The NFL Draft is fast approaching, and mocks are increasingly sending Ohio State Buckeyes receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba to the Seattle Seahawks. While this is a wonderful, I am skeptical that he will last as long as some of the experts are predicting. Most recently, we saw that Mel Kiper Jr. has Seattle selecting JSN with the 20th overall pick. This isn’t the first time I have seen this prognostication, but I have some serious doubts that he will be available at that point. In fact, I will be shocked if he makes it to the second half of the first round. Why? Because he is the best receiver in this draft class, and it isn’t particularly close in my opinion.
Currently, The Athletic has Smith-Njigba listed as the 10th overall prospect on their consensus big board. This is two spots after Quentin Johnston, but at this point I believe I have made my feelings clear on why the former TCU receiver carries a great deal of risk due to his nearly invisible performance in the College Football National Championship, combined with his alarmingly high drop-rate during his final season with the Horned Frogs. The two are very different players, as Johnston possesses the rare size and athletic traits that teams covet in pass catchers, whereas JSN’s draft stock is tied more closely to his production and intangibles than it is to raw athletic traits. But is this really fair? More accurately, is it actually a great way to predict who will be the better pro? I can’t answer these questions conclusively, but I did write last month about how drop rate is seemingly one of the more predictive stats for a collegiate receiver. I also think that Smith-Njigba’s athleticism is less of a concern than it is being made out to be.
According to StatHead, Smith-Njigba’s Short Shuttle time at the combine (3.93) is the fastest recorded over the last five drafts. His 3-cone drill ranks second in that same time span. While these numbers in and of themselves may not mean much, they at least indicate that his short area quickness is impressive, even if his track speed pales in comparison to Johnston’s. To be fair, though, neither ran at the combine, but Johnston is estimated to be in the 4.4 range, which is clearly an impressive target for a guy who stands at 6’3” and weighed 208 lbs at the combine. But a lot of NFL players have outstanding athletic traits; what really matters is if they can put it all together on the field. This is where JSN shines.
In 2021, Smith-Njigba posted 1,606 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns. The former ranked third among all NCAA receivers, according to Sports Reference. He likely benefited from sharing the field with Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, who went 10th and 11th in the 2022 NFL draft, respectively. But his production far-exceeded either of his teammates in 2021. He was arguably the most productive skill player for the Buckeyes that season. Is it possible that Wilson and Olave actually benefited from Smith-Njigba’s presence on the field? Maybe that is a bit hyperbolic, but my point is that I don’t think you can chalk up all of his production to sharing the field with two players who went on to have phenomenal rookie seasons. Rather, I see this as a valid reason to expect great things for the NFL hopeful. Of course, the biggest concern for JSN outside of his athleticism is his injury and consequential lack of production in 2022.
Last season was a major disappointment for Smith-Njigba; despite Ohio State reaching the semi-finals (and nearly beating the Georgia Bulldogs), he barely played in 2022. Injuries limited him to three games and 43 receiving yards on 5 catches. Not great numbers, but I don’t find that overly worrisome. Consider Jaylen Waddle, who had to undergo ankle surgery due to an injury suffered in his final year at Alabama; even still, he went 6th overall in 2021 and has turned out to be pretty impressive as a pro. Perhaps even more importantly, he hasn’t missed a game since being drafted and has 33 regular season starts to his name. Both are different types of players, and while Waddle was far more productive in his six games in 2020 than JSN was in his three games in 2022, my point here is that injury concerns shouldn’t scare teams away from the talented pass catcher. Instead, teams who look at his tape will see a polished route runner who has all the tools to make an early impact as a pro. Just look at plays like the ones below.
jaxon smith njigba just knows how to get open. He’s not going to blow you away with his speed or size but his route running and understanding of zones is insane pic.twitter.com/s2KbsOH9aa— IG: Matt.Eberflus1 (@Matteberflus1) January 13, 2023
I’ve committed to believing #DaBears will trade down from No. 2 and get jaxon smith-njigba in the first round.— Football Guy Dakota (@DakotaKnowsBall) December 21, 2022
the combination of his route running abilities and his sticky hands, along w many other traits, makes him the perfect prospect imo
The Seahawks have two of the NFL’s most talented pass catchers in DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, but the latter isn’t getting any younger, and the former is about as pure of an X-receiver as you can find in the pros. Jaxon Smith-Njigba ran more than 80% of his routes out of the slot, according to Pro Football Focus, and he looks like he will likely be cast similarly as a pro. Given that Lockett is as capable on the outside as he is out of the slot, I think this could be a perfect match for what Seattle needs right now. They re-signed Geno, and they desperately need a third option given the likely loss of Marquise Goodwin and the relatively lack of proven depth beyond their top two options. While some may like Quentin Johnston due to his capabilities to threaten defenses vertically, I see far more potential for JSN to make an early and lasting impact as a pro. As stated above, he is a savvy, polished route runner with fantastic hands.
The Ohio State pro day is scheduled for Wednesday, and we may get a much clearer picture of where Smith-Njigba will land in the draft, as he is expected to run the 40-yard dash. Again, I don’t invest that much stock in this alone, but I believe that a solid performance could cement his status as the best receiver in this class, at least in the eyes of scouts. Regardless of how fast he runs today, though, I see a talent that the Seahawks can’t afford to pass up. They need to surround their recently re-signed quarterback with talent, and I sincerely hope that they will, even if it means spending a top-10 pick to do so.