Stay or Go? Analyzing Jaylon Smith’s NFL decision

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All-American and Butkus Award-winner Jaylon Smith‘s knee injury was a nightmare scenario for anybody who likes football. Notre Dame’s junior linebacker had roughly 50 minutes left of his college career when Ohio State tackle Taylor Decker got a final shove in at the whistle, causing Smith to step and land awkwardly on his left leg and his knee to buckle unnaturally.

The result is a “significant” knee injury, with a local Fox-affiliate reporting multiple ligament damage, likely the ACL and MCL. That type of injury threw a very large wrench into the postseason plans of Smith, who even with a reported $5 million insurance policy has to make some difficult decisions.

On Monday, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King wrote in his Monday Morning Quarterback about Smith’s dilemma, pointing to the lofty draft status Smith had in some team’s eyes before the injury:

I think this is what I heard on Jaylon Smith, the highly talented Notre Dame linebacker and prospective very high NFL draft choice who suffered that terrible left knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl: Smith, a junior, was very likely to come out in the 2016 draft, and he would have been a top three to five pick if he came out healthy.

One NFL scout who was at the Fiesta Bowl said Saturday he thought Smith was a top-three pick. Another who I spoke with Saturday said of the players he saw this fall, if Smith came out, he’d have been a strong candidate to be the top overall pick. “There is not a defense he would not fit in,” the second scout said. “This is a huge story.”

Over the weekend, Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune tackled the same question, talking to NFL Draft analyst Scott Wright about an injury that—even if Smith slides from a Top 5 pick to the 15th overall slot—could be as much as a $15 million hit.

“Let’s say it’s a torn ACL,” Wright told Hansen, “something similar to what (Georgia running back) Todd Gurley had last year. Smith is going to go in the first round anyways, because like Todd Gurley, he’s such a freak talent that there’s a limit to how far he’s going to slip.

“At some point in the first round, somebody’s going to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to take a top five talent if he falls into our lap.’ ”

Wright said it’s not inconceivable that Smith could slide from No. 5 to No. 15. And based on the inflexible rookie salary scale and last year’s signing figures, that’s the difference between a $21.2 million, four-year contract at the fifth draft position and one of $10.7 million, 10 picks later.

The signing bonus differential is also significant — $13.7 million vs. $6 million, which is included in the total contract value.

That loss of money—the lump-sum signing bonus and additional guaranteed money from the rookie contract—might give Smith reason to consider returning to Notre Dame. Play out his senior season, earn a degree, and reenter the draft completely healthy, hoping to reestablish himself as an elite pick at the top of the 2017 draft board.

Of course, that’s no sure thing either.

Smith is nine months away from opening day against Texas. That’s not a herculean ask to be back on the field and ready to play with today’s medical advancements, but Smith would still be working his way back and doing his recovering on the field, evaluated by NFL scouts who’ll see a linebacker likely wearing a large knee brace. It’ll serve as a constant reminder that he’s still less than a year removed from a major surgery that could rob Smith of his best football trait—rare athleticism and speed for a linebacker.

Those traits don’t seem to be in question. If Smith declares for the draft in the next few days—he still has two weeks to make that decision official—he’ll spend the next few months rehabilitating, not going through the cattle call that asks NFL prospects to validate their on-field performance with height and weight measurements, appropriate arm length, 40-yard dash times and short and long shuttle runs. A team that drafts Smith early likely believes that he’ll return to the numbers we assumed he’d run, a 40-yard dash in the 4.5 range and equally nimble and explosive times and scores. Smith won’t be asked to prove those numbers—one of the rare luxuries that come with an injury like this.

Todd Gurley’s run up the draft board to No. 10 last year proves that it only takes one team to believe in your ability to be a game-changer. And as King’s comments show, Smith is the type of player that has lots of teams believing in his ability to fit into their scheme and change the football game.

Ever since Willis McGahee suffered a major knee injury in his final college football game and still found his way into the first round, teams have become more and more comfortable with the recovery from a knee injury that’s now almost routine thanks to the evolution in medical treatment. Smith could receive that type of treatment in South Bend, or do it under the watchful eye of his new employers—while getting paid a hefty salary to do so. Most NFL players who make generational money don’t do it on their first contract, they do it on their second. Smith leaving for the league puts him a year closer to that second deal.

That’s a large assumption. We’ve seen recently the negative that comes with leaving Notre Dame before you’re ready, with Troy Niklas and Louis Nix cashing weekly paychecks but doing nothing to assure themselves of career longevity.

We’ve heard nothing from Smith yet, who is likely talking with his family and advisors about not just his professional future, but the decision on who’ll perform the surgery to repair his knee. From there, Smith will likely meet with Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick a final time before deciding what he’ll do moving forward.

In all likelihood, Smith’s time at Notre Dame is over and he’ll move on to the NFL. You only wish that the circumstances surrounding the decision were better.