Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba is somewhat of a polarizing prospect these days after missing much of the 2022 season due to injury. After lighting the college football world on fire in 2021, injuries and the emergence of Marvin Harrison Jr. have led many dynasty managers’ excitement for Smith-Njigba to wane. Smith-Njigba is also not expected to test as an extraordinary athlete at the NFL Combine or his Ohio State pro day, so he might not have an excellent opportunity to give his draft stock that final push upward.
The question will be, which version of Smith-Njigba will we get once he reaches the NFL? Will we see the dominant 2021 version, who had over 1,600 receiving yards as a sophomore and had both Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave publicly dubbing Smith-Njigba the best receiver on their team? Or will the detractors who think Smith-Njigba isn’t big, fast, or twitchy enough to succeed prove correct?
Draft capital and the eventual NFL situation will ultimately help paint that picture for dynasty managers. Still, at this point of the year, we have nothing else but to focus on the player evaluation side. Let’s take a deeper look into Smith-Njigba as a prospect.
- College: Ohio State University
- Height: 6’0″
- Weight: 197 lbs.
- Age: 20 (2/14/02)
- Year: Junior
- Draft Projection: Top 50 pick
Smith-Njigba had a sterling high school career before enrolling at Ohio State. He caught 104 passes for nearly 2,100 yards and 35 touchdowns during his senior season (class of 2020) at Rockwell HS in Texas. Smith-Njigba was a highly-decorated five-star recruit. He won the Landry Award (best player in north Texas), the Texas Gatorade Player of the Year Award, and All-American honors.
Smith-Njigba played sparingly as a freshman behind Olave and Wilson in a shortened 2020 Big Ten season. As a sophomore, however, he exploded onto the scene. In 2021, Smith-Njigba caught 95 balls for 1,606 yards and nine touchdowns. He relegated Olave and Wilson to backup singer duty in many ways as he played frontman all season. This included the insane 15-catch, 347-yard, three-touchdown mic-drop performance in the Rose Bowl against Utah.
For as dominant as Smith-Njigba was as a sophomore, he was essentially non-existent in 2022. He caught just five passes across three games before calling it a season and a college career.
Following a similar college career arc to Ja’Marr Chase, it is somewhat surprising that many people are souring on Smith-Njigba based on a busted 2022 campaign. On the other hand, Chase’s value remained sky-high even though he sat out his entire junior season.
Route Running Technique
I hate when analysts lazily lump everything a receiver does together and dub him a good or bad “route runner.” Still, Smith-Njigba is a good route runner in virtually every aspect of the term.
He is excellent in his initial release, although he has many reps coming from the slot where it’s a little easier to get off. His technique in his footwork and hands right at the snap is inconsistent at times but solid overall. His first step routinely puts defenders in catch-up mode right off the bat.
Despite not appearing particularly bursty, Smith-Njigba has plenty of “juice” in short-area quickness. Like Keenan Allen, he can use that sneaky quickness along with masterful use of leverage and body positioning to create separation, especially inside. Setting up defenders with subtle stutter steps and selling routes with his shoulders, hips, and head movements are staples of his game.
Everyone loves comps, but it’s hard because no two players are exactly alike. Amon-Ra St. Brown, Calvin Ridley, and Allen are the three NFL players that come to mind when I watch Smith-Njigba. This is not to say Smith-Njigba will end up at their levels of play. There are plenty of similarities in how they create separation.
Another football cliché here. When the play breaks down, and his quarterback is forced out of the pocket, Smith-Njigba has that knack for adjusting his route and making himself an option down the field. Whether he needs to sit down in a soft area or change angles by sprinting across the field, Smith-Njigba knows where to go to help his quarterback. He would be a great fit in Baltimore, Chicago, or any team where plays get extended often.
Additionally, Smith-Njigba demonstrates an advanced understanding of zones and how to position himself to give the quarterback that easy, consistent target over the middle. He is the opposite of so many wide receiver prospects we see who are all twitch and speed but very little in the way of polish and technique. Smith-Njigba knows all the tricks. He looks like a twelve-year NFL vet already.
After the catch, Smith-Njigba routinely gains extra yardage by taking great angles, attacking leverage, and quickly processing the optimal pathway through opposing blockers and tacklers. The kid is a playmaker despite not being very impressive athletically.
Great When the Ball is in the Air
Again, despite not having Calvin Johnson-like measurables, Smith-Njigba is very good at coming down with the ball when it’s thrown to him.
It’s not so much that Smith-Njigba is this excellent 50/50 ball winner who outmuscles defenders and routinely “Moss-es” them. It’s more about his ability to track the ball in the air and his body control, concentration, and leverage usage to secure the ball at the catch point. He also shows “late hands,” which helps him in contested catch situations at his size.
Lack of Top End Athleticism/Speed
It would not shock me if Smith-Njigba ran in the 4.6s during his workouts. Top-end long speed is not his game. Again though, he more than makes up for his lack of burst and long speed with his bag of separation skills.
Some scouts and front-office executives may believe this lack of top-flight athleticism caps Smith-Njigba’s upside. This could cause him to get drafted later than we thought.
Can He Play Outside?
Much of Smith-Njigba’s production came from the slot in 2021. Dynasty managers get scared whenever a college receiver dominates from the slot but plays very little on the outside.
In my opinion, this concept is overrated. Justin Jefferson played almost exclusively from the slot in college. Last time I checked, Jefferson has been doing just fine in the NFL, both in real life and fantasy.
Does Smith-Njigba’s skill set translate better to the NFL as a slot player? Maybe. But that hasn’t prevented Amon-Ra St. Brown, Allen, and many other players from being incredibly productive receivers.
However, creative play-calling and route combinations can scheme players open on the outside. Not to mention, Smith-Njigba is not a finished product just because he’s already so polished in many areas. It is entirely possible he could work on and improve his skills on the outside.
One Year Wonder?
As I mentioned earlier, Chase had a similar college career path with just one season of production. He also sat out his entire junior season. Like Smith-Njigba, Chase’s one season was not just productive but downright dominant.
Curiously, Chase’s dynasty value never took a dip after his year off like it appears to be doing with Smith-Njigba. The biggest difference I can see is that Chase still provided a pretty elite athletic profile to go with his sophomore season of production. Without that athleticism to fall back on, it seems like plenty of dynasty managers are concerned by his inactive 2022.
The Wrap Up
We’ve discussed the Chase comparison multiple times regarding Smith-Njigba’s collegiate career. And while I do not think Smith-Njigba is on the same level as Chase as a talent, I do think missing (most of) 2022 will end up similarly unimportant.
Do I think Smith-Njigba’s numbers as a sophomore mean he is a superior individual talent over the likes of Wilson, Olave, or Jameson Williams? Definitely not.
But let’s remember, the role Smith-Njigba played for Ohio State is a role that NFL teams also need filling. Regardless of level, having a wideout who can get open at will all over the field is valuable. Players like Allen, St. Brown, and Cooper Kupp show that slot receivers can and are elite fantasy producers in today’s NFL. Smith-Njigba can produce similar numbers in the right environment.
And let us not fall into the trap of thinking Smith-Njigba can’t make plays down the field. His ball tracking and body control are elite, as we have discussed. Add the fact that he is an underrated playmaker with the ball in his hands, and the typical one-dimensional slot receiver stereotypes go out the window.
Beyond his mastery from the slot, if Smith-Njigba can expand his game to include boundary proficiency and more volume on the outside, his potential to be a true lead receiver on a great offense improves.
Given the overall lack of top-end quality in this year’s class (relative to past years), I still have Smith-Njigba as my WR1 in this class almost by default. Jordan Addison, Quentin Johnston, and Kayshon Boutte offer far more upside due to superior athletic traits. I can’t rank any of them ahead of Smith-Njigba in dynasty at this point before the NFL Draft. His overall skill set as a receiver provides enough safety and a high enough floor to make him one of the top rookies in 2023.
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