“After prayer and careful consideration, I have decided it’s time to end my professional football career. Unfortunately, getting my knee fully back to the level the NFL demands has proven to be insurmountable.”
Those words, released in a statement released by the San Francisco 49ers on Halloween of 2014, put the coda on running back Marcus Lattimore’s football life. Lattimore was a brilliant player at South Carolina. Beloved as much for who he was off the field as for what he did while on it. But the knee injuries suffered in college robbed him of his preternatural ability to run with a football.
The Niners rolled the dice on Lattimore. GM Trent Baalke later said that the team was hoping against hope that Lattimore could ever regain his ability when it used a fourth round compensatory pick on him in 2013. But the Niners did it because, Baalke said, if any player could do it and deserved a shot to try, it was Lattimore.
There’s a player in this draft with a situation similar to Lattimore. Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith.
A likely top-10 pick before destroying his knee in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State – his final collegiate game – Smith is trying to convince teams before next Thursday’s NFL Draft begins that he is worth taking a chance on.
Mike Mayock, the NFL Network’s lead draft analyst, said on a conference call Friday, “My heart goes out to Jaylon Smith. From what I understand, and I don't know much about it, the knee is good. It's all about nerve regeneration. I'm not a doctor. I don't know much about it. But it's going to significantly impact him, I believe, and I don't think anybody knows where he's going to go.
“He's such a great kid that somebody is going to draft him,” Mayock added. “The South Carolina tailback (Lattimore) went at the end of the (fourth) round with a compensatory pick from San Francisco, I believe, and if Jaylon went with a third-or fourth-round compensatory pick, it wouldn't surprise me at all. This is a kid who could have been the first pick in the whole draft, so the medical on this kid is really important.”
The reservations with Lattimore revolved around him having blown his knee multiple times and it being shredded when he went down in a game against Tennessee. With Smith, the concern isn’t multiple injuries or even the severity of the ACL and MCL damage. It’s the concern that nerve damage Smith suffered may never fully heal.
Viewed simply, Smith’s case is a risk-reward debate for the 32 NFL teams who might employ him. But it also invites more reflection on the circumstances elite college athletes find themselves in as indentured servant to their universities and the NCAA. Smith was about 40 plays away from receiving the golden ticket he’d earned through his own hard work and ability. The fourth-overall pick last year, Amari Cooper, received a four-year, $22.63M contract. Meanwhile, Notre Dame generated $86M in revenue and turned a profit of $54M in 2014. Smith got a free Notre Dame education for three years – about a $180,000 value – and is now in a position where, despite his optimism, he may go undrafted.
Last spring, the Cleveland Browns took a shot on a cornerback from Oregon named Ifo Ekpre-Olumo. A likely first-round pick before injuring his knee in the week of practice before the Ducks played Ohio State in the national championship game, Ekpre-Olumo fell all the way to the seventh round. He didn’t play at all in 2015. This month, the Browns released him. He was picked up by the Dolphins, one of three teams to put a waiver claim in on him.
While Lattimore and Ekpre-Olumo seem like cautionary tales relative to Smith, it’s possible to find other cases of players with medical issues that paid dividends.
Rob Gronkowski, a second-round pick by the Patriots six years ago, had back issues that kept him on the sidelines his entire junior season. There was nerve damage caused by a ruptured disk. He had a $4M insurance policy that he’d collect on if he were forced to stop playing for health reasons. Instead of giving up football, he gambled and entered the draft. He’s on track for a Hall of Fame career.
Running back Willis McGahee tore his ACL and MCL against Ohio State (again?!) in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. The Buffalo Bills used the 23rd pick in the draft on him. He sat out the entire season but went on to play until 2013.
With Smith, the nerve regeneration – which reportedly can take four to eight months to fully complete (if it’s going to happen) – is the biggest concern. And because it’s impossible to forecast which way it will go, Smith’s draft story is already being viewed in bleak terms.
What would be the profile of a team that would draft Smith? A team that values “value.” One with a plethora of picks. A team with a well-entrenched GM and coach who’d understand the risk-reward. A team that could give Smith a redshirt year.
The Patriots would check every single one of those boxes. They don’t have a first-rounder but they have 11 picks overall, including five in the sixth round. Three of the sixth-rounders are compensatory picks, meaning the Patriots cannot trade them. If Smith is there in the sixth – and he sadly could be – the risk-reward seems easy to swallow.
Watching his highlights, he pursues and attacks like a leopard. He’s got pass-rush/coverage/run-stop ability and could be a box safety or strictly a linebacker.
What he’ll need is a chance to prove he can once again look like he did five months ago. This is where he was this week. Next week, we’ll find out where he’s going.