For most of the 2015 college football season, Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith was expected to be one of the first few picks in the 2016 NFL Draft before the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, but Smith blew out his knee in that game, putting his rookie season at risk.
At the Scouting Combine, Smith had a barrage of medical tests performed, and the prognosis was not good, according to a variety of team sources. Smith himself seemed to be optimistic about his ability to play in 2016, but even he admitted that "I can't tell when I'll be back."
This week, Smith and a number of other prospects went through medical re-checks, and the results of those exams continue to come back negative for the All-American. According to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport, the expectation around the league remains that Smith will be unable to play in 2016 entirely.
This continues to beg the question: when should an NFL team draft Smith, if they have no expectation that he will play this year? The answer, as with so many of these questions, has to depend on the team that you are asking about.
So much of an NFL team's window for contention depends on the status of their quarterback. This category would include teams likely playoff contenders who have quarterbacks on contracts that are expiring or who are nearing retirement. Examples of teams in this category could include Washington, who have Kirk Cousins playing on the franchise tag, or Arizona, who have an aging quarterback in Carson Palmer. You could even throw New Orleans or Dallas into this mix due to Drew Brees' and Tony Romo's age, if you think that they might have a chance at contending this season.
These teams need to fill holes on their roster quickly and get immediate production out of their early picks this season. Based on those reasons, these teams should wait until day three at the earliest to take a flier on Smith, as there is a decent chance that their window may have closed by the time he gets back to full strength and fully adjusts to the NFL game in two to three years. Arizona in particular cannot afford to wait on an early pick, since they have just two choices in the first three rounds.
In this category, I'm thinking about teams drafting at the very top of the draft like the Browns or Titans - teams that have lots of picks and who are clearly a few years away from real contention. Tennessee in particular has so many picks after their trade with the Rams - six in the top 76 - that they could easily use a second- or a third-round pick on Smith and wait out his recovery. They're not a championship contender in 2016 anyway, so spending a pick on Smith in round two this year is like landing a top-ten player next fall - and the Titans could well have two top-ten picks in 2017 anyway.
You can make the argument that the Miami Dolphins fall into this category as well. They have a solid quarterback locked up for a while, but need to put pieces around him over the next few years if they want to be a true Super Bowl contender. For the record, both the SB Nation writer's mock draft and the APC mock sent Smith to Miami with their second-round pick at #42 overall.
Draft and Develop Franchises
Of course, this is the category where the Packers fall. They're certainly contending teams now, but they often do not ask their highly-drafted rookie players to take on too big of a role in their first years. The past two seasons have been a bit different due to depth concerns in the secondary - both Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Damarious Randall were starters by the end of their first years - but traditionally Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy bring their rookies along slowly.
In fact, one of McCarthy's most frequently-mentioned cliches is the "second-year jump" that players need to take from their rookie to their second year in the NFL. In the case of Smith, who could miss that first year, a third-round pick like the 88th selection seems reasonable. Green Bay did incorporate last year's third-rounder, Ty Montgomery, early on, but past third-round picks like Richard Rodgers, Jermichael Finley, or James Jones were afforded a year or two before they became integral parts of the roster.
Since they hold a pair of fourth-round compensatory picks, the Packers could afford to take Smith at 88, let him sit out in 2016, and land a player who would be a terrific fit as an inside linebacker in 2017, all without overly hindering their chances of winning a Super Bowl for the upcoming season.