Hayden Smith made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic late Tuesday evening when he signed a three-year deal to play for the New York Jets in the National Football League, the premiere American Football league. The deal, reported to be worth $355,000 a year, will be dependent on Smith making the Jets’ final 53-man roster which will be announced prior to the start of the NFL Regular Season.
The Australian-born Smith almost made a name for himself in another American sport when he played basketball for Metro State in Denver, Colorado, and was unfortunately prevented from continuing his development when his prospective team, the Sydney Kings, folded. Ultimately however, basketball’s loss turned into rugby’s gain with Smith signing an academy contract at Saracens in 2008 following a stint with the Denver Barbarians Rugby Club.
The former second row settled well at the North London club, doing enough in his first season to earn a senior contract as well as receiving international recognition with the US Eagles. It seemed as if a successful and trophy-laden career at Saracens beckoned for the young forward until he made clear his intention to play in the NFL.
What was once basketball’s loss is now surely also rugby’s loss as Smith showed great physicality and understanding of the game, and was only prevented from making more appearances for Saracens by a series of injuries and the form of fellow second rows Mouritz Botha and Steve Borthwick.
Now Smith faces the challenging prospect of adapting his rugby skills and innate physical ability so that he can become a force at the tight end position for the Jets, the position which most experts are predicting Smith will initially play. Former San Diego Chargers tight end coach Tim Brewster, who is widely regarded as having helped develop Antonio Gates, one of the best tight ends currently playing, has labelled Smith as having ‘an outstanding future in the NFL’ and he should know, having helped Smith train prior to his signing with the Jets.
For those who are not familiar with the positions and rules of American football, the tight end position is a fairly multipurpose position. Tight ends are required to not only catch the football when targeted by the teams quarterback, but also help block opposition players from getting to his side’s running back when running the football instead of passing it. This essentially makes the tight end position a hybrid position, somewhere in between a receiver and an offensive linesman.
Smith’s athletic ability which has been nurtured on the rugby field, especially his strength and speed, makes the tight end position as much of a natural transition as possible for the former Saracens player. That being said, Smith faces an uphill battle to make it to the NFL despite having already signed a contract. Each NFL team heads into its preseason games with a roster of around 75 players and will have to reduce their rosters to 53-man squads by the time the Regular Season rolls around. Given that teams on average only take three tight ends in their final squads, and that the Jets already have likely first and second choice players in the position in the forms of Dustin Keller and Jeff Cumberland, Smith will most likely be competing for the final spot against Dedrick Epps and any other new additions the Jets make at the position.
All eyes will be on Smith this preseason to see whether or not there is future potential for further transitions between the two sports and to see how well Smith has been able to adapt to the intricacies of American football in this short space of time. Should he fail to make the final cut, and providing no other NFL teams try to pick him up following, do not be surprised if we see Smith back in the black and red of Saracens, who have been highly supportive of Smith in his desire to play in the NFL and would surely welcome him back with open arms.
by Alex Shaw