New York Jets wide receiver Devin Smith tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the Jets' December 13, 2015 win over the Tennessee Titans and had season ending surgery to repair his knee shortly thereafter. He finished his abbreviated rookie season with nine receptions on 28 targets for 115 yards and one touchdown, playing 312 offensive snaps. His disappointing rookie season followed a missed training camp in which he suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung in the second practice of camp. Following his December 2015 knee surgery Smith missed all of the 2016 Jets training camp and the first six weeks of the 2016 regular season rehabilitating his knee on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. After the mandatory six weeks away from practice Smith returned to practice for the 7th week of the season, and has been practicing with the Jets for the last few weeks. Because Devin Smith still has not been activated there are no injury reports and no reports regarding whether he has been practicing on a limited or on a full practice basis.
Devin Smith says he still has soreness in his knee some 10 and a half months after surgery, but he says he is ready to play in NFL games right now. The Jets thus far have failed to activate Smith. The Jets have until next week's game against the Los Angeles Rams to either activate Smith to the 53 man roster or put him on season ending injured reserve. Whether Smith is activated this season could have far reaching consequences for his career.
If Devin Smith is activated for the Rams game he will have seven games remaining in the NFL season to continue to get practice reps and to show the Jets what he is capable of in actual NFL games. For a player who has never had an NFL training camp and whose limited game experience has been mostly disappointing those practice reps and game snaps could be extremely important heading into next year's training camp.
Consider this: heading into next season, if Smith is not activated for the remainder of this season, the Jets will have three receivers clearly well ahead of Smith on the depth chart in Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker and Quincy Enunwa. While it is possible Marshall could be cut or traded prior to the 2017 NFL draft, the uncertain health status of Eric Decker heading into next season makes cutting ties with Marshall problematic, so he will probably still be a Jet in 2017. Assuming Decker does not miss significant time in 2017 that makes Smith at best the 4th receiver on the Jets depth chart. However, there are also the three 2016 rookies to account for: Robby Anderson, Charone Peake and Jalin Marshall. Thus far in 2016 each of these three receivers has played less snaps than Smith played in 2015, yet has been more productive than Smith was in a significantly more prolific 2015 passing offense. Robby Anderson has played 301 snaps and in eight games has caught 15 of 25 targets for 152 yards. Charone Peake, in just 142 snaps in eight games, has caught 11 passes on 17 targets for 100 yards. Jalin Marshall in just six games and 78 snaps has caught six of 12 targets for 75 yards. Each of these three rookies has been significantly more productive than Devin Smith on a per snap and a per target basis. It is not at all clear, if Smith were to be activated today, where he would fit on the Jets wide receiver depth chart.
Having entered the league a year earlier, ordinarily Devin Smith would at least have the advantage in NFL experience heading into the 2017 season, but his unique circumstances make even that problematic for Smith. If Smith is not activated by the Rams game then he will be shut down for the rest of the 2016 season and he will not be able to practice with the Jets until 2017 training camp. That will leave Smith with one full 2017 training camp plus 10 games of regular season experience in 2015 plus three weeks of practice in 2016. Compare that to the experience of each of the 2016 rookies heading into the 2017 regular season. Assuming each of them remain healthy, they each will have at least 14 regular season games under their belts, and they each will have two full training camps as well. In other words, despite having a year more of NFL service time than the three 2016 rookie receivers, Smith will actually head into the 2016 season with considerably less practice reps and NFL game experience.
If Devin Smith is not activated by next week he will head into the 2017 regular season with less NFL production, less NFL experience and less NFL practice reps than each of the three 2016 rookie receivers. That may well put Smith behind most or all of the 2016 rookies, leaving him fighting for a tenuous 6th or 7th receiver position on the 2017 Jets. It is also likely the Jets will bring in one or more undrafted free agent wide receivers, and possibly even a 2017 draft pick. This could leave Smith fighting for his Jets career, while not having much chance to make an impression on the coaches even as his competition continues to impress in the rest of the 2016 season.
On the other hand, if Devin Smith is activated for the rest of the 2016 season he will not only get six or seven games in which to impress the coaches and get valuable NFL action, he will also get eight more precious weeks of NFL practice reps. At that point Smith would head into the 2017 season with more regular season practice time than any of the 2016 rookies, and, depending on his production the rest of the way, possibly more production than some or all of them as well. The experience advantage of the 2016 rookies would be erased, the production advantage might be erased, and as a former 2nd round draft choice Smith would stand a reasonable chance of heading into the 2017 season ahead of all of the 2016 rookies on the depth chart.
With two accomplished pass catching running backs in Bilal Powell and Matt Forte, a legitimate if not outstanding move tight end in Austin Seferian-Jenkins, at least three wide receivers ahead of Smith and possibly as many as six, there will be an awful lot of targets to feed and not enough passes to go around in 2017. Devin Smith has the not inconsiderable advantage of being a former high draft choice of the current regime, and will likely be given every opportunity to prove he belongs on the field. But if Smith is unable to return to the field in 2016, circumstances may well pass him by. The 2016 rookies will have ample opportunity to impress the coaches in Smith's absence and will head into the 2017 season with more experience under their belts. These are perilous times for Devin Smith. Time waits for no man, and as more and more time passes without Smith on the field other men get increased opportunities to take his place. Smith is champing at the bit to return to active duty. Whether or not he is permitted by the Jets to do so in 2016 may well play an important role in determining his future fate with the Jets.