When the Seattle Seahawks selected Jaxon Smith-Njigba in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft, many fans of the team were stoked for the potential of the team to feature three high end wide receivers in its 2023 offense. A wet blanket was laid over those hopes during training camp when Smith-Njigba underwent surgery to repair a broken bone in his wrist and subsequently missed crucial practice time, but hopes and optimism remained high for many.
Through the first four games, however, the grumbling about how the Seahawks have utilized JSN has grown, with many displeased with a first round pick who has caught just 12 passes for 62 yards through the first four games of his career. The production that Puka Nacua has generated for the Los Angeles Rams so far this season has worked to further aggravate many fans, with Nacua having put up a ridiculous 501 receiving yards through Week 4.
With that noted, it’s important to keep in mind that receiver continues to be one of the positions that requires the most time for development, so here’s a look at production by top 25 rookie wide receivers with the most receiving yards.
Top 25 rookie WRs by receiving yards
So, while it’s certainly frustrating that JSN has just 62 yards through the first four games of his career, the reality is he is not even the 2023 first-round wide receiver with the lowest yardage total so far this season.
Now, moving on to the Seattle offense, however, one of the big challenges for Geno Smith and company this season has been the loss of both starting tackles, Charles Cross and Abe Lucas in Week 1. As a result of those injuries, the Seahawks have tweaked the offense somewhat, adjusting what they do in order to help protect Geno while Stone Forsythe and Jake Curhan continue to gain experience. With that in mind, here is a look at how many times per game the Seahawks have thrown deep both before and after losing Cross and Lucas this season and last.
- 2022: 3.8 deep attempts per game
- 2023 Week 1: 4 deep attempts
- 2023 Weeks 2-4: 3.3 deep attempts per game
Now, a decrease from 3.8 to 3.3 deep attempts per game is certainly not huge, and could certainly be the result of a small sample rather than an actual change in strategy. However, the decrease in deep shots comes at the same time the team is making use of play action at a significantly elevated rate.
- 2022: 25.3% play action utilization
- 2023 Week 1: 20.7% play action utilization
- 2023 Week 2: 37.8% play action utilization
- 2023 Week 3: 39.5% play action utilization
- 2023 Week 4: 36.4% play action utilization
- 2023 Weeks 2-4: 38.1% play action utilization
In short, throwing deep less often puts less stress on the offensive line, as they do not have to sustain blocks for quite as long. Play action also reduces the stress on the offensive line by forcing defenders to read whether or not a back or the quarterback has the ball, effectively creating an extra three or four tenths of a second for the quarterback in the pocket. Combine these two, and it becomes obvious the team is working to protect an inexperienced offensive line.
The effect of these tweaks on the offense has been a reduced utilization of deep routes, as the area of attack has been shifted somewhat closer to the line of scrimmage. This means that it’s not just JSN who is not being targeted deep, as other receiving targets on the roster are seeing lower aDOTs than in previous seasons in the offense of Shane Waldron. This includes Tyler Lockett, Colby Parkinson and Will Dissly, all of whom have been with the Seahawks for the duration of Waldron’s time as offensive coordinator.
What it all boils down to is that the Seahawks have been playing using a gameplan that makes it obvious they do not trust Forsythe and Curhan to protect Geno Smith the same as they trust Cross and Lucas. This should not come as a surprise to anyone, and it becomes even more true once the health issues of Damien Lewis, Phil Haynes and Evan Brown on the interior of the line are considered.
Basically, the deep shots the team would normally take are used in part to open up the intermediate and underneath portion of the field for the offense to attack. Given his skillset - phenomenal agility and great hands, but lacking top end speed - the intermediate and underneath portion of the field is the exact area where the Seahawks are likely to look to deploy JSN. However, since Week 1 this has been the area of the field where the team has sent Lockett and DK Metcalf on routes, as they have eschewed deeper routes in favor of keeping Smith upright and protected.
In summary, while many may be frustrated about the usage of JSN so far this season, the reality is he’s a rookie who is still learning to play in the NFL after seeing extremely limited action during the 2022 season at Ohio State due to injuries, and the Seattle offense has been constrained by injuries on the offensive line which have forced the team to make adjustments to strategy. Add in the missed practice time during training camp and the fact that he was visibly favoring the injured arm early in the season, and the surprise should be that he is producing at all, rather than a lack of production.
Production will come for JSN, and fans simply need to relax and be patient. Many are so quick to forget that Ken Walker, who finished the 2022 season with 1,050 yards rushing also started slowly during his rookie season. Specifically, through Week 4 of the 2022 season Walker had carried the ball 15 times for 58 yards (3.9 yards per attempt) after an injury in training camp led to miss practice time while buried on the depth chart. Similarly, as JSN gains experience and opportunities, and as the offensive line returns to health, Smith-Njigba’s production should improve as the team returns to an offense more closely resembling what they likely had planned heading into the season.
This certainly won’t quiet the multitudes of fantasy owners who had huge expectations for JSN in his rookie season, but this is Field Gulls, where nobody cares about your fantasy team.