The group of linebackers available in next week’s draft is arguably the most talented class the position has produced in a decade.
But the two biggest names in the group also represent two of the draft’s most problematic decisions, through no fault of their own.
Based on talent alone, UCLA’s Myles Jack and Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith are both top-five picks, the kind of versatile linebackers capable of anchoring a defense in today’s pass-happy NFL.
Both Jack and Smith are also coming off of knee surgeries that make their selections less automatic than they should be.
“The hard part is you have 32 different teams, 32 different doctors, 32 different standards for each team’s medical,” ESPN analyst Todd McShay said.
Jack tore the anterior meniscus in his right knee in September, an injury that kept him from running the 40-yard dash during the draft process, although he’s worked out for several teams, including the New Orleans Saints.
At the end of last week, Jack went through medical rechecks, and reports have been swirling since then that there is the potential for a future problem with the knee somewhere down the road.
There have also been plenty of reports rebutting the idea that Jack could somehow fall out of the top 10.
“If you’re looking for a reason not to draft him, that becomes one,” McShay said. “But I’m sure there are teams out there that have no problem with his medical and are ready to pull the trigger.”
Any health questions aside, Jack is a dream prospect, a freak athlete at 6-foot-1, 245 pounds who is powerful enough to shed offensive linemen, fast enough that the Bruins frequently lined him up in man-to-man coverage against wide receivers and gifted enough as a playmaker that UCLA used him as its primary running back at times.
In today’s NFL, where quick, high-percentage passing games have put a premium on linebackers who can make tackles in space and cover running backs, tight ends and slot receivers, Jack is a dream prospect.
“My role at UCLA, they used me off the ball, covering everything,” Jack said. “Basically, playing off the ball, running and chasing things down.”
Jack also comes from a defense that has a recent history of producing NFL-ready linebackers.
Both Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, Jack’s teammates when he arrived on campus, made immediate impacts for Minnesota after the Vikings selected them in the first and second rounds in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
“When I first got there, I was kind of in awe of them,” Jack said. “When Anthony left, it was Eric. I just kind of followed Eric, listened to everything he said, watched how serious he took the game, and it’s paid off.”
Initially, the only player who could match Jack’s vast set of talents was Smith. A long, rangy player who handled a lot of the coverage responsibilities for Notre Dame, Smith was in contention for the No. 1 pick until a hit in the Fiesta Bowl tore the ACL and LCL and caused nerve damage in his left knee.
Not all knee injuries are the same. Because of the nerve issues, Smith’s injury could have long-term implications beyond the 2016 season.
Now, a team that considers Smith is drafting something of an unknown.
“From what I understand, talking to multiple teams and talking to people around (ESPN), it’s highly concerning, certainly not playing next year and may never get to the level that he was, so you’re taking a huge medical risk,” Smith said. “If you’re asking me where I project him, it won’t surprise me if we get to Day 3, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, and Jaylon Smith is still on the board.”
Smith, who has been working hard to rehab the injury and is still positive on his social media accounts, remained confident that he could make it worth a team’s while at the NFL scouting combine in late February.
“It’s a long-term decision for whoever drafts me,” Smith said. “I’m a guy who will be around for a while playing at an elite level.”
For both linebackers, the question on draft weekend will be how far they fall from where most initially projected them, if at all.
Back at the combine, Jack had a simple warning for any team that might pass him up based on his injury alone.
“I would say that would be a mistake.”