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Sam’s Film Room: How Jaxon Smith-Njigba fits in the Seahawks offense

Smith-Njigba was drafted in the first round by the Seahawks at No. 20 overall. What can he provide to the passing offense?

Rose Bowl Game presented by Capital One Venture X - Ohio State v Utah Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

One of the Seattle Seahawks’ more underrated needs this off-season was a third wide receiver. DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett have been incredible, but out of limited production from Marquise Goodwin, Freddie Swain, and a career total of 122 receiving yards out of second-round pick Dee Eskridge, it’s clear they were better going elsewhere. During the 2023 NFL Draft, the Seahawks decided to address that need. They took Jaxon Smith-Njigba out of Ohio State University with the No. 20 overall pick.

From this draft, Smith-Njigba was one of my favorite wide receivers. During the 2021 season, he put up over 1,600 receiving yards on 95 receptions. It was truly a shame that he missed the vast majority of the 2022 season with a lingering hamstring injury as that robbed us of seeing further potential development from that incredible sophomore campaign.

Speaking of that 2021 season, Smith-Njigba was mainly a slot receiver in the Buckeyes’ offense. He lined up over 80 percent of his snaps in the slot. The vast majority of his routes were quarterback friendly where he was consistently sitting in the lower or middle zones. He ran hitches, speed outs, crossers, digs, and middle sits trying to find holes in opposing defenses. This was a role where he excelled at for the Buckeyes, and he became a reliable target for C.J. Stroud.

Outside of the slot being such a great fit for Smith-Njigba’s skill set, the other reason why he played that role almost exclusively was due to the other receivers on the Buckeyes’ roster. For those that don’t remember just how stacked the Buckeyes were in 2021, this wide receiver corps featured Chris Olave (first round pick for the New Orleans Saints), Garrett Wilson (first round pick for the New York Jets), Smith-Njigba in the slot, and Marvin Harrison Jr. who will likely be a first-round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. Needless to say, this offense presented a huge problem for defenses.

This is also a big reason why Smith-Njigba rarely faced any premiere cornerback matchups, rarely dealt with press-man coverage from opposing cornerbacks, and rarely was ever double-covered simply due to this offense having too many weapons. While this situation that I just described comes with its own evaluation issues, Smith-Njigba still excelled well beyond what the offense created for him out of the slot. Smith-Njigba was an integral part of moving the ball on key downs and keeping drives alive.

From a skill set standpoint, the way Smith-Njigba wins is through his route running. His spatial awareness to sit in between zones and use his body leverage and positioning to find openings is how he was always open in 2021. Any time C.J. Stroud was forced to scramble, Smith-Njigba would always work to find space and get open.

Additionally, how he used his short-area burst to step on the toes of opposing defenders is what set him up for three-way options underneath.

I also think he showed good footwork and body lean to press the outside cylinder of an opposing cornerback which opened him up for easy throwing window for his quarterback.

Another thing that kept catching my eye as I went through his film was that he always excelled at fighting for the catch point against opposing defenders. With a low drop rate of 6% (collegiate average is around 8%) Smith-Njigba was a consistent target for Stroud.

While I think Smith-Njigba offers plenty of upside as a pure slot receiver in the NFL, he didn’t really run too many routes as an outside receiver. I mentioned how stacked the wide receiving corps was for the Buckeyes, but Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson took those outside reps away from him. It wasn’t until the Rose Bowl against Utah that Smith-Njigba was the true number one option for this team while Olave and Wilson sat out to prepare for the 2022 NFL Draft.

Against Utah, Smith-Njigba’s performance was the definition of a one-man show. He put up 347 receiving yards on 15 receptions and scored three touchdowns. In this game, he ran a higher percent of deeper routes but most of those routes did come directly from a slot alignment.

From a route running perspective, Smith-Njigba is excellent at weaving between defenders and finding space between zones. He’s intelligent in his ability to recognize where the holes in the zones are. Additionally, against man coverage he uses his footwork to set himself up for cuts to get open. He also does a decent job of using his hands to keep his frame clean especially against off-man coverage. With deceptive footwork and the ability to attack both sides of a defender underneath, he does a great job separating underneath.

Where I want to see him improve from a route running standpoint is the lack of variable speed through his medium-to-deep routes. On shorter routes, Smith-Njigba uses great footwork to win early, but on medium-to-deep routes he doesn’t change the speed on his routes and will often roll through his break lumbering at his top speed. I want to see him start at a slower speed and accelerating through the break in order to create the last second hesitation that is needed on deeper routes.

Another one of my concerns for him and his potential upside is the lack of elite speed. He ran well at his pro day clocking a 4.48 second 40-yard dash, but based on his film, I was truthfully expecting him to run slower. He was caught from behind on several of his catches and generally just seems to be “quicker than fast” as a receiver. The other thing I’ll note is that he only had one year of production. I mentioned the hamstring injury, but since his 2022 season was injury-riddled the best we can do is project based on his one season of production and his game against Utah.

For his pro comparison, I think Jarvis Landry is the main receiver that comes to mind. They both have great short area quickness, savvy route running technique underneath, and they make themselves available to their quarterbacks using outstanding spatial awareness and effort to always work to get open. Smith-Njigba is excellent on scramble drills too and I think he’ll make some key third down catches next season.

With the Seahawks next season, I think he’ll start in the slot and will be a great check down or underneath target for Smith. I see him running the occasional slot fade, but a lot of his value will be finding space and working zones against linebackers. I can also see Shane Waldron designing a variety of weakside option plays for him especially as the Seahawks embrace the shotgun spread style of passing game that Geno Smith is good at. He’ll play a clear role in the Seahawks’ scheme and will likely run a variety of return, pivot, and swirl type concepts where he’ll use his footwork to quickly break to get open.

Based on this role and skill set, I can easily see him having a number of games where he’ll finish with 5 receptions and 42 yards with the occasional bigger performance on the goal line. Smith-Njigba has good vision in the open field with the ball in his hands, but he’s not the most sudden receiver to break one off.

Based on my film study, I gave Smith-Njigba a late-first round grade. He has a clear role and fit in most offenses – especially in the slot in Seattle – but the lack of elite upside is why I would not have spent a top 10 pick on him. While that may sound negative, what Smith-Njigba possesses in terms of horizontal change of speed and slot dominance is going to make him extremely productive for a very long time. I can easily see him becoming a fan favorite based on that consistency alone.

As a side note, Smith-Njigba was the number one receiver in yards per route run in college in this draft and his dominance against both man and zone was truly impressive as seen below!