The savior for the Dallas Cowboys defense looks great on the practice field, even though he can only work by himself with a trainer while the rest of the team plays football.
To the naked eye, Cowboys second-round draft pick Jaylon Smith is fine.
“I feel great,” he said. “I feel fantastic. It’s hard to put it in words, but the way I feel — I feel amazing. It’s just time. I am 21 and you can’t rush it. I am going to be out there as soon as I get cleared. If God wants that to be this year, it’s going to happen. If not, so be it.”
He does not limp, walk slowly or show any signs that he is eight months removed from tearing his left ACL and MCL in the final football game of his college career.
The earliest we will see the Jaylon Smith who was projected to be a top-10 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft is in 2017.
In three seasons at Notre Dame, Jaylon Smith had 293 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 24.5 tackles for losses, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
We are in an age where the best college players are starting to hear encouragement not to play in their junior seasons; that the best play is to not play. If any person should have strong feelings about college football players not playing to avoid injury that would affect their draft stock, it’s Jaylon Smith.
He is the latest example of how the college player incurs all of the risk while his college team and the NFL happily have zero.
Despite Smith’s past, he has the best attitude for any player contemplating whether to shut it down as a junior, or a senior, to avoid injury — potentially damaging their bank account.
“I would say play. I would say to insure yourself for the worst-case scenario, but to play,” he said. “I am blessed to be here. I am on America’s Team playing with my brother [fullback Rod Smith]. I would not change it one bit. If it wasn’t supposed to happen, it would not have happened.”
Sentiment has grown in recent years that the top college players projected for next year’s draft should just work out, and stay in shape without playing a game.
The theory began to grow in popularity with former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who was projected to be a top-five pick after his freshman year. During his junior season, he was rumored to intentionally miss time to avoid serious injury.
It did not matter because he was still selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft by the Texans.
Last season, the “it” sophomore who “should shut it down” was LSU running back Leonard Fournette. Early in his sophomore year, Fournette looked like a modern-day Herschel Walker — a giant man among growing young men.
As a junior, Jaylon Smith was named an All-American at Notre Dame and won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top college defensive player.
Fournette’s success furthered the discussion that players who are projected to be top-five picks — like Jaylon Smith — should take every necessary measure to protect themselves, up to and including not playing the game.
“I understood that [injury] was a threat. I had the insurance policy [against catastrophic injury] and that does help with financial things,” Smith said. “Everybody knows I was going to be a top-five pick if I didn’t get hurt.”
The NCAA offers athlete-students, and exceptional ones, the chance to buy insurance policies. Only the high end are eligible, and in Smith’s case he was eligible for a $5 million policy.
Not loose change, but the fifth pick in the 2016 draft — cornerback Jalen Ramsey — signed a rookie contract with the Jaguars that included a $15.1 million signing bonus. The deal Smith signed with the Cowboys included a $2.9 million bonus.
Despite the potential loss of several million dollars, Smith said without pause that he would not change a thing.
“If could go back, I would have played in that bowl game. I would have played. That’s how much I was committed to Notre Dame and my teammates,” said Smith, who played high school football for the same team as former Cowboys first-round pick Anthony Spencer in Fort Wayne, Ind. “It was my last game. We were in the Fiesta Bowl going against Ohio State. It was me vs. [Cowboys rookie running back] Ezekiel Elliott. That was what was going on.”
Originally slated as a top-five NFL Draft pick in 2016, the knee injury Jaylon Smith suffered in the final game of his college career hurt his stock. The Cowboys selected him with the 34th pick overall.
And this is where the NFL, and the NCAA teams, have the “employees” stuck in an emotional paint shaker. If they do play, they risk a catastrophic injury. If they don’t play, they risk alienating their teammates and creating the perception they are just me-guys — never a good tag on a draft report.
This season will be the first time Smith has missed football since he was 7. There is nothing he can do about it now but make the best of it.
“I did not want my draft stock to tumble how it did, as far as losing millions of dollars,” Smith said. “But, at the end, it’s still a dream come true. I’m here. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
It’s a raw deal, and I don’t know if I believe him, but it’s the right attitude.
Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.