After dominating college football last season, Notre Dame's star linebacker Jaylon Smith has opted to take his game to the next level by declaring for the 2016 NFL draft:
I want to thank everyone for all your prayers and support. Same vision, different path ! https://t.co/qyMF8ITKrK— Jaylon Smith (@JaeeSmiff9ENT) January 11, 2016
Smith made the decision despite suffering a torn ACL and MCL in Notre Dame's Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State. The linebacker underwent surgery and is expected to make a full recovery, per Brian Hamilton of Sports Illustrated.
Smith entered 2015 with sky-high expectations, both as an NFL prospect and college sensation. The 20-year-old lived up to all of the hype, winning the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker.
In November, NFL.com draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah asked five NFL personnel executives to name the safest prospect they have studied this season, and Smith was the only player named twice.
"The Notre Dame linebacker," one executive told Jeremiah. "He's smart, tough and he'll be an immediate plug-and-play (weak-side) linebacker. He can play on all three downs."
B/R's Matt Miller has also raved about Smith's ability to defend in pass coverage:
I've seen Jaylon Smith run down the field in phase with a slot receiver. I'm sold on him in coverage. https://t.co/ZmSmS4n46D— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) November 4, 2015
Miller also compared Smith to a linebacker that found success at the pro level:
Jaylon Smith is the closest thing I've seen to Patrick Willis. https://t.co/vZGvgJ8pJL— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 13, 2016
While most of the verbiage around Smith's athletic ability and NFL upside is glowing, there are some problems he will have to fix before becoming a monster at the next level.
For instance, Mike Farrell of Rivals.com noted Smith's strength at the point of contact in games early this season was a concern. However, strength can be improved quickly with a professional training staff.
Smith is one of the most-coveted prospects in next year's draft. He can line up on the outside as an edge-rusher or back up into coverage against wide receivers. That kind of talent is rare, but Smith's recovery will matter more in determining his draft stock.
With more NFL teams utilizing a 3-4 defensive scheme, outside linebacker has become more valuable than ever. Smith is going to give his future team tremendous production in multiple areas, making him a star at the next level very soon if his recovery goes according to plan.