Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba catches the game-winning touchdown pass as Eagles cornerback James Bradberry defends in the fourth quarter on Dec. 18. (Yong Kim / Tribune News Service)

Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba catches the game-winning touchdown pass as Eagles cornerback James Bradberry defends in the fourth quarter on Dec. 18. (Yong Kim / Tribune News Service)

Seahawks look to fully unlock Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s potential

Seattle is expecting good things from the receiver, who was taken 20th overall in the 2023 draft.

  • Bob Condotta, The Seattle Times
  • Friday, June 14, 2024 3:09pm
  • SportsSeahawks

RENTON — Jaxon Smith-Njigba left the second practice of Seahawks’ minicamp Wednesday with a half or so to go, heading into the locker room accompanied by a trainer.

Coach Mike Macdonald, though, didn’t sound too worried later when asked if Smith-Njigba is OK.

“Yeah, I think so,” Macdonald said. “Nicked his shoulder a little bit, so [we] just played it safe.”

Assuming the injury is indeed no big deal, then it may also be safe to say Smith-Njigba could afford to miss the end of what was the final practice of Seattle’s offseason program, secure in the knowledge that he’d already made a pretty loud statement about his role with the team this fall.

“He’s definitely going to be a massive piece of what we’re trying to do offensively,” Macdonald said.

That, of course, was the hope and plan when Seattle selected Smith-Njigba with the 20th-overall pick of the 2023 draft out of Ohio State.

And Smith-Njigba showed signs he can fulfill the highest of hopes as a rookie in 2023 when he caught 63 passes, the second-most by a rookie in franchise history.

But it was also a season that left everyone — including Smith-Njigba — wanting more.

“For me personally, I felt like it was a good foundation,” Smith-Njigba said before practice Wednesday. “I can grow from it. A lot of growing pains, a lot of ups and downs.”

The downs included being limited in the offseason program while still recovering from a hamstring injury that held him to just three games during his final year at Ohio State in 2022, then suffering a slight fracture in his wrist during a preseason game against Dallas that required surgery.

Smith-Njigba made it back to play all 17 games. But the wrist injury threw him off course at a critical time in his development and contributed to a slower-than-expected start to the season in which he had just 62 yards receiving in the first four games.

“Yeah, I would probably say it took me a couple games,” he said of how long it took for him to feel back to normal from the wrist injury. “I wore a cast for the first two games, but the training staff did an amazing job here and we got that covered and I feel great now. Toward the middle and end of the season I felt great, so it was good.”

There was also the question of how he was used.

With the Seahawks also boasting the veteran, proven and highly-paid receiving duo of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, Smith-Njigba most typically lined up in the slot.

According to Pro Football Focus, he had 456 snaps in the slot and 214 outside.

That played a role in Smith-Njigba also often being thrown passes close to the line of scrimmage.

In fact, of Smith-Njigba’s 90 targets last year, 32 came behind the line of scrimmage, according to Pro Football Focus.

Another 34 came zero to 9 yards downfield.

That means he was targeted only 24 times on routes run 10 yards or farther.

Smith-Njigba, though, was productive on those routes.

According to PFF, he caught eight of 13 passes on routes from 10-19 yards, for 128 yards.

He was even better on deeper throws. On routes of 20 yards or longer, he caught six of 11 targets for 170 yards, earning about the highest receiving grade possible in those situations from PFF at 98.9, and charting a 139.2 passer rating on those throws.

Most notable of the deeper routes he had success on last season was the game winner against the Eagles, a 29-yard pass from Drew Lock that put Seattle ahead 20-17 with 28 seconds remaining. (Another was a 12-yard TD against the Steelers that Smith-Njigba caught at the back of the end zone, considered by PFF as a throw of 20 or more yards).

Still, the result was that Smith-Njigba averaged just 6.1 yards depth per target — Metcalf averaged 12.8 and Lockett 10.8, according to Pro Football Reference — with his 63 receptions accounting for 628 yards.

That, though, figures to change some this year as a new scheme installed by first-year offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb could mean Smith-Njigba not only lines up more outside, but also may be used more on longer routes.

“We’re working, putting a lot of things in right now,” Smith-Njigba said. “It’s looking explosive. I love it so far. A lot of opportunities to make plays, to run routes down the field and just make plays, so I’m excited.”

He expanded on that in another answer when asked his thoughts on Grubb’s offense.

“Just loving what I’m seeing right now,” Smith-Njigba said. “A lot of motions, a lot of putting us in the right position to make plays. Simple as that. And yeah, I’m with [Grubb]. We’re rocking and rolling right now.”

A year of experience and better health also figure to be big factors in allowing Smith-Njigba to improve on last year’s numbers.

Unlike a year ago, Smith-Njigba was a full participant throughout the offseason program, taking advantage one day to make seven touchdown catches during an OTA, four coming in one red-zone drill.

Smith-Njigba, listed at 6-foot, 202 pounds, said he set a goal to get “bigger, faster, stronger” entering his second NFL season.

“I feel like I’m trending in the right direction,” he said. “Still got a lot of work to do in that area and overall. My whole game can just be more complete, and I can be better in all ways, especially just learning the playbook right now and knowing the spots I need to hit. Just figuring that out right now.”

Macdonald seems confident he’ll get it.

“He’s just a hard cover, man,” Macdonald said. “He can play outside, inside, and Ryan Grubb does a great job moving guys around and finding some matchups. His lower-body power and flexibility and being able to accelerate and just having great hands and being able to track the ball is pretty impressive.”

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