Top-five talent Jaylon Smith could be next redshirt rookie

Kiper: Late first-round most likely for Jaylon Smith (0:37)

ESPN NFL Draft Insider Mel Kiper Jr. comments on the current draft stock of Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith who says he'll be back to 100 percent healthy following his knee injury. (0:37)

If the medical evaluations really are the most important part of the NFL combine, then at this week's medical re-checks, Jaylon Smith is the most interesting man in the NFL world.

"He could be the best player in this draft," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said just before February's combine, "and you're probably going to have to redshirt him."

Smith is the do-it-all Notre Dame linebacker who tore two ligaments in his left knee in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1 against Ohio State. He's the kind of cornerstone talent teams are dying to get in the first round and a player who could be an NFL superstar for years.

But Smith's combine medicals were discouraging. There are reports of nerve damage, and concern over when or even whether he can be expected to be the kind of star his talent says he can be. Best case, if you're going to take him, you'd better be willing to wait. More importantly, you'd better be able.

"From what I know, and what I hear, and what's realistic, you almost have to figure this is a redshirt year," Kiper said. "To get anything out of Jaylon Smith this year would be a surprise. You're not going to take him if you have to win this year, or else you're gone, you're in trouble. So you have to get a secure head coach."

You actually have to have more than that, but you don't have to scan too far back in history to find an example of what it takes.

Two teams last year -- the Cincinnati Bengals with offensive lineman Cedric Ogbuehi and the Arizona Cardinals with offensive lineman D.J. Humphries -- used their first-round picks on players they didn't expect to use in 2015. And while, yes, Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis and Arizona's Bruce Arians are among the most secure head coaches in the league, that wasn't the only reason those two teams could afford to spend their first-round picks on redshirt linemen.

"One great thing about what we've developed is that we don't have to ask a young player to come in and play a big role right away," Bengals player personnel director Duke Tobin said at the combine. "With any young player, if you're too reliant on them coming in and producing right away, you're probably not where you want to be as an organization."

Joke all you want about their first-round playoff failures, but the Bengals are one of the few organizations in the NFL whose roster has enough swag to pull this off. They've made the playoffs five years in a row, have won 10 or more games four years in a row and went 12-4 last year with Ogbuehi riding the bench nearly the whole time. Picking 21st in last year's draft, they knew they didn't need a right-away helper, that right tackle Andre Smith was up for free agency this year and that left tackle Andrew Whitworth was turning 34 in December. They could afford to take a tackle they liked for the long term and allow him to rehab his torn ACL without a running clock.

Ideally, all teams would operate the draft this way -- taking the player who best fits their long-term needs because their short-term needs are so few. But the vast majority of NFL rosters aren't in the kind of shape Cincinnati's and Arizona's are in.

"To be in a situation like Green Bay was in years ago, when they took Aaron Rodgers while they still have Brett Favre, obviously that's the ideal situation," Cardinals GM Steve Keim said. "But how many years are you going to be in that position?"

Arizona was last year when it took Humphries as a project lineman knowing tackle Bobby Massie's free agency was coming up and that they already had a roster that could compete for the Super Bowl title. With Humphries sitting out the whole year, Arizona went 13-3 and reached the NFC Championship Game.

"We saw D.J. as a long-term solution and not a short-term fix," Keim said. "Sometimes in the draft, you have to look at it that way."

Not everyone can, of course. Humphries was one of four first-rounders not to play a single snap in 2015. The others were Jacksonville's Dante Fowler, Baltimore's Breshad Perriman and Chicago's Kevin White, each of whom missed the season with injuries suffered after the draft. Those three teams went a combined 16-32 and are picking fifth, sixth and 11th, respectively, in this year's draft.

Fortunately, those teams' coaches also have strong job security. But while you can make the case that each team is getting a "bonus" first-round pick this year, since they get last year's pick back along with the pick they make in April, it's not that simple. Last year's pain leads into this year's realization that the player lost a year of development.

"I think it impacted us last year, especially late in games where we were leading and we just couldn't hold the lead," Jaguars GM Dave Caldwell said of the absence of the pass-rusher he took with last year's No. 3 overall pick in last year's draft. "This year, he's not just going to step on the field and get 15 sacks for us. Maybe he might, but realistically there's going to be a growing process in it for him and a learning process."

The message is this: Don't take Jaylon Smith in the first round if (a) you can't afford to go through this season without your first-round pick making a contribution and (b) your coach and/or GM are on the hot seat. If you can afford to spend a first-rounder on Smith, your rewards could be great down the road. But if you fit that description, you're probably in pretty good shape already.