Seahawks WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba has strong start to Year 2

Wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba enters his second season with the Seattle Seahawks in 2024. AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson

RENTON, Wash. -- Jaxon Smith-Njigba had a familiar feeling about his rookie season with the Seattle Seahawks. It reminded him of being a freshman at Ohio State and at Rockwall High School outside of Dallas before that.

"I felt like it was a good foundation," he said earlier this week. "I can grow from it. A lot of growing pains, a lot of ups and downs, but kind of similar from first years of college and in high school. Kind of the same thing."

What Smith-Njigba did as a sophomore at both stops bodes well for the Seahawks and their second-year wide receiver.

As a 15-year-old playing on varsity for a Class 6A program in Texas, he broke out for a team-high 1,328 receiving yards in 12 games. Four years later, he broke out again for the Buckeyes, finishing third in FBS with 1,606 receiving yards and tied for ninth in receptions with 95, leading the team in both categories despite playing alongside two other receivers who would be first-round picks the following year in Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave.

That history of second-year jumps is one more reason why Smith-Njigba looks like an obvious breakout candidate after his 63-catch, 628-yard debut season -- even in a receiver corps that still has DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett and in an offense that figures to lean more on the running game than new coordinator Ryan Grubb did at the University of Washington.

Smith-Njigba's strong spring might be evidence enough. No Seahawks player shined more during Organized Team Activities (OTAs) and mandatory minicamp than him, albeit with the caveat that the non-contact nature of May and June practices sets up receivers to make uncontested catches, and that both Metcalf and Lockett weren't always on the field during the voluntary portion of the offseason program.

Even then, you don't often see players consistently stand out the way Smith-Njigba did over the last month. That was particularly true during one OTA in which he was downright dominant, hauling in eight touchdowns from Geno Smith between the 11-on-11 and seven-on-seven periods while Lockett was practicing and Metcalf was not.

"JSN's a great player and [we're] expecting big things out of him," coach Mike Macdonald said. "He's had a great offseason, works his tail off. His practice habits are awesome. Moving ability is pretty elite. I think we got a really cool plan for him."

The feeling inside the Virginia Mason Athletic Center last season was that Smith-Njigba looked like a typical rookie early on, and that as his practice and study habits improved, his play did as well.

To be sure, the broken left wrist he suffered in the second preseason game was another factor in his slow start. Smith-Njigba made it back for the Seahawks' season opener less than three weeks after surgery, but he caught only 12 passes for 62 yards over the first four games. He averaged roughly four catches and over 43 receiving yards per game over the final 13. His four touchdowns in that span included a pair of game-winners.

"I would probably say it took me a couple games [to get comfortable]," he said of his 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. Towards the middle, end of the season I felt great, so it was good."

Smith-Njigba never would have been available to the Seahawks at pick No. 20 if not for the hamstring injury that limited him to three games during his final college season. The Seahawks made him the first receiver taken in last year's draft, though there were plenty of people inside the organization who were intrigued by Boston College's Zay Flowers, a smaller but more explosive player that ran a 4.42 second 40-yard dash and was later drafted by the Baltimore Ravens..

Smith-Njigba was reportedly clocked at 4.48 at OSU's pro day. Despite that good-but-not-great time, he showed last season that he has the speed to be an outside threat and not just a slot receiver.

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

According to ESPN Stats and Info, Smith-Njigba was lined up out wide on 38 of his 63 catches. That included the go route he ran to get by Philadelphia Eagles cornerback James Bradberry IV before hauling in a 29-yard touchdown catch with 33 seconds left to give the Seahawks a 20-17 win in Week 15.

"Being on the outside, I feel like it's more of a one-on-one matchup and I love one-on-one matchups," Smith-Njigba said. "Being on the inside, there's some one-on-one matchups, a lot of zone and just reading the defense and sitting in the zone, which I feel like I'm pretty good at, but when it's one-on-one or being on the outside, it's more playground a little bit and that's what I like. I like the challenge."

The Seahawks' wide receiver corps is virtually unchanged from last season, with Lockett, Metcalf, Smith-Njigba, Jake Bobo, Dareke Young and Dee Eskridge all back in the fold. But the pecking order could change in 2024. While Lockett led the team with 79 catches and finished second behind Metcalf with 894 yards, the second-most prolific receiver in franchise history turns 32 in September and took a paycut to return to Seattle for his 10th season.

Smith-Njigba, meanwhile, appears poised for his latest second-year jump.

"He's a guy that we can focus our offense around, along with other guys," Macdonald said. "Tyler Lockett is still a great player. DK Metcalf, phenomenal player. The runners, Noah Fant. But he's definitely going to be a massive piece of what we're trying to do offensively."