DALLAS ROLLS THE DICE
Call Cowboys Owner and General Manager Jerry Jones what you would like, but “risk averse” would not be a proper label for Dallas’ decision-maker. Usually, those risks have involved taking players with character issues. Remember the time that Jones inked the talented but socially abrasive Terrell Owens to a huge three-year deal? Or the time that he traded the Tennessee Titans for Adam Jones, the young man with tremendous ability as a cornerback and returner, but who could not stay away from trouble at night clubs? Or the time he signed prolific pass-rusher Greg Hardy, a well-documented domestic abuser? Or how about the time when he drafted Randy Gregory in the second round, a player who failed a drug test at the NFL Combine? This time, however, Jones took a different kind of risk on a player-- he took one with a sterling reputation, but significant medical concerns.
Jaylon Smith was selected by the Cowboys with the second pick in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft. A linebacker at Notre Dame, Smith lead the team in tackles for two years and won the Butkus Award, an honor given to the top linebacker in the college game. As one watches him on film, Smith looks the part of an NFL linebacker, with regard to size and length. He is versatile in that he can rush the passer, drop into man coverage, or chase a running back down outside the tackles. As such, Smith will be a three-down linebacker and won’t leave the field. His play speed is elite and he changes direction well. As a pass rusher, his closing burst to the quarterback is phenomenal. Smith’s fit with this Tampa 2 style defense couldn’t be better. According to ESPN’s Todd Archer, Smith will slide into the middle linebacker role beside Lee if he regains his health.
Smith’s largest concern is his health status going forward. Smith suffered a gruesome knee injury in the first quarter of the 2015 Fiesta Bowl. Unfortunately, both ligament damage and nerve damage resulted when his knee buckled backwards. He is expected to miss the 2016 season while he continues to heal. Smith has kept a positive attitude while also rehabbing with great intensity. A recent video released by Tom Pelissero shows Smith doing a football drill, though with a noticeable “foot drop” from where the nerve has not fully healed. It is interesting to note that Dr. Dan Carter, the same physician who performed Smith’s surgery and is overseeing his rehab, is also the Cowboys’ team physician. It’s encouraging that Carter has firsthand knowledge of Smith’s surgery and recovery details and that the Cowboys in turn drafted Smith early. However, some are taking these as a sign that his recovery is a sure thing. Our own Dr. Jene Bramel gave some cautionary words about that idea in his Combined Rookie Draft Board 1.0 article:
Even though Dallas' team physician did Smith's surgery and is intimately involved with his rehab, don't immediately jump to the conclusion that Smith's injury isn't as severe as feared. Only four months into his rehab, Smith and his rehab team still have no way to know whether his peroneal nerve will fully recover. Smith has a long recovery ahead and the last few weeks are critical. Smith may make a remarkable recovery and get 95% of his nerve function back -- and never be the same player. The Cowboys are betting Smith recovers as Sean Spence did.
As of this writing in late June, Smith's nerve has not improved significantly:
Aside from the medical concerns, there is very little to dislike about Smith. On occasion he has trouble with being able to take on and shed blocks. He sometimes displays poor balance when attempting a tackle and will miss as a result. This contributed to his 11 missed tackles in 2015.
As a prospect, Smith checks all the size, speed, length, and athleticism boxes, and has very few technical issues.
A near perfect fit as a middle or weak-side linebacker in the Cowboys’ 4-3 scheme, Smith stands to put up elite tackle numbers if he recovers.
Smith is a three-down player who will seldom leave the field.
At times, Smith has trouble disengaging from blocks and misses tackles.
Smith is all but assured of missing his rookie season while rehabbing his injury.
There’s a chance that Smith’s nerve doesn’t regenerate and he never returns to his pre-injury form.
Even though Smith’s upside is extremely high, especially in tackle-heavy formats, it must be tempered by his medical status. The burning question with Smith is will his nerve regenerate to the point he can play at his prior level? Know that despite the potential for a massive ceiling, there is the possibility that he’s never again the same player. It’s wise to price that risk into his fantasy stock. If your team can tolerate that risk, an early third-round pick for Smith may be in play in dynasty IDP formats.
Note: As Smith is unlikely to play in 2016, our IDP staff have not completed projections for his 2016 season.
Lance Zierlein praised Smith as a versatile player in his NFL.com draft profile:
“In this day and age of ’tweeners’ being labeled ’hybrid’ players, Smith is the rare commodity who is truly hybrid in the sense that he has the athleticism, speed and physical makeup to play any linebacker spot in either the 3-4 or the 4-3.”
Prior to the Draft, in the “negatives” section of his scouting report, Yahoo’s Eric Edholm listed the following concerns:
Teams are scared off by the Marcus Lattimore factor, that a wildly talented young man might take a year or longer to come back and that at some point decide it's not worth it to keep pushing it, as Lattimore did (and he suffered no known nerve damage, for what it's worth). And if there is nitpicking to do on Smith outside of the injury, he's not regarded in scouting circles as a Ray Lewis-type, take-charge linebacker and didn't run the Irish defense and make all the calls.