Huge risk, yes, but also a potentially huge reward. This is how to view the Dallas Cowboys decision to select linebacker Damone Clark in the 2022 NFL Draft, after the former LSU standout was still available in the fifth round due to a medical issue. That issue involved Clark's neck, with the 21-year-old having undergone spinal fusion surgery following the discovery of a herniated disc in the pre-draft process -- at the 2022 NFL Combine.
Coincidentally, or not so much, it was the Cowboys' medical staff that found the issue, and it is now they who will oversee his rehabilitation back to the field. As he joins his fellow rookies and returning veterans at the team's headquarters to truly dig into his rehab, he thinks back on just how "surreal" the entire chain of events really was.
"The crazy thing is, at the combine, Dallas' medical staff was the one that told me," Clark said, via the team's website. "When they told me, I was shocked. I'm like, 'Whoa, maybe y'all got the wrong person.'"
Unfortunately for Clark, they were spot on and, as such, he made the difficult decision to undergo surgery, despite feeling no ill effects of the disc issue at the time.
"I played the whole year [at LSU] and felt perfectly fine," he said.
This is likely true, considering he started in every game for the Tigers in 2021 and was electric throughout -- going on to also participate in the Reese's Senior Bowl in Mobile as well. Clark went from being named First-Team All-SEC last season to the best linebacker at the Senior Bowl, his stock soaring ahead of medical checks at the NFL Combine, to a major revelation that required surgery to repair and subsequently caused his draft stock to plummet; all in a span of four months.
His surgery took place on March 24 but, justifiably, he first wanted to confirm the Cowboys diagnosis.
"I went out and got a second opinion, and Dr. [Robert] Watkins said the same thing," Clark said. "It's crazy that this is the team that drafted me. So I already feel comfortable here."
Clark's injury is one the Cowboys have seen before, albeit not entirely similar, when former first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch suffered a neck injury that cost him seven games in 2019. Vander Esch would return to play in 10 games in 2020, missing several due to a fractured collarbone unrelated to his neck injury, and played the entirety of the 2021 season for Dallas, including 16 starts last season. Now back with the Cowboys on a one-year deal, he and Clark will presumably take the field together at some point in 2022, although the Cowboys will not rush the rehab process on the latter.
As for head coach Mike McCarthy and others in the coaching staff and front office, grabbing Clark in the fifth round was a no-brainer, especially considering the added insight possessed by their medical staff -- reminiscent in many ways of the Jaylon Smith selection in 2016 (though there was no comparable situation to Smith's at the time).
"On the injury front, going through the experience with Leighton and there were a couple of other comparables," said McCarthy. "I mean yeah, that was definitely part of the discussion leading up to the decision [to select Clark]. ... He's been on the Zoom call meetings. Very, very bright. Has really good command and understanding.
"He looks great. His rehab, you wouldn't know he was dealing with anything, just looking at him and watching him move. But he's been very impressive."
Clark joins fellow former LSU linebacker Jabril Cox in Dallas, Cox himself working to return from a torn ACL suffered in 2021. The two spent only a short time together as Tigers, but will now be looked upon to tandem with All-Pro linebacker Micah Parsons in anchoring the youth movement at the position for the foreseeable future. And, all things considered, it all happened "for a reason" according to Clark, and he's looking forward to making good on the Cowboys draft investment.
"I'm just happy they found it, and Dallas still picked me up. I'm happy to be here."