Will Seattle Seahawks WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba Breakout in 2024?

While flashing his undeniable talent as a rookie, Smith-Njigba is primed to at least enter WR2 territory in Ryan Grubb's offense.
Oct 15, 2023; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA;  Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba (11) runs after the catch as Cincinnati Bengals safety Nick Scott (33) defends during the fourth quarter at Paycor Stadium.
Oct 15, 2023; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba (11) runs after the catch as Cincinnati Bengals safety Nick Scott (33) defends during the fourth quarter at Paycor Stadium. / Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports
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Everything about Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s rookie season felt like it was building up to something much bigger — merely scratching the surface of the former Ohio State phenom’s NFL potential.

The numbers alone tell a story of a consistent rookie, but not necessarily one who could be a future star in the league. You have to isolate the big moments — like his one-handed catch versus the 49ers in Week 12 and his game-winning touchdown against the Eagles in Week 15 — to glimpse Smith-Njigba’s full talent. The next step is seeing that on a game-to-game basis from the 2023 No. 20 overall pick.

Will Smith-Njigba explode as one of the NFL’s premier receivers as a sophomore, or will he remain an average, contributing role player?

The Past

In today’s college football era of NIL and fifth- and sixth-year seniors, it’s rare to see a player with Smith-Njigba’s resume garner so much hype entering the NFL. He was essentially a one-year wonder at Ohio State with his electric 2021 season, where Smith-Njigba set multiple single-season receiving records at the school and FBS levels.

Smith-Njigba didn’t start his first season at Ohio State, appearing in seven games and pulling in 10 receptions for 49 yards and a touchdown. As a sophomore, however, he exploded for a school-record 1,606 receiving yards on 95 catches and added nine touchdowns. In the Rose Bowl against Utah, Smith-Njigba set an FBS Bowl Game record with 347 yards on 15 catches.

Then, as a junior, he played in just three games before suffering a hamstring strain that didn’t fully heal until partway through his first set of OTAs with the Seahawks. But when he got on the field, it was obvious why Smith-Njigba was prized as a first-round talent.

Running a 4.52 40-yard dash at his Pro Day (albeit with an injured hamstring), Smith-Njigba has never excelled via his straight-line speed. It’s been his advanced route-running, change-of-direction quickness and outright elusiveness in space that allowed him to excel at Ohio State — all qualities that make him produce as a slot receiver.

In 2021, during Smith-Njigba’s breakout campaign, 87 percent of his 645 snaps came in the slot, per Pro Football Focus. That was similar to his usage in Seattle’s offense last season (68 percent in the slot on 672 snaps) when he logged 628 receiving yards and four touchdowns on 63 receptions.

The most striking difference between Smith-Njigba’s college and NFL resume, so far, is in his yards per reception. After averaging 16.9 yards per catch in 2021, that number dropped to 9.97 last season as a rookie with Seattle — tied for 51st among NFL receivers with at least 75 targets in 2023, per PFF.

If Smith-Njigba was even in the middle of the pack (28th out of 56 qualifying receivers), he would be right around 12.8 yards per reception. That alone would have upped his production to 806 receiving yards on 63 catches, which is a more encouraging rookie season.

So how does that get fixed? Well, bringing in Ryan Grubb as Seattle’s offensive coordinator was the first step.

Outlook For 2024

Grubb’s offensive scheme at Washington was known for stretching the field, creating mismatches in deep zones and getting underneath receivers in space with shallow routes as a result. It also regularly utilized its slot receivers in the middle of the field and the seams, creating big plays from anywhere on the field.

That’s exactly how Smith-Njigba exploded with Ohio State in 2021, particularly by having two other daunting receivers on the outside in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Now, with DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, he could have the same effect on defenses in a scheme that fits his strengths.

Volume will also be a huge factor. Smith-Njigba’s 90 targets last season tied for 43rd among all receivers, per PFF, while Metcalf had 112 (28th) and Lockett had 117 (25th). It’s unlikely Smith-Njigba sees a massive increase in targets with all three players still set to catch passes for the Seahawks, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see him and Lockett trade places in 2024.

Take Jalen McMillan’s 2022 season at Washington, for example. That year, McMillan, who was a third-round pick to Tampa Bay this past draft, played 92 percent of his snaps in the slot and finished with 79 catches for 1,098 yards (13.9 ypc) and nine touchdowns. McMillan’s numbers dipped last season, but that was partially due to him playing two fewer games and massive production from Rome Odunze and Ja’Lynn Polk.

If Grubb can get Smith-Njigba the ball in space, on deep crossing routes and in the deep middle third of the field, he will flourish. Keeping him in the slot for at least 80 percent of his snaps will aid this, and the Seahawks have the receiver depth to do so.

Predictions for 2024

83 receptions, 1,054 yards, 7 touchdowns

Receiving 115 targets and upping his catch rate from 70 percent last season to 72 percent in 2024, Smith-Njigba averages 12.7 yards per reception and finishes in the top 25 in the NFL in catches and receiving yards. His seven touchdowns and yardage numbers are also second among Seattle’s receivers behind only Metcalf, as Grubb finds creative ways to get Smith-Njigba open inside the 20-yard line and near the goal line.

This projection does anticipate somewhat of a further drop-off from Lockett, who receives a target share similar to what Smith-Njigba had last season. For his career, Lockett has a 73.5 percent catch rate, which means he is still a productive player for the Seahawks on the outside.

Smith-Njigba’s talent is undeniable, and he will only continue to adapt to how NFL defenses try to cover him as he gets more opportunities. While still not putting him in elite company, this is the type of season that would be the next step for the young receiver as he continues his rise as one of the Seahawks’ top receiving options moving forward.

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Connor Benintendi