Will Jaxon Smith-Njigba bring "Big Game" ability to NFL?
JSN's rare ability to get open and create yards after the catch make him one of the most productive receivers in HS/College history: Seaside Joe 1537
Ever since devoting a day to Jaxon Smith-Njigba on Tuesday, I can’t get my mind off of one fact above all others: He has a rare ability to produce the one thing that every football coach would naturally most desire, which is the ability to “take football here and move it down there”. It is easy to overcomplicate the game of football—and these days that seems to be all that many analysts are concerned with doing anymore—but that’s basically it, right?
Golf: Put ball in hole down there.
Basketball: Put ball in basket.
Football: Move ball further downfield or prevent that from happening and say, “What a NASTY thing to do! How dare you move the ball against, me! ME!”
Sure, you’ve got to block well. You’ve got to tackle well. And you’ve got to make good decisions. There are countless variables involved with achieving the goal, but the goal is simple: Apart from taking a knee, an offense always wants to move the ball downfield on the next play whether it’s 100 yards or one chain link.
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You can make the argument that yards and touchdowns are overrated. In some cases, that would be true. Just as true as Patrick Mahomes leading the NFL in passing yards and touchdowns and being cited as the game’s current best player. Just as true as Jerry Rice referred to as the all-time best receiver. Just as true as Richard Sherman being the NFL’s best cornerback when it was impossible to gain meaningful yards by throwing in his direction.
I’ve long said that what makes football special is that it is an individual sport wrapped inside of a team sport. And the greatest players of all-time are the ones who dominate individually—regardless of who surrounds them—and inevitably raises the value of all of his teammates.
Whether it is as one of the all-time most productive players in the history of high school football at the highest level in the state that has had not one but many TV shows and movies made about high school football in Texas, or as the go-to option on a college offense with two early first round picks at receiver, Jaxon Smith-Njigba has so far had that type of impact. I know that some fans get superstitious about “over-hyping” new players, so forget about the concept of hype whatsoever.
This isn’t about hype. This is about reviewing what has already happened.
In 2022, the Seattle Seahawks drafted Kenneth Walker III coming off of a career in which he was the most notable “big game” running back in college football. As I wrote many times in our “Kenny on Kenny” series, Walker had a unique penchant for big runs and big games: He started his career at Wake Forest with a 96-yard touchdown run against Rice, his first play at Michigan State was a 75-yard touchdown run against Northwestern, and he had two games with 230+ yards, two games with 5+ touchdowns, and four games with 170+ yards as a junior.
It led me to believe that Walker’s consistency over two different programs and offensive systems would lead to big-play ability at the NFL level.
As a rookie on the Seahawks, Walker had three runs over 60 yards (Marshawn Lynch had one 60+ yard run over 149 career regular seasons games) and his 167-yard outburst against the L.A. Chargers is already among Seattle’s all-time highest totals (Lynch, who I personally would put in the Hall of Fame, had a career-high of 153).
Say all you want about areas of improvement for Walker, there’s no doubt that the Seahawks wanted a big-play running back, they drafted a big-play running back, and they have a big-play running back.
In the world of over-complicating football and drafting football players, Jaxon Smith-Njigba has had to overcome skepticism about straightline speed since he was a five-star recruit coming out of Rockwall High School in 2020. The fact that he ran a 4.52-4.6 at his pro day (which many people cite as “too slow” if you weigh a shade under 200 lbs, like Njigba, but I’ll come back to this) is perhaps the only reason that he went 20th instead of in the top-10.
Apart from that one test (JSN’s 6.57 three-cone and 3.93 short shuttle are 99th percentile and a touch better than Odell Beckham Jr at the same weight and same age in 2014), Smith-Njigba does “the thing” we all want football players to do well:
“Take ball from over here to over there.”
As I wrote in Tuesday’s Founding Members “Super Joe” bonus, Jaxon Smith-Njigba had a legendary high school career at Texas 6A Rockwall:
Junior Season Stats:
97 catches, 1,828 yards, 20 touchdowns
Senior Season Stats (and he MISSED TWO GAMES):
109 catches, 2,161 yards, 34 TD
The 2,161 yards ranks sixth-most for a single-season in Texas history, the 34 touchdowns ranks as the third-highest total in state history. JSN was the Texas Gatorade Player of the Year and the 6A State Player of the Year. His career ended with 5,414 yards (third-most in Texas history) and 82 touchdowns. He won The Landry Award as the Texas player who “demonstrates positive character and leadership attributes”, joining former winners such as Kyler Murray (hmm) and Myles Garrett.
His senior season highlights—which is 9 minutes long—really puts his entire skillset on display.
A few other key moments I want to highlight out of there are old newspaper articles and TV interviews I found in which:
JSN’s dad said he “loves to work out” and that he would consistently out-work his brother Canaan even though Jaxon is three years younger and Canaan is now a professional baseball player on the Pirates
JSN’s high school coach said at the start of only his junior year that JSN was “the best route runner” and had “the best hands” of any player he had ever coached over a 30-year career
JSN led Rockwall to the 6A playoffs as a sophomore (when nobody expected them to be that good), then again as a junior, then as a stunning entrant into the semifinals as a senior; he had almost 600 yards and 12 touchdowns over one three-game span in the 2019 6A playoffs and much of his production in high school would often come in the first half, sitting out for long stretches when the score was a blowout
For example, Smith-Njigba had 15 catches, 252 yards, and five touchdowns in a 60-59 playoff win over favored Allen High School. Then two games later against Prosper, he had 243 yards and six touchdowns.
I understand anyone who says, “Well, these are just high school stats.”
Yes, they are high schools… They are some of the best high school stats in high school history in a state known for high school football.
It could all stop right there, right? Oftentimes the best high school players are peaking in those moments and it can prove impossible to sustain that success through college. For example, Jaxon Smith-Njigba wasn’t even the number one receiver recruit…who went to Ohio State in 2020. That would be Julian Fleming, the number one receiver recruit in the nation, but it didn’t take long for the Buckeyes to know who the heir apparent to Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson wouldn’t be him, it would be…
“Jaxon is as good as I’ve ever seen,” said Garrett Wilson, who moved to outside receiver to make room for Smith-Njigba. “Jaxon is the most natural athlete I’ve ever seen. I feel like I’m the best on the field every time, but I saw Jaxon for the first time and I was like, OK, he’s everything and then some, for sure.”
Though he didn’t see many targets as a true freshman, Smith-Njigba broke out for 145 yards and two touchdowns against Oregon in the second week of his sophomore season. After two months and eight games, he was certainly productive, but we only think of him as “JSN” now because of the last five games of the 2021 campaign:
60 catches, 958 yards, six touchdowns.
That’s the same type of JSNumbers that he produced as an elite high school football player, but now he’s doing it against the Big Ten, in the Rose Bowl against Utah, and playing next two first round picks.
That included 15 catches and 240 yards against Nebraska and 15 catches for 347 yards against Utah.
If you go back to the year 2000, only seven FBS receivers have posted two career games with at least 240 receiving yards. Not only is JSN one of the seven, he’s also the only one to do it despite only having one season as a starter.
Though we don’t know the names J.R. Tolver, Edell Shepherd, and Vince Mayle (except for the Cougs) very well, the list does also include Davante Adams and Mike Evans. There is only one first round bust on the list: Ashley Lelie. But Lelie was playing in Hawaii’s air raid offense in 2001 and he had three straight 200-yard games to end his career, all against defenses not manned to handle him.
Smith-Njigba’s situation and offense at Ohio State are MUCH different.
Even if you lower the standards a little bit, say to 220 yards, the list only grows to 23 names. Among them are of course Adams, Evans, Lelie, and JSN, but also Ja’Marr Chase (who had between 220-230 yards three times in 2019), Michael Crabtree (another air raid receiver), Amari Cooper, and one more name that you’ll definitely know.
At Kansas State, Lockett had a 194-yard game as a freshman, he had 237 and 278-yard games as a sophomore, and two 190-yard games as a junior prior to getting drafted in the third round by Seattle in 2015. Lockett’s receiving prowess didn’t immediately translate to the NFL, but he had a 15-catch, 200-yard game in 2020, a 178-yard game in 2021, and a pair of 150-yard games in 2019.
Are yards overrated? Sometimes.
But not when Lockett or Walker or any future Seahawks end up making history and setting single-game franchise records with them. They feel perfectly rated at those times and if Smith-Njigba has done it without “straightline speed” at a historic level at his previous stops (similar 40-yard times at the same weight include names like Robert Woods, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Tyler Boyd, but none came close to his short-area quickness measurements or college production), is there anything preventing him from continuing his big-game ability in the NFL?
I don’t want to spook anyone who is superstitious and say that he will. Instead I’ll say the Seattle Seahawks—nor any other team—have never added a receiver with quite the same history of big-game and big-play ability as Jaxon Smith-Njigba, so I’m looking forward to finding out.
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My take is that JSN will help a lot others have big games. Geno, Lockett, Metcalf, and Walker must be thrilled at the prospect of lining up with him.