Will injury coax Jaylon Smith back to Notre Dame?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Ohio State’s Taylor Decker alternately expressed remorse and defended himself Friday for the away-from-the-action shove that truncated Jaylon Smith’s Fiesta Bowl playing experience and provoked a soul-searching question for the Notre Dame star linebacker:

Will Decker’s thrust push Smith back to Notre Dame for his senior season?

“It certainly makes the decision a lot more difficult,” said NFL Draft analyst Scott Wright of the resulting left knee injury that Irish coach Brian Kelly classified as “significant” after Ohio State’s 44-28 subduing of the Irish.

Smith, ND’s leading tackler the past two seasons, was expected to announce in the next couple of days that he would become the 12th true junior from Notre Dame, and fifth under Kelly’s watch, to declare for the NFL Draft since the league opened its doors to underclassmen in 1989.

ND junior wide receiver and 2015 team MVP Will Fuller faces the same Jan. 18 deadline to make his decision. Two Irish seniors with fifth-year options, offensive tackles Ronnie Stanley and running back C.J. Prosise, are already headed out the door.

Cornerback KeiVarae Russell will decide soon, though his fifth-year option is tied to an NCAA ruling, not an ND rubber stamp.

With Smith and Stanley being projected as top 10 picks — and perhaps even top five — for the seven-round April 28-30 draft to be staged in Chicago, there was very little drama wafting around their decisions.

But the picture changed dramatically for the Butkus Award winner and consensus All-American when his left knee contorted and crumpled at the 8:00-mark of the first quarter Friday, the result of Decker — a Buckeye left offensive tackle and projected first-round draft choice himself — “finishing the play.”

"It wasn't a dirty play by any means on my part," Decker, a one-time ND football commit, told Doug Lesmerises of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "I was just going after people.

“I was just trying to hit people and he just planted weird. His knee was locked out. He's a great player. That was a guy we really had to account for, and you had to be on your game to block him.”

The recalibrated circumstances that now surround Smith’s draft prospects drain any emotion out of the decision — something that has hooked Sheldon Day, Manti Te’o, Tyler Eifert, Zack Martin and others to return in recent years — and place strictly in the economic realm.

That is, provided the severity of the 6-foot-3, 240-pound junior’s injury hasn’t been overstated. It's uncertain when Smith or Notre Dame will clarify the degree of the injury.

“Let’s say it’s a torn ACL,” Wright said, “something similar to what (Georgia running back) Todd Gurley had last year. Smith is going to go in the first round anyways, because like Todd Gurley, he’s such a freak talent that there’s a limit to how far he’s going to slip.

“At some point in the first round, somebody’s going to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to take a top five talent if he falls into our lap.’ ”

Wright said it’s not inconceivable that Smith could slide from No. 5 to No. 15. And based on the inflexible rookie salary scale and last year’s signing figures, that’s the difference between a $21.2 million, four-year contract at the fifth draft position and one of $10.7 million, 10 picks later.

The signing bonus differential is also significant — $13.7 million vs. $6 million, which is included in the total contract value.

ESPN’s Darren Rovell reported late Friday, per sources, that Smith “financed the $50,000 insurance premium to pay for a $5 million loss-of-value policy if he slipped in the 2016 draft.”

“I don’t think he has to worry about falling out of the first round,” Wright said. “The insurance policy, I believe, only pays if he falls out of the first round, so that probably won’t be much of a factor in this. At the same time, the timing of this really hurts, because it’s so late.

“Todd Gurley hurt his knee in November, two months earlier, and he wasn’t ready until a month into the season. So where does that put Jaylon? Is he going to redshirt as a rookie? Is he going to play half a season?

“There are so many unknowns, with the biggest not knowing the extent of the injury. What if it’s not a run-of-the-mill ACL? What if it’s something catastrophic, like something (South Carolina running back) Marcus Lattimore dealt with?

“It’s so hard to say until we know the extent. I think unless it’s something career-threatening, he’s still going to be a first round pick.”

Smith, if he did return to Notre Dame, would have to re-up his loss-of-value insurance, but New York Times article by Marc Tracy last May claims no college player was known to have collected on loss-of-value insurance.

But in September, former Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu reportedly cashed in on $3 million on a loss-of-value insurance claim after falling from a first-round projection to a seventh-round pick by the Cleveland Browns last May.

Meanwhile, Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Marqise Lee, formerly of USC, has sued Lloyd’s of London over his $5 million policy, the article says.

“The injury definitely clouds his stock and clouds his thought process,” Wright said. “If I were him, I would say go back to whoever you talked to before and go back and re-evaluate everything.

“Go back and talk to Brian Kelly. Go back and talk to your family. If he goes back for his senior year and he becomes a top five pick, where everyone agrees he is talent-wise, that might be worth the risk.

“It’s just a shame it had to happen, because he had done everything right, with clear sailing to the draft. He was playing his last game, and he was going to hit that payday. But he’s a first-round talent regardless.

“I mean there really isn’t a wrong answer. You’re still talking about life-changing money, and I wouldn’t fault him either way. There’s absolutely no question, though, there’s more potential to make more money if he goes back another year.”

Weighing their options

Junior wide receiver Will Fuller initially made a mid-November pledge to return to Notre Dame for his senior season, but later decided to keep his options open after consulting with his family.

“I think Fuller can go either way,” Wright said. “It’s truly 50-50 for him, because just the type of player he is — smaller wide receiver — there’s always going to be a limit of how high he goes in the draft. He’s not Calvin Johnson or A.J. Green. He’s really not that top 10, top five overall type of pick.

“I really think he’s going to be that top 50, top 75 value, whether he comes out this year or next year. He’s coming off two incredible seasons. If he wanted to come out and take advantage of it, I think he’d probably go as high as he could a year from now.

“At the same time, if he wanted to go back for his degree, I don’t think, barring injury, he would fall much a year from now. It’s kind of a coin flip.”

Russell, meanwhile, said in the team locker room after the Fiesta Bowl that his decision/announcement will be coming soon.

Wright believes that decision should be to return to ND, that is if the NCAA opens that door for him. Because Russell’s redshirt season (2014) was related to academic misconduct and not football development or to recovery from injury, the NCAA step becomes necessary.

“I’m sure he got a go-back-to-school grade,” Wright said of the NFL Draft Advisory Board feedback Russell sought. “I’m sure he didn’t get a first- or second-round grade. So he’s looking at being a third-day pick (rounds 4-7).

“That’s not to say he can’t play in the league, but he wouldn’t be maximizing his value. He’d have a lot to gain by going back for a year and putting together a strong season.”

A year after Russell was forced to the sideline by ND’s academic dishonesty investigation, the 5-11, 196-pound cornerback recorded 60 tackles (3.5 for loss), two forced fumbles, two interceptions and four pass breakups.

He missed ND’s final two games with a broken right tibia he suffered Nov. 21 in a 19-16 win over Boston College.

“You could see early in the year, he was rusty,” Wright said. “He wasn’t quite back, and he did start playing a little better later in the season. He started making some more plays. So if he could go back and build on that for one more year, I think he absolutely has the ability to go a lot higher a year from now.

"If he comes out this year, he still has a chance to be drafted. Plenty of those late-round guys make it, but it’s definitely going to be more of an uphill climb.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) is carted to the locker room Friday after injuring his left knee in the the 44-28 loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl at Glendale, Ariz. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

Here are the 11 true juniors from Notre Dame who have entered the NFL Draft since the league opened its doors to underclassmen in 1989 and their graduation status. This does not include players, such as Louis Nix and Tyler Eifert, who were seniors and left with their degree in hand but turned down a fifth-year option at ND:

 PlayerPos Draft Round Graduated? 
Raghib Ismail* WR  19911994
Jerome BettisRB 1993 No 
Tom Carter CB 1993 1995 
Bobby Taylor CB 1995 No 
Darius Walker RB 2007 Undrafted 2009 
Jimmy ClausenQB 2010 2013 
Golden Tate WR 2010 No 
Kyle Rudolph TE 2011 No 
G. Atkinson RB 2014 Undrafted No 
Troy Niklas TE 2014 No 
Stephon Tuitt DE 2014 No 

* Ismail signed with Toronto of the CFL before the NFL Draft was held, which affected the round he was selected in the NFL Draft.