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NFL AM: Cowboys Sign Jaylon Smith, Begin Waiting Game

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The Dallas Cowboys took a second round gamble in the 2016 NFL Draft they hope pays off in spades down the road, and on Friday the player they’re banking on signed on the dotted line.

One of the most stunning moments of the draft came early on in Day 2 when, after selecting a running back in the first round, the Cowboys elected to draft Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith with the 34th overall pick. Smith was regarded as a Top 5-10 talent for most of the 2015-16 college football season before suffering a gruesome and devastating knee injury in the Fiesta that put not only his rookie season, but also his career in doubt. The injury suffered by Smith caused a tear to the ACL and LCL, but of most concern was the nerve damage done to his peroneal nerve, which connects to the ankle and foot.

That nerve damage was said to create a very real chance that Smith may never be the same player he was before the injury and might not even see the NFL field before being forced to hang up his cleats. However, Dallas loved the potential they saw in the player and boosted by the fact that it was their own team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed Smith’s knee surgery, they took the high-risk flier on the Notre Dame linebacker.

After signing him to a rookie contract on Friday, the Cowboys now begin a high-stakes waiting game with Smith, hoping that he can make a comeback that few give him a chance to. When a medical re-check was done on injured players before the draft in April, Smith’s knee was deemed “structurally sound.” But the peroneal nerve had yet to re-fire, complicating his recovery.

“I got a chance to work my butt off and at the re-check it was actually a huge day for me because I got to show how well I was doing and it was confirmed that my knee is not an issue at all, Smith said in an interview on ESPN’s Mike and Mike last week. “So that’s half of the equation, secured and knocked out. But for me now, it’s understanding the nerve and I’m in a great organization with the Dallas Cowboys and Dr. Dan Cooper did my surgery – he’s the team doctor here – so no one knows my injury more than the Cowboys and I’m just thankful to be here.”

A return for Smith in 2016 is highly unlikely, though Dallas owner Jerry Jones has stated that the team doesn’t plan to immediately place the linebacker on injured reserve with the hope that he can join the team by the end of the season or perhaps for the postseason should they make it that far. But to many, that’s a pipe dream and even Smith is forecasting his timetable out at least little further than that.

“The expectation for me is to get healthy and be back as soon as possible,” he said. “Whether that’s this year, next year, time will tell, but I’ll never doubt myself.”

Next year seems more likely, but the possibility still exists that it’s a “never” proposition, making the nearly $7 million contract Smith signed on Friday a huge risk for the Cowboys. It’s even bigger when you consider that the Cowboys have to be in win now mode in 2016 due to their current situation, headlined by the window closing on the career of quarterback Tony Romo. The veteran signal caller turned 36 years old in April and the list of things that could potentially end his career at any moment grows by the year.

The absence of the star quarterback due to a broken collarbone surely cost Dallas one of those few seasons left in the window last season, and the Cowboys used their first round pick on running back Ezekiel Elliott to get back to the ground and pound offense they utilized to protect Romo in 2014 on the way to a 12-4 record. So it’s somewhat bizarre that as they prepare for one of the most important seasons in recent franchise history that Dallas would use their second round pick, especially one that sat on the fringe of the first round, on a player that likely won’t be able to contribute to that season at all.

The Cowboys are somewhat set at the linebacker position for 2016, with Sean Lee, Rolando McClain and Anthony Hitchens penned in as starters, and with McClain on just a one-year deal, Smith could slot right into the middle of that group in 2017 if healthy. However, Dallas had significant needs in the pass rush and the secondary that went unaddressed in the early rounds of the draft because they elected to take a running back and an injured linebacker. That could come back to bite them in the near term.

However, the risk taken by the Cowboys in selecting Smith isn’t a foreign one, it’s actually been part of the plan in Dallas for a number of years. It’s how they previously landed both linebacker Sean Lee and running back DeMarco Murray, who both fell out of the first round of the draft due to injury concerns coming out of college. Smith’s injury was significantly worse and more alarming, but a precedent has been set. Now Dallas gets to wait to see if this latest risk will payoff.

If it does and Smith winds up patrolling the middle of the Cowboys linebacking corps for a decade, Dallas will look brilliant regardless of what that means in the short term. If it doesn’t, 2016 might end up being known as the year the wheels came off the Cowboys.

CHARGERS THRILLED WITH BOSA

One of the other more surprising moves early in the 2016 NFL Draft happened early on in the game, when the San Diego Chargers made Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa the No. 3 overall pick.

After the smoke had cleared on the 2016 quarterback trade-up circus, San Diego essentially had their pick of the litter among the best players available in the draft, and many anticipated they’d use the pick on Florida State defensive back Jalen Ramsey or a highly-ranked offensive lineman. Instead they went with the Ohio State defensive end who was “falling down draft boards” right up through draft day until all of a sudden he wasn’t.

In an article detailing the Bosa pick, published Friday to the Chargers official website, San Diego President of Football Operations Dean Spanos admitted the team had been on Bosa for years, and feared during the draft process that they’d never be able to land him at pick No. 3.

“I was watching some film on him and I remember walking down the hall to (Director of Player Personnel) JoJo (Wooden) and saying, ‘Can you imagine if we can get a guy like this?’ He made a comment to me that unless we were picking first overall, he didn’t think that was going to happen,” Spanos said. “And I remember thinking he was probably right.”

But because of the quarterback trade-up shenanigans of the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles, the Chargers found themselves with essentially the No. 1 overall pick at No. 3. Spanos said that when the Philadelphia trade went through, the entire San Diego front office celebrated because they knew Bosa was theirs for the taking.

“The text I got basically said ‘we’re going to get our guy’. And I knew that meant a trade must have just come though,” he said. “It wasn’t until Philadelphia made that trade that I finally believed we’d have the chance to draft Joey.”

The thoroughly detailed article compiled by the Chargers web team is a very interesting look into the incredible process that goes into drafting a player. While many teams were down on Bosa after his junior year at Ohio State wasn’t as stellar as his sophomore campaign, after he ran into some off the field trouble and after his combine performance left much to be desired, the Chargers never wavered in their desire to have him.

What’s even more interesting is the light it sheds on the draft process from an outside perspective. San Diego’s move shows that, as much as many of the league’s reporters claim to know what’s going to happen next, and with access to that information more available than ever, the draft process can still be played out in a way that a team does something perceived as “shocking” that was actually their plan all along.

“You do laugh at it all because nobody has any idea what any team is doing besides those in each building.  It’s pure speculation,” Chargers coach Mike McCoy said. “Everyone has an opinion. We knew the direction we were heading. We were happy to keep our thoughts for every player, not just the number three pick, close to the vest. So the mock drafts brought some smiles to our faces. We knew what we were doing. Our decision was easy. Once those trades went through and you knew the quarterbacks were going one and two, if we stayed at three, we knew we were taking Joey Bosa.”


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys