Smith didn’t make his usual congratulatory draft-day telephone call to Demetrius Byrd last month because the Louisiana State wide receiver was hospitalized. And even though he was since discharged, Smith still hadn’t chatted with Byrd as of Monday night. Smith says he wants to give Byrd more time to recover from head injuries suffered during a pre-draft auto accident.
Of course, the two ultimately will talk. When they do, the first words that should come from Byrd’s mouth?
Draft prospects with significant medical red flags are likely to slip or may not even get selected. For every Willis McGahee — a 2003 first-round pick despite a major knee injury that sidelined him all of his rookie season — there are far more examples of banged-up college standouts like Byrd that suffer an ignominious draft-day fate.
Once projected as an early second-day pick, Byrd slid all the way into the seventh round before being chosen with the No. 224 overall selection. The drop cost Byrd hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it beats not being drafted at all.
Byrd — who was en route to church when a car crashed into his vehicle — will at least get a signing bonus in the $50,000 range. Even more important for the long term, Byrd also has joined a team that now has a vested interest in his NFL future and rehabilitation.
“This is a great kid with a good family from everything we have on background,” Smith told FOXSports.com. “His life goes up in smoke in an auto accident and his dreams are shattered. I kind of liked the idea that we take this guy.”
Smith doesn’t claim to be the NFL’s version of Mother Teresa. There was bargain shopping involved. Byrd was a solid LSU starter in 2008 who flashed NFL tools.
If he can recover, Smith says the Chargers have landed someone who can become “a terrific player.” The alternative was choosing a healthy prospect who could immediately contend for a roster spot but didn’t have as much projected upside.
On a larger scale, Byrd symbolizes the risk/reward draft debate that teams have regarding ailing players or those coming off serious injuries suffered in their final college season. Grading college talent is difficult enough. Trying to evaluate a player’s comeback potential and draft value makes the process even tougher.
Philadelphia took chances in each of the past two drafts when selecting Wisconsin cornerback Jack Ikegwuono (2008 fourth round) and Florida tight end Cornelius Ingram (2009 fifth round). Ikegwuono missed all of his rookie season while recovering from a serious knee injury suffered during a pre-draft workout; Ingram didn’t play as a senior after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament.
Eagles general manager Tom Heckert Jr. believes Ikegwuono will be able to contribute in 2009 after not experiencing any swelling in his knee following a minicamp earlier this month. Heckert, though, said there was plenty of talk inside team headquarters before the Eagles selected a player he had rated as a second-round pick before the injury.
“You’re paying a guy who you know isn’t going to play for a whole year,” said Heckert, whose team gave Ikegwuono a $400,000 signing bonus as part of a four-year, $2.1 million rookie contract. “You’re only hoping the guy can come back. You have to weigh those odds whether it’s worth taking a guy in the fourth round when maybe he could fall into the fifth or sixth.
“We thought he was such a good player that somebody would take him fairly soon. If you can get a starting cornerback in the fourth round, it’s well worth the risk.”
Ingram seems less of a gamble. Although not completely healed, he participated in Philadelphia’s recent minicamp.
Ingram said he noticed team physicians were “pulling on my leg a lot more than the other guys” during pre-draft physicals. Heckert said that was intentional.
“We have to do due diligence on a guy who hasn’t played yet after the injury,” Heckert said. “The knee isn’t the same as it once was. You then start to worry about longevity. You wouldn’t want to use a first- or second-round pick on a guy if you think his career could last four years at most [because of a degenerative condition]. If you use a fourth- or fifth-round pick on a guy you thought was a good player, you don’t care. You’re giving the guy a four-year contract that will be up by the time you have to make a decision about re-signing them.”
Heckert believes the Eagles are more “forgiving” in their medical diagnosis than other teams that would be quicker to yank a prospect with an injury history from their draft board. “If you played a year on it [in college], that’s fine for us,” he said.
That doesn’t mean Philadelphia is lax in its pre-draft evaluations. The Eagles meet extensively with their medical staff the week before the draft to review flagged players.
“It’s a royal pain for the trainers and doctors to have to bring files on every single guy, but we really like the way the process works,” said Heckert, who began working under Eagles coach Andy Reid in 2001. “We put them on the spot and they tell us what they think. It’s good for all of us so we’re not sitting in the draft room on the clock saying, ‘What do we do?’
“If the kid passes, great. If not, we put a red dot on his card.”
Playoff teams with deep rosters like Philadelphia and San Diego can take chances because ailing rookies aren’t expected to immediately contribute. The same approach may not work for embattled coaches and general managers who need a quick impact from their draft class. For example, Gregg Williams was fired as Buffalo’s head coach at the end of the 2003 season before McGahee had taken a single NFL snap at running back.
Two draft-day gambles in 2006 paid off for Smith when he used first- and second-round picks on cornerback Antonio Cromartie and left tackle Marcus McNeill respectively. Cromartie didn’t play as a junior at Florida State in 2005 after tearing his ACL. Smith says McNeill was a first-round talent who slid because of undisclosed medical concerns. Both players have since reached the Pro Bowl.
“I have been called a lot of things, but Dr. Smith is not one of them,” a laughing Smith said. “A lot of guys are banged up anyway before they get to the NFL. If somebody has an injury history but our doctors say he’s OK, I have faith in our medical people.”
As the fourth round was underway last month, Smith said he consulted with three key members of the Chargers organization — team president Dean Spanos, assistant general manager Ed McGuire and head coach Norv Turner — about the possibility of ultimately selecting Byrd. In a best-case scenario, Byrd could be practicing in training camp. More likely, Byrd will spend at least part it not all of the 2009 season on the non-football injury list.
Smith has no problem with that.
“He’s now a San Diego Charger,” Smith said.