Mel Kiper: Falcons take Jaylon Smith at No. 17

Notre Dame junior linebacker Jaylon Smith, who tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee during a Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State and had reconstructive surgery last week, declared for the NFL draft on Monday.

Smith had been considered a top 10 pick prior to the injury. Now ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. has Smith falling to a certain NFC South team.

"I've got Atlanta taking Jaylon Smith at No. 17," Kiper said Monday. "It was between him and (linebacker) Tim Williams of Alabama (if he leaves school), but I'm giving Atlanta Jaylon Smith.

"Smith was No. 2 on the big board I did in mid-December, prior to when he got hurt. He was the second-best player and, at worse, in the top five. And you're getting him now at No. 17. You're getting a top-five, top-two guy at No. 17. I'm sure when you're getting around 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, those teams are going to be saying, 'Todd Gurley went 10th and he was a running back, and they're a dime a dozen.' They knew they were going to have (Gurley) coming off a significant injury, too."

Kiper's thoughts should spark an interesting discussion. The Falcons definitely need a play-making linebacker like Smith. They also need a player ready to make an immediate impact as they try to end a three-year playoff drought. There's no guarantee Smith will be ready coming off what could be an 8-to-10-month recovery process. It might take him a full year to be back to normal.

"I would think with Smith, an outside linebacker who is as versatile and gifted as he is, at No. 17, even if you have to redshirt him, you're getting yourself a player that normally you wouldn't even see at No. 17," Kiper said. "The minute he stepped on campus they knew he was big-time as a true freshman.

"He never quits on a play. I thought that was a little bit of a cheap shot, the way he got hurt. It's a shame he got hurt because he would have been right there guaranteed top five. He's just all over the field. People say he's not a sack man, but he doesn't get many opportunities to (rush). They have him running around making plays down the field. He's a great cover guy. He's always on his feet. He gets through trash well. He's smart. He plays with a lot of savvy. He's got a burst to the ball unlike anybody else who has played outside linebacker in a while."

The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Smith had 114 tackles, five pass breakups and one sack this past season. He had 4.5 sacks during his Notre Dame career.

Kiper sees a potentially dominant defensive tandem in Smith and Vic Beasley, if the Falcons decide to go that route.

"Smith is certainly built for today's game," Kiper said. "They say (no) pass rush, but he'll be anything you want him to be. With his talent and his skill level, he can be any kind of player you coach him to be.

"Considering how late the injury occurred, I don't know if he'll be back to play in 2016. I don't know. Even if he isn't, somebody in the first round has got to take him."