The NFL Combine is followed intensely by fans and draftniks. They look for players to improve or hurt their draft stock with their measurements, interviews, and performances in the various drills. The NFL has very successfully marketed the process, turning what was once a little known series of somewhat arcane evaluations into a major event prior to free agency and the draft. But one of the most crucial parts of the process is the medical evaluation. Colleges are often not very forthcoming about the injury status of players, and in Indianapolis, teams are able to have their own medical personnel get a detailed and up-close look. For teams, it is invaluable in sorting out risk in drafting players or not. And for the players themselves, it can be the difference between living the dream of playing professional football or seeing that shattered.
The Dallas Cowboys are looking for a quarterback, but they also are in need of some upgrades on defense. With the fourth-overall pick, they have a rare chance to get an impact player, plus they have a lot of other ammunition to use in the draft. One position that should be of great interest to them is linebacker. Late last year, there were two names emerging as the top two prospects at the position, Jaylon Smith and Myles Jack. Coming into the Combine, both had some serious questions about knee injuries. For one, those injury questions may be derailing what was once a promising future. The other has seen favorable reports helping to cement his chances at being a good option for the Cowboys if they do not go for a quarterback in the first round.
Smith suffered a devastating injury in his last game, the Fiesta Bowl. He had to have surgery to repair his ligaments. He still is expressing optimism about his recovery, but concerns have arisen about possible nerve damage.
While walking around Lucas Oil Stadium for the combine, Smith has been seen in an ankle/foot orthosis brace -- a device ESPN injury analyst and physical therapist Stephania Bell said is used specifically to treat issues in the ankle and foot, given that it supports the foot and helps the toes clear the floor to walk. According to Bell, nerves don't have to be torn during an injury like Smith's knee injury to be damaged, and nerves are "unpredictable tissue" when it comes to healing.
Smith was the Butkus Award winner last season as the best linebacker in college football. It is tragic for him to see his chances of being a high draft pick plummeting (although he wisely took out an insurance policy that could pay him up to $5 million if he slips far enough in the draft). There is talk that he could be out for the entire 2016 season.
For Jack, the news appears to be much better. He certainly was thoroughly examined, a process that lasted seven hours.
"I took my MRI this morning at 7 a.m., I had X-Rays yesterday - I went through a whole wave of probing and prodding and questions," Jack said on Friday. "Trust me, they swept through every question and everything you can do with a meniscus. They did their job today."
Jack still has to get final clearance, and his performance at his Pro Day on March 15, assuming he is cleared, will be crucial. But all signs point to him being good to go. His athleticism is superb, and he can cement his status as a top five pick, putting him right in the Cowboys' range.
With the Tennessee Titans needing to protect Marcus Mariota, Laremy Tunsil looks to be their pick. The Cleveland Browns are desperate for another quarterback to ruin - er, to lead their team, and reports out of the Combine indicate that they will likely be choosing between Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. At this point, it looks like the top prospects of interest to Dallas would be Jack, Jalen Ramsey, Joey Bosa, and possibly whichever quarterback escapes being picked by the Browns. One of those players will likely go to the San Diego Chargers, but that still leaves Dallas with some premium talent to pick from. Jack is certainly in play.
It's great for him, and very regrettable for Smith. Not many teams are going to spend a draft pick at any point just to redshirt a player for a year with no assurance he will ever be able to play. It is an illustration of just how cruel the game of football can be, and why many players elect to declare for the draft early even when they may stand to improve their draft value with another year in college.
This was pointed out to me -- Pretty much every player in Fiesta Bowl w/reason to declare did declare. Wonder if Jaylon injury spooked 'em.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) February 26, 2016
So it looks like circumstances will keep Smith out of the equation for just about the entire league. Unless, perhaps, a team had a history of taking a risk, using a redshirt year to see if the player can recover, and had, say, a bunch of sixth-round picks to play with. While it may be a bit of a long shot for Smith to get to the sixth round, it is now possible that he may slide that far with his knee issues. And that might make him a target there for the Cowboys. It would not cost much to put him on IR for a year, and if he did recover, then he could become an absolute steal of the likes of La'el Collins.
That is just speculation, of course, and would depend on what the medical staff thought they found out about him. It would be rough for the young man, but that insurance policy would help take some of the financial sting out of things. It is just another thought to keep in the back of your mind as the draft slowly draws nearer.