when that would be. Smith was either playing coy or genuinely doesn’t know the extent of his injury. Either would be understandable.
With the medicals being revealed in Indianapolis, it seems as if Smith will fall well out of the top 10. If his 2016 season is in doubt, he could fall much further. NFL executives don’t give the benefit of the doubt — not when a high draft pick, millions of dollars and jobs are on the line.
“It’s a long-term decision, whoever drafts me,” Smith said. “I’m a guy who’s going to be around for a while. playing at an elite level — an impact player.”
When healthy, Smith is a force. He stands at 6-foot-3 and 229 pounds, with quick feet that seem to roam all over the field. At the age of 20, he’s certainly an investment for the future, but there’s no telling whether he’ll ever be the same player.
The Bears would’ve been a strong suitor for Smith’s services, hoping he would be available at the No. 11 pick, but that was before the injury. Following the Kevin White injury saga of 2015, general manager Ryan Pace would be best suited not to take a player who can’t make an immediate impact in 2016, especially when there’s no assurances for his future.
Of course, if nerve damage threatens Smith’s 2016 and beyond, Pace and the Bears may be seeing the linebacker on the board again in the second round. His stock seems poised to plummet. It’s a sad state of affairs for such a talented player.
“I’m a long-term guy,” said Smith, making a case for his future. “I’m going to be a very impactful player for a long time.”
Smith can keep saying all the right things, but there’s no guaranteeing anything — not after such a horrendous injury.