This makes sense for several reasons. First, the Bengals drafted a player last year, Cedric Ogbuehi, with their first round pick in a similar situation. To catch you up, Smith had the promise to be a top 5 or maybe even first overall selection in this year's NFL Draft before an ACL and MCL team in his left knee, suffered during Notre Dame's Bowl game loss to Ohio State changed everything. Smith may have nerve damage in his knee, too, and it's assumed he won't play a down in the NFL in 2016. It's possible he never fully recovers to his pre-injury form. Smith quickly went from being a first round pick to someone who may fall deep into the draft.
Back to the second reason this report makes sense, the Bengals tend to draft per a BPA (best player available) strategy, and Smith could easily fill this requirement when healthy.
Smith is yet another player in the line of high profile NFL draft prospects to suffer an injury setback, forcing teams to add yet one more variable into their draft evaluations. Smith is an outside linebacker who was not only freakishly athletic and fast, but very productive, leading the Fighting Irish in tackles the past couple seasons, and winning the Butkus Award as the top collegiate linebacker.
So the question is, where should Smith be drafted? Is he still a first round candidate? Is there any precedent that he can play again after such an injury, and at a level worthy of a first round selection? As we ponder these questions, we take a look at some other high profile draft prospects who suffered various injuries before the draft, negatively impacting their draft status.
Last year, Todd Gurley entered the 2015 NFL draft coming off an ACL tear during the 2014 college season. The injury forced him to miss over half of his final college season, plus the offseason workouts for NFL teams. Gurley was expected to return at some point during the 2015 NFL season, but it was unsure when he would return, and how he would perform upon his return. Gurley played 12 games in 2015, cranking out 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns, and earning a trip to the Pro Bowl.
Marcus Lattimore had a host of injuries in college, including multiple knee injuries. Lattimore’s first injury was in his freshman season of 2010, which was an ankle injury. In his sophomore season, Lattimore tore a knee ligament in his left knee and missed the second half of the season. In his junior season, Lattimore dislocated his right knee, tore multiple ligaments and suffered nerve damage. When Lattimore entered the 2013 NFL Draft, most expected that he would miss his first season in the NFL, and some feared he may never play football again. The injury scares pushed Lattimore down to the fourth round. Ultimately the naysayers were correct - Lattimore retired from the NFL having never played a down.
Adrian Peterson, like Lattimore, also suffered multiple injuries in college. Although unlike Lattimore, his injuries were not knee-based. In 2004, Peterson dislocated his shoulder, which required surgery. In 2005 he had a high ankle sprain, costing him four games. In 2006 he fractured his collarbone, causing him to miss the final six games of the season. The injury history caused Peterson to slip a bit in the draft, but he was still selected in the first round by the Minnesota Vikings. The pick worked out great for the Vikings since Peterson went on to play 14 games in his rookie season, amassing 1,341 yards and 12 touchdowns. He is a future Hall of Famer with four All Pro selections, and more than 11,000 career rushing yards with 82 rushing touchdowns.
Before Peterson, there was Willis McGahee. Like Gurley, Lattimore, and Peterson, McGahee was seen as a sure bet to be a high pick in the first round. In his final college game, McGahee suffered an ACL, MCL, and PCL tear in Miami’s BCS championship loss to The Ohio State University (is there a trend brewing here!). Despite the injury, and the speculation that McGahee would likely miss his entire first season in the NFL, he was drafted in the latter part of the first round. He did end up missing his rookie season, but put together a very good career after that. He finished with 8,400 rushing yards, 65 touchdowns, and a pair of trips to the Pro Bowl.
In addition to running backs, and a bit closer to home, the Bengals selected Cedric Ogbuehi in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft after he had suffered an ACL tear in Texas A&M’s Bowl Game. Ogbuehi did miss the pre-draft workouts and most of the regular season, but returned to the team for the final few games of the 2015 season. Ogbuehi looks to have recovered well from the injury.
In every case except Lattimore's, the players all returned to play in the NFL, and played at a very high level, matching their pre-injury expectations. What seems to isolate Lattimore from the rest of the group is that Lattimore suffered multiple knee injuries, and nerve damage. The scary thing about Smith’s injury is that he also suffered nerve damage. Although, unlike Lattimore, Smith’s injury is only his first, and was not considered as severe as Lattimore’s.
Smith’s injury seems to be most like McGahee’s injury. Both suffered bowl game knee injuries tearing multiple ligaments. Both were expected to miss their entire first year in the NFL. And both injuries were only the first that each player suffered. But just like with McGahee, there is uncertainty regarding when and how Smith will return. And this uncertainty is what leads to the speculation of whether Smith will become another Lattimore, or join the ranks of Gurley, McGahee, and the rest who enjoyed successful NFL careers.
Should the Bengals take a risk on Smith?