Analysis: Is Jaylon Smith an NFL investment or gamble?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS — Jaylon Smith didn’t need any assistance to step down from the raised platform, where he had just spent the better part of seven minutes Friday afternoon trying to convince NFL minds that he should be looked upon as an investment rather than a gamble.

It was a symbolic gesture, if nothing else, that became functional moments later as Smith walked gingerly to his next commitment with media members, hoping to squeeze some last-ditch clarity. They, in turn, bounced against him and his surgically repaired left knee as they jostled for position.

That the supposedly 240-pound former Notre Dame All-America linebacker earlier in the day checked in at 223 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine, seven pounds lighter than his listed playing weight — as a freshman, wasn’t close to being the most contradictory and toxic news wafting through Lucas Oil Stadium concerning Smith.

It was NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reporting not only does Smith have knee issues, but ankle issues and nerve damage in both areas as well — all of which “teams believe” will eliminate any comeback in the 2016 NFL season, and possibly beyond.

The common omission in the echo chamber of copycat stories that followed over the next few hours was that Rapoport clarified it was “some” teams — not all — that were going all in on what sounds like a worst-case scenario.

It’s not the first pessimistic forecast splattered on Smith’s promising future in the seven weeks since he underwent surgery for a freak injury suffered against Ohio State six days earlier, Jan. 1 in the Fiesta Bowl. But it’s the first that is supposedly tied to independent medical evaluations, which Smith underwent at the combine on Friday.

Yet as recently as a month ago, a report surfaced — citing anonymous sources — that Smith’s surgery had gone so much better than expected that it wouldn’t be unrealistic for him to play opening week of the 2016 season.

It’s been that kind of speculative volleyball, coupled with the notion a healthy Smith could have been in the running for the No. 1 overall pick, that’s turning Smith’s comeback saga into a freak show. And it may not end when the 2016 NFL Draft actually unfolds, April 28-30 in Chicago.

To what absurd lengths this might be headed, a reporter pointed out to Smith during his press conference Friday that a seemingly benign, 11-second video released by Smith of him walking without a brace prompted a former NFL physician to go to a dark and speculative place.

He noticed Smith wearing an AFO (Ankle Foot Orthosis), a different kind of stabilizing device and one in which this physician said hinted at nerve damage.

“Is this the new world you’re living in?” the media member posed.

“I feel great,” Smith responded, sort of, to the question. “There’s no soreness in the knee. There’s no pain. I’ve been off pain pills for almost a month.

“It’s just a matter of the recovery process. I don’t know when the nerve will heal. It’s just me taking day-by-day control of what I can control, but I’m having a nice time here.”

Vintage Smith. He sets the boundaries and the agenda, not you. And he does it so disarmingly, with a smile on his face.

He’ll only let you in so far and on his terms, which sort of adds to the intrigue but fuels unchecked conjecture.

Smith did admit Friday to having spoken a couple of weeks after the injury to the man who helped set it in motion, Ohio State offensive tackle Taylor Decker, a projected first-rounder himself.

“It’s the game of football, and it happened, and I have no choice but to live with it,” he said. “Just moving forward, that’s all I’m focused on. … All is well.”

He offered that former Irish standouts Manti Te’o, Harrison Smith and Rocket Ismail had reached out to encourage him.

“It tests your patience,” he said of the recovery/rehab. “It’s the first time I’ve been injured in my life, and it’s making a man out of me. It’s just a process of having great guys around you to encourage you and support you.”

He even was willing to delineate which ligaments actually tore in the knee — ACL and LCL — which confirmed as many earlier reports as it impugned.

But when it came to getting into specifics about his reported $5 million loss-of-value insurance, he stiff-armed the request.

And when Smith was pressed about possible nerve damage, he first said there wasn’t any, then moments later acknowledged that the nerve was healing. Perhaps he meant irreversible nerve damage?

Maybe a medical recheck by NFL teams in April will produce some clarity — or perhaps more of the same.

A bit of irony is that Smith has adopted a social media hash tag #cleareyeview to describe a journey that seems anything but from the outside looking in.

“It’s just something I thought up,” he said. “The path (to the NFL) is different now, but the vision is the same. I remind myself to keep that clear vision.”

With so many fuzzy accompaniments.

“It’s just a healing game and it’s a process,” he said. “I’ll be back 100 percent. We just don’t know when.”

The numbers game

The typically confusing Twitter/NFL Combine cocktail went to new extremes Friday where former Notre Dame running back C.J. Prosise is concerned.

The bottom line is the 6-foot, 220-pound converted wide receiver and converted safety clocked a more-than-respectable 4.48 seconds in the 40-yard dash, eighth-best among the 21 running backs who participated.

People tend to tweet out the two unofficial numbers that proceed the official time, often three different numbers. Adding to the confusion with Prosise was that his official time was originally erroneously posted by NFL.com as 4.40.

For comparison sake, Prosise’s real time is comparable to former ND wide receiver and first-round draft choice Michael Floyd’s 4.47 run at the 2012 combine. And it’s much better than the five-year average for running backs, purported to be 4.61 by ESPN’s Todd McShay.

Prosise finished comparatively similarly to the other backs in the vertical leap (35.5 inches), which was seventh best among 23 participants; and in the standing broad jump (121 inches), eighth among 22 running backs.

• Two former Notre Dame offensive linemen on Friday ran the 40, much less of a big-picture factor for that position group than running backs. Still, tackle Ronnie Stanley’s 5.20 40 was 17th fastest among the 46 O-Linemen who ran. Nick Martin’s 5.22 was 20th.

In the standing broad jump, Martin tied for 36th of 44 offensive linemen at 97 inches, Stanley didn’t participate.

• Wide receivers Will Fuller and Chris Brown run Saturday with their position group. Up first for the wideouts, was the bench press on Friday.

Fuller put up 10 reps at 225, 10 fewer than the position-group best, but he wasn’t at the bottom. Brown did not participate.

CJ Prosise runs a 4.46 40. "That's a big deal for CJ Prosise," Mayock says. pic.twitter.com/Kb2IYfH9Yj

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) February 26, 2016

Ronnie Stanley runs 5.26 40. pic.twitter.com/rLmohXvBq3

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) February 26, 2016

Nick Martin runs a 5.2 40 and gets some high praise from Mike Mayock. pic.twitter.com/e8X4NeEjLV

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) February 26, 2016

ehansen@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6112 | Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) is attended to after being injured against Ohio State during the Fiesta Bowl, Jan. 1 in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/RICK SCUTERI)