INDIANAPOLIS — One of the biggest areas of revelation for NFL teams at the annual scouting combine isn’t in the on-field drills, but in the off-field elements. Medical examinations of players, chief among them.
The 2016 draft features two dominant linebackers from the college ranks whose futures are clouded by serious injuries sustained during this college season.
On Wednesday night, UCLA outside linebacker Myles Jack plopped down for dinner at Prime 47 Steakhouse in Indianapolis looking like the future top-five pick he’ll eventually be. He was sharing a pre-combine dinner with his agent and West Virginia linebacker Nick Kwiatoski. Anyone in that restaurant interested in his prospects for the NFL draft was staring at his legs.
A season-ending meniscus tear in October produced the big questions for Jack coming into the combine. Was there a limp? Was there anything amiss? Would he be the same player he was with the Bruins?
In the restaurant, the most notable feature was a glowing smile on his face. In his combine warm-ups, he seemed to be walking fine, no limp, and ready to go. There appeared to be little concern as to Jack’s return to the field in 2016.
“I have no reservations whatsoever about Jack,” noted NFL.com’s draft guru Lance Zierlein. “I’ve seen some of his workout videos lately. He’s going to be fine”
Jack’s injury hasn’t impacted the overall perception of him by NFL teams. Perhaps the most freakish athlete in this draft class, those that studied him during two years on the field at UCLA, know he can play nearly any position on either side of the ball. There isn’t a mock draft from here to Hawai’i that mentions Jack’s name outside the top five or six picks. In fact, there was little buzz on the East Club media area at Lucas Oil Stadium about Jack’s season-ending injury.
Sadly, the same couldn’t be said for the 2015 Butkus Award winner, Notre Dame star linebacker Jaylon Smith.
The junior early entry was a surefire top-10 pick until midway through the first quarter of the New Year’s Day Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Smith got shoved from behind on a run play, tried to regain his balance and his knee twisted and bent awkwardly.
Within one viewing of Smith’s injury, the draft chatter commenced on social media, and not the good kind. It didn’t improve in Indianapolis.
On the first day of the combine, Smith tweeted a video of himself walking without a crutch. It showed the significant progress he had made, but it was clear he still had a fairly significant hitch in his giddy-up while simply walking.
“Well, there was no question heading into that Fiesta Bowl that he was a top-10 pick, even top-five. It could eventually cost him a draft pick in the top 20,” Zierlein surmised Thursday evening.
That conversation took place the night before Smith’s medical appointments with teams on Friday. The optimistic view of Smith’s situation was that his medicals would give teams hope he could make it back similar to the way Cincinnati Bengals OT Cedric Ogbuehi did in 2015. Ogbuehi tore his ACL in Texas A&M’s bowl game but the Bengals still drafted him in the first round last year with the knowledge he would return at some point in 2015.
Unfortunately, the worst case scenario materialized when news of ankle, knee and nerve damage resonated throughout the combine’s media room.
“I’m truly concerned about Smith’s injury. It happened much later in the season and then we’re talking about multiple injuries all in one,” Zierlein noted.
Smith attempted to quell the damage in his podium session with the media, but it only left more questions than answers.
What’s the impact? How much could it cost Smith in the short term? Let’s say Smith drops just 10 spots from No. 10 to 20. In that best-case scenario, he still stands to lose millions.
The difference in last year’s No. 10 pick — Rams RB Todd Gurley — and the No. 20 pick — Eagles WR Nelson Agholor — is stark. Gurley signed a four year contract worth $13.8M. Agholor also signed a four year deal. For $9.4M.
That’s best case scenario.
The prevailing thought now though is that Smith may not even be able to return in 2016 and his draft selection will reflect the overall concern from NFL teams. In other words, there’s a slim chance of hearing Smith’s name on Thursday or Friday night. I don’t have the heart to figure out what the contractual difference is between the 10th pick and a pick on Day 3 in Rounds 4-7.
Smith’s story is reminiscent, in some respects, to that of Cleveland Browns CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
Leading up to the 2015 Rose Bowl, Ekpre-Olomu was thought to be no worse than a third-round pick. He stayed at Oregon for his senior season and although he didn’t have as good a season in 2014 as he did in 2013, he was still a first-team All-Pac 12 selection. He made it through the season unscathed, until one practice leading up to the Rose Bowl, he tore his ACL. The reality, though, was that his knee was shredded much more severely. A last year’s combine, a multiple people around the league told me I should reassess whether to give him a top-50 grade. They advised me he might be waiting a while to hear his name called on draft day.
They were right. It took until the 241st pick for the former Oregon CB to hear his name called.
Because Smith’s injury was so public and occurred during a high-profile bowl game, his multiple injuries haven’t flown under the radar as Ekpre-Olomu’s did. The impact may be even more severe.
Ekpre-Olomu collected on a draft value insurance claim of nearly $3 million. Smith has obtained a similar one. Sadly, he may be forced to collect on his insurance claim as well.
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