Medical rechecks came in on Friday from the NFL Draft combine in Indianapolis, and the news was about as good as the word "rechecks" would lead you to believe. UCLA linebacker Myles Jack and Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith are now considered damaged goods. This is awful news for any team in the market for linebackers who can cover—and, at last check, that was every team besides Seattle, Carolina, Chicago, and New England. It's also, obviously, awful news for the athletes themselves.
NFL source calls Myles Jack 'a time bomb' whose knee could give him several good years, or not. Bone and cartilage starting to break away.
— Les Bowen (@LesBowen)April 18, 2016
Jack was a consensus top-five talent before he tore his meniscus in September and missed most of his junior season. His decision to declare for the draft rather than return for his senior year drew some concern from his college head coach, Jim Mora Jr.
"He's taking his chips and shoving them into the middle, and we hope he draws a good hand," Mora told reporters last fall when Jack announced that he'd be entering the draft. "I think it's risky to do this…. NFL teams are very, very conservative, and if there's any question whatsoever, they'll pass on you in a heartbeat. They're going to take the sure thing."
While Mora certainly may have had some self-interested motivations for persuading a star football player to stay on his roster another year, his fears appear to be coming true: Jack is presently falling down boards, with teams worried about the long-term stability of his knee. This is completely unfair to Jack, who deserved much better. He already had the tape and the exposure to be a top-10 pick by his sophomore season. Draconian rules held him in place just long enough for him to miss out on the paycheck his talent merited.
There's a more optimal way to run a youth football league than the way the NCAA does it—this is not a controversial stance. Their adherence to amateurism is indefensible, intellectually and ethically. Which is precisely why they keep having to defend it. The NCAA stumbles into PR nightmares based on those silly rules on a routine basis. How often do we hear anonymous NFL types bitch about college systems or hard it is to scout some of the smaller school players? Anonymous NFL Types enjoy bitching, but there is something to this.
But there's no reason for the NFL to rock the boat on the NCAA because, as much as they complain about it, college football covers the NFL's player development at no cost. This leaves young NFL hopefuls are left with few options other than to forgo payment for a few years and pray they don't get injured on their way to the draft.
While it may not be the future he deserves, Jack may still have a shot in the NFL. Things are bleaker for Smith, who tore his ACL and LCL in his last college game for Notre Dame and is now suffering from nerve damage.
If you want a comp for Notre Dame LB Jaylon Smith's nerve damage -- it's what Marcus Lattimore was up against when he came out.
— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer)February 27, 2016
Smith's medical exams at the combine took him off boards. His rehab is supposedly going fine, but the general consensus is that he won't play in 2016. That lowers his stock dramatically. He's gone from a potential first-rounder to someone I doubt NFL teams would touch before the sixth round—and that's the best-case, coach-pounding-on-the-table-saying-he-believes-in-the-young man's-knee scenario.
Now, you may be thinking, "Sure, but top college athletes sign insurance policies." Some of them do, yes, if they can afford it. Smith does have it. But having insurance does not guarantee much.
As of 2015, one NFL player—former Oregon corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu—had collected on one of those loss-of-value policies. (Jaguars receiver Marqise Lee has sued over his policy.) Had Ekpre-Olomu been the top corner off the board instead of tearing his ACL, he would have made $7 million in guarantees. That's $4 million less than what the policy gave him. And when we're talking about the kind of athlete that is in line to buy insurance policies, it's not only about the rookie deal. The long-term cost is what an injury does to your second deal—you know, the one where players actually begin to make money commensurate with being the best instead of being locked into the NFL's team-friendly rookie salary scale.
It's unfortunate for both these two athletes and the NFL teams that could use them that there are serious injury question marks. As usual, only one side bears the brunt of that misfortune.