Based purely on statistics alone, Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones should absolutely be a top-five pick in April's NFL draft.
Jones had a monster season for the Bulldogs in 2012, leading in the nation in sacks (14.5), forced fumbles (seven) and tackles-for-loss (24.5). His speed off the edge was simply too much for opposing teams to deal with, and Jones was a force to be reckoned with in the SEC.
With all of that said, why is it that Jones finds himself precipitously dropping down team draft boards?
In order to understand, let's go back to 2009, when Jones was not a Georgia Bulldog, but a USC Trojan.
Jones began his collegiate career at USC, and in 2009, he was first diagnosed with spinal stenosis.
What is spinal stenosis, you ask? To answer, I sought out the help of B/R's featured medical columnist, David Siebert:
"Jarvis Jones suffers from a case of cervical spinal stenosis—narrowing of the spinal canal at the level of the neck. In other words, there is less buffer room between the spinal cord and the vertebrae that encase and protect it. Players with cervical spinal stenosis are at higher risk of developing "stingers," a neurological injury defined as temporary numbness, tingling or weakness of the arm following a hit that sharply bends the neck."
As you can imagine, it's not the kind of injury that lends very well to someone who is involved in multiple high-speed collisions per game.
After the diagnosis, Jones never played for USC again. He transferred to Georgia, sat out the 2010 season due to the NCAA's transfer rules and proceeded to dominate the best conference in college football in 2011 and 2012.
Leading up to this year's scouting combine, Jones received a clean bill of health from noted orthopedist Dr. Craig Brigham, who, according to the National Football Post, refuted the notion that Jones' spinal stenosis was ever a "serious" condition. Brigham also wrote that Jones would be able to play in the NFL "without restrictions."
Regarding reports that teams are dropping him down their board, Jones told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution last week: “People are still talking to me. Nobody has taken me off the board. The doctor said I was fine and cleared me, and the combine went fine for me. I was cleared medically. Teams know my situation. Everything went great. I did everything they asked me to do. I’ll have my pro day and then I’m going to meet with a whole lot of teams.”
One thing surely working in Jones' favor is the NFL success of men who have faced similar issues. Former San Diego Chargers stalwart left tackle Marcus McNeill, long one of the premier pass-blockers in the league, made two Pro Bowls and played throughout his career with the affliction.
Also, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski reportedly received a similar diagnosis while at the University of Arizona, where he missed the entire 2009 season due to a back injury. Gronk has, of course, went on to dominate at the NFL level, putting up gaudy statistics and spiking footballs on the way to fame and fortune.
So, there is precedent for players not only surviving in the NFL with spinal stenosis but thriving.
With all of this information in tow, you might be wondering why some NFL teams might still view Jones' stenosis as a deal-breaker when it comes to the draft. To help flesh out their rationale, here's more from David Siebert:
"Jones is a fast, high-flying linebacker, and as such, he will certainly be involved in many high-speed tackles and collisions. If and when those collisions involve his head and neck, we could see another episode of his 2009 shoulder numbness. He is also at higher risk of "cervical cord neuraplaxia," or temporary paralysis of up to all four limbs that usually resolves within 48 hours."
Regardless of Jones' confidence and bravado, the issue has followed him around like Pigpen's cloud of dust. At the scouting combine, one longtime NFL executive told me, "I wouldn't draft him at all...I'd take him off my board."
Now, it's also fair to postulate that NFL teams are posturing, seeking to drive Jones down draft boards so they'll have a shot of selecting him. I think it runs deeper than that, as the league sources I've spoken to are all very concerned about Jones' long-term future as an NFL player.
The fact remains that Jones' skill-set as a pass-rusher is an extremely valued one for NFL teams, second behind that of a franchise quarterback. While he might drop out of the top five or 10, there's no way he makes it out of the first round, stenosis or not. There are too many teams that need players to terrorize the opposing quarterback (Pittsburgh at 17, anyone?).
Personally, I'm rooting for Jones. I hope he can have a long, successful, healthy career at the NFL level. It's certainly encouraging that he's checked out medically.
But, every time he flies at terminal velocity into an opposing running back or tight end, I'll cringe and hope for the best.
Nick Kostos is the executive producer of the "SiriusXM Blitz," hosted by Rich Gannon and Adam Schein, on SiriusXM NFL Radio. You can follow Nick on Twitter.