Bowl participation from highly-coveted college athletes may never be quite the same after the horrific knee injury suffered by Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl.
The star linebacker, believed by many to be a surefire top-five selection, tore his ACL and LCL on that New Year’s Day and lost millions of dollars in the process as NFL teams questioned Smith’s ability to return to form after losing his rookie season to recovery and nerve damage. Three years since he was drafted 34th overall by the Dallas Cowboys, Smith was named Pro Football Focus’s Breakout Player of the Year after a productive 2018 season and looks to be making strides toward becoming the special player many scouts initially saw.
Unfortunately, another player will follow in Smith’s footsteps this draft season to preserve a spot in the selection show’s first two rounds.
Mississippi State defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons, whom many have regarded as a top-15 prospect and whom I personally ranked in the top 10, will be forced into his own redshirt season in 2019 after tearing an ACL in workouts on Tuesday. A player who was charged with simple assault prior to arriving in Starkville and was not going to be performing at the NFL Combine as a result, Simmons will now have an added obstacle in trying to impress organizations this spring. But on tape, the athleticism and potential is there for Simmons to become a star in the pro ranks.
Holding the 12th pick, the Green Bay Packers were a potential landing place for Simmons if he fell outside the top 10. With the injury, there is very little chance that the defensive lineman will be picked that high. However, he could be a high-end value pick at the Packers’ 30th selection or even pick 44 in the second round if the team is willing to be patient. While Green Bay does not have a serious need for interior linemen this season, Simmons’ versatility to line up at end or tackle, while providing push against both the run and pass, could make him an eventual asset. I wrote about his potential fit earlier this offseason in improving the Packers’ pass rush.
History would suggest that Simmons will not last until the 44th selection. Besides Smith, several other highly-regarded prospects have suffered major injuries needing to be heavily evaluated heading into the draft. Cornerback Sidney Jones had an opportunity to be the first cornerback selected in 2017 before tearing an Achilles during his Washington Pro Day. Jones came off the board at pick 43 to Philadelphia after sitting out his first season and is still looking to establish himself. Meanwhile, linebacker Myles Jack tore his meniscus during his senior season at UCLA and admitted to having degenerative conditions in his knee leading up to April’s selections. Jacksonville took the plunge with the 36th overall pick and has not been disappointed with his production. It should be noted that Jack did not have to spend a season off the active roster.
Under Ted Thompson, the Packers avoided taking chances on high-upside, high-risk players such as the ones above. Both Smith and Jack would have filled an inside linebacker role that was a perceived need for those Green Bay teams of the past. Still, the Packers passed. With Brian Gutekunst in command, there is less certainty which direction the Packers would go if faced with the chance to take Simmons between picks 30 and 44. Would Green Bay, a team with many positions requiring upgrades this offseason, be willing to gamble on a prospect with one its first first three picks, despite the player not taking the field immediately? The easy answer is no, but what if he was viewed as a Pro Bowl-level talent by the organization prior to the knee injury? Perhaps the Packers could eventually reap the benefits of nabbing two elite prospects in one draft.
Simmons was ready to blow up his Pro Day and set teams into a frenzy. He will still have the chance to appease teams about his character in interview sessions. But will the Packers be the beneficiary of a draft-day slide, like the Cowboys were with Smith in 2018, if Simmons returns to his healthy, All-American form in 2020 and beyond?