How former Notre Dame LB Jaylon Smith's injury continues to leave a mark

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Jaylon Smith wasn’t meant to be a cautionary tale.

On Dec. 29, 2015, as he deflected questions about his draft stock with a wry grin, messy dreads and two nimble knees, Smith’s immediate future seemed happily predetermined. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound linebacker sat in a hotel ballroom in Glendale, Ariz., four days before Notre Dame met Ohio State in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl. A two-time Butkus Award winner (both in high school and college), Smith had started all 38 games in his highlight-happy three-year Irish career. Each of the previous two seasons, he led the team in tackles.

He was impenetrable.

And he was leaving.

Of course, he wasn’t willing to say that. Not four days before the bowl game. But everyone already knew. Smith was one of several Notre Dame underclassmen to request feedback from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, and the answers — like his future — seemed all but etched in stone.

“It’s something that sticks out,” Smith said of the unanimous first-round grades. “I want to be great in everything I do, so I definitely wanted it to be all first-round (grades). If one came back second round, that would push me even more.”

Of course, the rest is recent history. Smith tore the ACL and LCL in his left knee in the first quarter of Notre Dame’s 44-28 Fiesta Bowl defeat. His draft stock deteriorated into a puddle of unexpected question marks.

He was selected — ironically, maybe cruelly — smack dab in the second round.

But the effects of Smith’s injury, it seems, aren’t limited to himself. In November, Oklahoma defensive lineman Charles Walker — who had missed six consecutive games with a concussion — opted to leave the team with two games remaining in the regular season to begin preparing for the NFL Draft.

In the last week, two of the country’s premier running backs — LSU junior Leonard Fournette and Stanford junior Christian McCaffrey — announced they would not participate in their team’s bowl games to begin draft preparations as well.

“Very tough decision,” McCaffrey tweeted Monday, “but I have decided not to play in the Sun Bowl so I can begin my draft prep immediately. (Thanks) to all my teammates for their 100% support – it means a lot to me. Go Cardinal!”

For a surefire first-round pick (especially one with an injury history, at a vulnerable position), a bowl game doubles as a business decision.

And, unfortunately, the personification of risk is Jaylon Smith.

“I think (Smith’s injury) definitely had an impact on the guys that we’re seeing (skip bowl games),” said Bucky Brooks, a former returner, wide receiver and defensive back who played five NFL seasons and currently works as an analyst for NFL Network. “Those guys have all kind of grown up together — high school games, camps, all-star circuits — so those guys have relationships.

“So when they see Jaylon Smith, who is locked in to be a top-five pick, lose a significant amount of money because he played in a game that really didn’t have any national title implications but he loses $20 million because he plays in the game and gets hurt and gets drafted in the second round, guys are beginning to take a little more ownership on the business side of things.”

For Smith, the business side looks like this: if he had been drafted in the top five picks, as many expected, he would have been rewarded with a four-year deal worth at least $23.5 million, fully guaranteed. Instead, his contract with the Dallas Cowboys also spans four years but is worth $6.5 million, $4.5 million of which is guaranteed.

No, Smith is not sleeping on the cold floor of a one-bedroom apartment.

But, for prospective first-round picks, one more glorified exhibition may not be worth a $20 million risk.

“Fans are always going to side against the players in these moments because the ideal view is that you play the game for the love,” Brooks said. “But at the level that these guys are playing at, it’s a billion dollar business, and they have an opportunity to get a stake in the business.

“I think guys are wisely taking the opportunities that they have to bypass those (games) and make the business decisions that allow them to be in the best position to maximize their earning potential.”

That philosophy, of course, flies in the face of traditional football touchstones: brotherhood, loyalty, school pride, togetherness. It’s a selfish outlook, but a potentially lucrative one as well.

“I think the fear from players in the past was that scouts would look at them differently, that it would affect their grade when it came to how they were perceived from a football character standpoint,” said Brooks, who has also worked as an NFL scout. “But I think these guys also understand that talent is supreme. They’ve seen not only the Jaylon Smith injury, but what about the rumors that Jadeveon Clowney kind of shut it down in his final season at South Carolina? He was the No. 1 overall pick.

“The NFL really wants guys who are talented, guys who have performed and produced at a high level over a period of time. But they’re willing to overlook some of these things that were deemed to be selfish in the past.”

Maybe coaches and general managers are, but the general public is not so forgiving. In the wake of McCaffrey’s announcement on Monday, everyone had their say. Former Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott (who was on the field when Smith was injured and is currently his teammate in Dallas) first denounced the idea of skipping bowl games, then ultimately softened his stance. ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit and Danny Kanell weighed in, as did Raiders quarterback Derek Carr.

Like it or not, Fournette and McCaffrey have opened a door that was previously sealed shut.

“I think people thought about it (when I played), but I don’t know if they were bold enough to do it,” said Brooks, who played at North Carolina from 1989 to 1994. “Guys would exit games early with an ‘injury.’ But now guys are being more up-front and saying, ‘No, I’m not going to play. I’m going to let my teammates know why I’m not playing and I’m going to go about the process of getting ready for the draft.’

“Only a handful of guys can really be in a position to do it, but a lot of the top guys understand what’s at stake, and they’re trying to put themselves in a better position to get the best job that they can get.”

For the record, Smith never said that he regrets playing in the Fiesta Bowl. In fact, quite the contrary.

"Honestly. With Everything I've been through, If I could go back to Jan. 1st I'd play again," Smith tweeted on Monday.

But while Smith's stance hasn't changed, his injury left a mark he never intended.

“Two words on why Leonard Fournette absolutely is doing the right thing by skipping the bowl,” Adam Schefter, ESPN’s NFL Insider, tweeted last week.

“Jaylon. Smith.”

Honestly. With Everything I've been through, If I could go back to Jan. 1st I'd play again. #ClearEyeView

— Jaylon Smith (@thejaylonsmith) December 20, 2016

@CMccaffrey5 has given his all to this program, nothing else he can do. Love you like a brother. His future is bright! Thank you Christian! https://t.co/UCUKtzf30n

— Michael Rector (@michaelrector) December 19, 2016

The whole team supports @CMccaffrey5 in everything and anything. Hes been a leader to this team through the easy times and tough times.

— Trenton Irwin (@trenton_4) December 19, 2016

@KirkHerbstreit played my bowl game w/ a jacked up LT shoulder. Wanted to play 1 more time with my boys. Not even a thought not to play.

— Derek Carr (@derekcarrqb) December 19, 2016

Two words on why Leonard Fournette absolutely is doing the right thing by skipping the bowl.

Jaylon. Smith.

— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 16, 2016

All these young guys deciding to skip their bowl games .I would do anything to play one more time with my brothers in that scarlet and gray

— Ezekiel Elliott (@EzekielElliott) December 19, 2016

While I get players skipping their bowl game-what happened to LOVING the GAME & wanting to compete 1 more time w/ your boys-Disturbing trend

— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) December 19, 2016

I hate players skipping bowls. But I get it. It's a complicated issue.

— Danny Kanell (@dannykanell) December 19, 2016

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith (9) is helped off the field following a leg injury during the 2016 Fiesta Bowl on Friday, Jan. 1, 2016, at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN