After spending a full year on the New York Jets roster, primarily as a practice squad player, former rugby player Hayden Smith is competing for a role in the 2013 offense. After promising performances in recent OTA’s Smith has been a popular discussion point amongst the Jets fan base, as the team is searching for signs of life at their tight end position. As training camp is around the corner one must ask: Will Hayden Smith break out in his second NFL season?
Smith is regarded as a former rugby and basketball player attempting to become a serviceable to potentially star football player. What many members of the media fail to note is that Smith never even played rugby until around age 23 while he lived in Denver, Colorado. Formerly a basketball player for D-2 University Metropolitan State, he went on to play for the Denver Barbarians after graduating college. In his first season playing the sport he was named All-American and went on to play professionally with Saracens FC, an English club.
In a short amount of time Smith was a first team starter for the Saracens and also played for the United States national team, helping them qualify for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. After playing his last national match in September, Smith began training for the NFL. Standing 6 feet, 6 inches tall with a 260 pound muscular frame, Smith certainly looked the part of an NFL athlete. Throughout tryouts he impressed five different teams (Jets, Saints, Lions, Redskins and Cowboys) by apparently running a 4.7 forty yard dash time. Smith’s career officially began in April 2012 when he was signed by the New York Jets, where he spent a large majority of his first NFL season as a practice squad and bottom of the depth chart tight end.
Former starting tight end Dustin Keller has departed for Miami, leaving the spot up for grabs after the Jets made no serious acquisitions to replace him. The training wheels are off of Smith coming into this training camp, as he will be given a large number of reps to prove his worth. Although he has shown virtually nothing on an NFL field to suggest he will produce, the potential is certainly there for numerous reasons.
First, Smith is as athletic as any tight end in the league, including the current top two in Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski. All three stand between 6-5 and 6-7, weigh between 255-265, and run in a 40 yard dash range of 4.55-4.7. While Gronkowski was a stand out in college football, Graham did not exactly post numbers guaranteeing future success. After four years of basketball at the University of Miami, he played one year of football where he caught 17 passes for 213 yard and five touchdowns. The Saints scouting department fell in love with Graham’s potential, selecting him in the third round and the rest is history. Not only are Graham and Smith comparable athletically, but both possess the intelligence to pick up a high IQ sport such as professional football. Smith is a finance graduate while Graham double majored in Marketing and Management (he also attended grad school while playing college football).
A very important factor to note with Hayden Smith is his development timeline. Jumping into the NFL with no previous football experience is difficult, as the Jets were rightfully patient with him last year. What should we expect from him in his second year picking up the game? Here’s two former football players second seasons playing football competitively (counting both college and the NFL):
Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints rookie season: 31 receptions for 356 yards and 5 touchdowns.
*Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers sophomore season: 81 receptions for 964 yards and 13 touchdowns
*Gates was a stand out high school football player but chose to play college basketball instead
Each of these tight ends had a great quarterback in Drew Brees throwing to them, aiding their success. Expectations for Smith should be kept realistic, whether it is Geno Smith or Mark Sanchez commanding the Jets offense. At this point, posting number’s comparable to Graham’s rookie season would be a very positive sign. The fan base is reasonably impatient with a lackluster offense, but Smith is a player who could possibly be another season from completely grasping the game. If he shows in training camp he’s a respectable blocker with reliable hands, I would fully expect him to be splitting snaps with Jeff Cumberland on the first team offense.