By the time the 2016 NFL scouting combine rolled around, Notre Dame inside linebacker Jaylon Smith had made peace with the stroke of misfortune that had put his career in doubt.
Smith, a super-athletic, 6-foot-2, 240-pound linebacker, was considered to be a surefire top-10 pick in this draft, at least until a shove by Ohio State offensive lineman Taylor Decker sent him sprawling, awkwardly, in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl.
Smith tried to regain his balance but instead contorted himself into a position that put so much stress on his left knee that he ended up tearing two ligaments, his ACL and LCL.
“It’s the game of football, and it happened,” said Smith, who has spoken to Decker — a potential first-round pick this year — and mentioned there are no hard feelings. “I have no choice but to live with it. I’m just moving forward. That’s all I’m focused on.”
ESPN analyst Todd McShay said during a recent conference call that Smith’s coaches at Notre Dame never stopped raving about how hard he worked to develop from an edge rusher, which he played his first two years with the Fighting Irish, to a true linebacker.
“He had some struggles his second year and then this year, with all the hard work he did getting stronger, taking on blockers, improving his instincts, watching tape, going above and beyond and doing all the right things, he’d gotten himself to where he is,” McShay said.
Smith starred in 2015, recording 114 tackles (nine for loss), one sack and six hurries in 13 games, all while showing a unique combination of size and speed that teams crave in today’s football.
“He was clearly a top-five talent in this draft,” McShay said. “I know of two general managers right now that told me he was going to be the No. 1 player on their board; they thought he was the best football player in this draft.”
But from what McShay understands after talking to multiple teams, NFL clubs now view Smith as a huge medical risk.
“It won’t surprise me if we get to day three and Jaylon Smith is still on the board,” McShay said.
Which means a team that believes in Smith could have an opportunity to draft him, provided they aren’t afraid to take a shot.
“I’ll be back 100 percent,” Smith vowed at the combine. “I just don’t know when.”
It won’t be this season. Smith went back to Indianapolis for a combine medical recheck Friday, and it was widely reportedly that he is expected to miss all of the 2016 season.
However, the fact that the Chiefs held a formal interview at the NFL combine with Smith is, perhaps, an indication they might be interested. Teams can only hold 50 formal interviews at the combine, and traditionally the Chiefs have used those to get to know players they’re seriously considering drafting.
What’s more, they’re in the unique position to be able to stash him on injured reserve for a year. With Derrick Johnson, 33, back in the fold, along with veteran Josh Mauga, the Chiefs have two reliable starters at the position, not to mention 2015 fourth-round pick Ramik Wilson, 2015 fifth-round pick D.J. Alexander and 2015 undrafted free agent Justin March, who impressed coaches and teammates before a training camp injury ended his season.
If they were to take Smith, it would not only give them a talented young piece to factor into the mix in 2017, it would also given them another year to evaluate the three aforementioned youngsters.
However, there are reasons the Chiefs would pass on Smith, too. The obvious reason is the injury; if there’s a fear he won’t be the same player, it’s hard to justify an early pick on him, especially with the Chiefs being in win-now mode. The loss of their third-round pick this year for tampering with Jeremy Maclin could also make it difficult to take a flier on a player who won’t contribute this year, especially at a position they don’t value as much as other teams.
But Smith remains confident he will be worth the risk for any team that drafts him.
“I’m going to be a very impactful player for a very long time — it’s just getting healthy,” Smith said. “That’s all I can focus on.”
Inside the 2016 NFL Draft: inside linebackers
From Sunday, April 10, until the draft begins April 28, The Star will take a daily look at each position.
Chiefs’ needs: The Chiefs re-signed Derrick Johnson to a three-year, $21 million deal this offseason, solidifying the interior of their defense. They’ve also got plenty of experience returning in Josh Mauga and 2015 fourth-round pick Ramik Wilson, two players who battled it out last preseason for the right to start next to Johnson. And don’t forget speedy 2015 fifth-round pick D.J. Alexander, a key special teamer, and impressive 2015 undrafted free agent Justin March, two players who might be primed to take a step forward in 2016. That said, Johnson turns 34 this year, and if the Chiefs feel someone in this draft can develop into an impact player, it might not be a bad thing to scoop him up.
Sleeper: Keep an eye on Akron linebacker/safety Jatavis Brown, who visited the Chiefs in early April. Brown (5-11, 220) was the MAC Conference’s defensive player of the year after making 116 tackles and 12 sacks in 2015.
▪ Kentrell Brothers, Missouri, 6-0, 245: Instinctive player who led the nation in tackles the last two regular seasons.
▪ Brett McMakin, Northern Iowa, 6-4, 232: Blue Valley West grad who declared after a junior campaign in which he recorded 122 tackles (15.5 for loss).