Near the end of his run as general manager, Mike Tannenbaum seemed to get it into his head that as long as you are a good athlete relative to your size, you are automatically going to be a great football player. That led to some highly questionable early Draft picks. It also led to lower profile, less risky moves like signing Australian former rugby player Hayden Smith.
Trying to think outside the box to find a great tight end, however, is not a philosophy strictly limited to Tannenbaum. It feels like every team in the league has made an effort since the Chargers turned college basketball player Antonio Gates, who had not played football since high school, into the best tight end in the league. The list of big and nimble former basketball players who have gotten NFL tryouts since 2003 seems endless. Hayden Smith is part of this phenomenon. There aren't many 6'6" 265 pound men in the world who can run the 40 yard dash in the 4.7 range. Smith can.
Smith saw very limited action in his rookie year. That was expected. He had never played football before. Rugby can train you for the physicality of football but not technique and nuances of the tight end position. Smith started as a blank slate. He had to learn how to run routes, how to digest an NFL playbook, learn coverages and how to read them, proper football, proper blocking technique, and any number of other football related tasks from scratch. Even successful conversion prospects usually have some background in the sport. Asking Smith to learn everything about playing the game in as quick of a time as the Jets need him to feels like a stretch.
If you can say anything for Smith, it's that he did well enough to gain more responsibility during the year. He got onto the active roster and even got himself active on gameday. There's a big jump, though, from being active on gameday to becoming a player who makes a positive impact on a regular basis. He is still extremely raw.
The Jets invested a year in trying to develop him. Maybe that with an offseason of work will help him become a player. Maybe he's an incredibly quick learner. It's worth finding out given the investment made in him. I wouldn't get my hopes up, though. For every project who pans out like Gates, there are like a hundred like J'Nathan Bullock who do not. Simply having the raw athletic ability does not translate into being a good NFL player. I don't expect Smith to do so.