All throughout the 2015 college season, Notre Dame Linebacker Jaylon Smith was considered one of the top players in the country. As the season progressed, whispers soon became rumblings that he was almost a certainty to be a top-10 pick, if not top-5. Then, the unthinkable happened. On New Year's Day against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, Smith tore his ACL and MCL while trying to make a play. He immediately went down and speculation began to run rampant about his future in the NFL.
Leading up to the NFL Combine, no one was really quite sure just what his knee looked like. After being named an All-American and winning the Dick Butkus award for being the best NCAA linebacker in the country, people were still considering him to be a first round pick.
We had heard the reports of him making steady progress but there was no actual information coming out. Then, as he went through his medical exams this past week, the results came in and it was not pretty.
In fact, the reports came back so bad that Albert Breer of the NFL Network compared Smith's injury to that of South Carolina Running Back Marcus Lattimore when he was entering the NFL Draft in 2013. The main issue is with the nerve damage to Smith's knee.
For those who don't remember, Lattimore was full of potential but due to the injury, dropped in the draft. That's when the San Francisco 49ers swooped in and drafted him, with the intent to place him on injured reserve almost immediately. However, just one year later, he announced his retirement from the NFL.
That's because he openly said he was trying to fake it the whole time when he showed up at practice because he knew that he no longer was able to play football at a high level. Even 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said that the odds were stacked against them and they knew that it was at best, a 50/50 chance that Lattimore would make a full recovery. As we know, Lattimore didn't even come close to making a full recovery and getting on the field in an NFL game.
"I went out there and put a smile on my face like everything was alright," Lattimore said in an interview published by CBS in July of 2015. "But it was hell. Every day."
If you're looking for some positive news in all of this, other medical analysts, according to Breer, have compared Smith's injury to that of Peyton Manning, where the nerve needs to almost wake up, which occurred with Manning. However, it is not clear if Smith's nerve will ever wake up again and if it does, will he ever be the same? We see how it has impacted Manning, although some can argue that it also has to do with his age.
It's important to also note that Smith had the surgery seven weeks ago and just started walking last week, so it's still very early in the process. While these reports will scare many teams, everyone should have a better idea in April when he plans to get another examination of his knee.
What we do know is that Smith will miss the entire 2016 season - that much is clear. How much he misses beyond that is anyone's guess. With that said, I am told that there are some front office people in the league that fear he will never fully recover and thus, never play a snap in the National Football League.
That's why if anyone drafts Smith on the first two days of the draft, they will be taking a tremendous risk. Some can argue that if a team even takes him in the fourth or fifth round, it is a risk. Once you get to rounds six and seven, those players, on average, aren't contributing much during the games throughout the season so the risk is mitigated and one would be willing to take a chance on a player that may end up fully recovering and make a huge impact once he gets on the field.
Despite the medical reports and setback, Smith still believes that he should be a top-10 pick and is confident he will get back to being the dominant player he was at Notre Dame.
"I'm hoping to go top 10," Smith told CBS Sports. "I view myself as the best player in the draft, you know? It's just a matter of waiting and enjoying the process and controlling what I can control. I'm having a blast with all the fellas out here...I feel great, there's no soreness in the knee. I've been off pain pills for almost a month."
Of course, he continued to be optimistic and said that the nerve isn't stretched at all while telling reporters that he doesn't believe there will be any long-term issues. At the same time, he is selling to teams that he is meeting with that by drafting him, they will be making a long-term investment that will pay off huge dividends if they don't simply look at this season.
The NFL Draft is just a few months away and there is no way that Smith will make a miraculous recovery between now and then. That's why his only focus should be getting better day-by-day so he can give himself the opportunity to one day play in the NFL. Smith will get drafted - the only question is when and by who.
This column was written by Matthew Cannata. Follow him on Twitter! Follow @FinsInsider