Coming off a rather disappointing 8-9 season, the New England Patriots have plenty of potential for improvement. They already addressed some areas of need so far this offseason, but will now look to add long-term stability and additional playmaking ability through the NFL Draft. With 11 selections in hand, Bill Belichick and company are in a good position to do just that.
How they will ultimately use those picks remains to be seen. However, there are several players who would fit what they are looking for both at positions of need and at other spots all over the roster.
In our Patriots Draft Targets series, we will be taking a close look at some prospects we believe might be falling into that “fit” category. Today, let’s assess a projected first-round wide receiver.
Name: Jaxon Smith-Njigba
Position: Slot receiver
School: Ohio State
Opening day age: 21
Size: 6’0 5/8”, 196 lbs, 75 1/2” wing span, 30 1/2” arm length, 9” hand size
Workout numbers: 4.52s 40-yard dash, 3.93s short shuttle, 6.57s 3-cone drill, 35” vertical jump, 10’5” broad jump, 8.34 Relative Athletic Score
The son of a former college football player and younger brother of a pro baseball player, Smith-Njigba already was a highly productive pass catcher back in high school. He was outstanding in his three seasons as a starter at Rockwall High School — catching 287 passes for 5,288 yards and 63 touchdowns — and entered the college level as a five-star recruit. Unsurprisingly, he received interest from most major colleges before committing to Ohio State.
His first season with the Buckeyes was quiet, and he caught only 10 passes for 49 yards and a score in seven games. By his sophomore campaign, however, he was back at being his usual productive self: Smith-Njigba caught 95 passes for 1,606 yards — both single-season school records — and nine touchdowns. His numbers were projected to only go up, but he was limited to just 60 snaps over three games in 2022 due to a hamstring injury. In total, he caught just five passes for 43 yards in his final year in Columbus.
Expected round: 1st (Top 20)
Strengths: Smith-Njigba is as good a route-runner as you will find in this year’s draft — in large part because of elite quickness and agility. He is a technician who has a natural feel for leverage and using tempo, and is able to keep defenders guessing or manipulating them into erroneous reads. He is a fluid mover, who has the baseline athleticism to quickly get open in the short and intermediate game when facing man coverage. Against zone, he also has the vision and spatial awareness to find openings between defenders’ coverage areas.
Smith-Njigba also has shown that he can quickly transition from receiver to runner without losing speed. He is an able yards-after-the-catch producer who is not easily taken down, and offers something in the screen game or on similarly manufactured touches. In addition to his prowess working the middle of the field from the slot, he also has some experience playing in the kicking game and returned 11 punts for 71 total yards in 2020 and 2021.
Smith-Njigba on a variation of HOSS Juke featuring one of the longest hops ever pic.twitter.com/LunDj6t1bI— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 5, 2023
Weaknesses: As evidenced by his 8.34 Relative Athletic Score, Smith-Njigba is a good but not necessarily outstanding athlete. His acceleration and long speed in particular are suspect, with his 10-yard split (1.65s) and 40-yard dash (4.52s) ranking only in the 4 and 44 percentile, respectively. His lack of a second gear limits his ability to attack the deep parts of the field, and allows defenders to close in on him either in coverage or with the ball in his hands.
Smith-Njigba is also not the most physical player, and needs to work on his run blocking to become a true three-down player on the offensive side of the ball. Add the fact that he missed most of 2022 with a hamstring injury, and therefore has only one season of consistent production at the college level and you get a highly-touted prospect with several question marks.
What would be his role in 2023? Based on his skillset Smith-Njigba projects as a Z/slot receiver in New England’s offense. The team is already well-set in that department with JuJu Smith-Schuster and Kendrick Bourne as the top options, but it lacks developmental upside and a player of Smith-Njigba’s ability to get open in an instant. Accordingly, he would be able to see regular opportunities even as a rookie. He would likely serve as a package player who might become the No. 2 inside receiver and top pure slot by season’s end, possibly coming close to the team lead in receptions.
What is his growth potential? While much of his ceiling will be dependent on how his athletic and physical limitations can hold up in the NFL, he still has some room to grow: adding strength, for example, should help him become a true every-down receiver. A year in the Patriots’ program should help him achieve that goal, and by 2024 he would likely take Bourne’s spot on the depth chart and possibly develop into a true go-to wide receiver for the team — if he doesn’t become one already in 2023.
Does he have positional versatility? While his shiftiness might allow him to find success on specific run-designs, Smith-Njigba’s overall versatility is limited. He is a slot receiver first and foremost, with his lack of size and straight-line speed limiting his ability to play elsewhere on a regular basis. That does not mean he will not line up on the perimeter on occasion, but most of his production will come inside and off the line of scrimmage.
What adding him would mean for the depth chart: At the moment, the Patriots have four wide receivers who would either fall or come close to the “roster lock” category: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Tyquan Thornton, DeVante Parker and Kendrick Bourne. Adding Smith-Njigba to the mix might change the outlook, however, and possibly make a player such as Bourne expendable. If all five stick around for 2023, the youngster’s arrival would almost certainly spell doom for the roster hopes of depth interior receivers Tre Nixon and Lynn Bowden Jr.
Why the Patriots make sense as a landing spot: The Patriots have some serviceable options at wide receiver, but they lack a true playmaker to command a defense’s full attention. Smith-Njigba returning to his 2021 form would be just that, and possibly the best wide receiver to come out of this year’s class. Adding him to the mix would make life easier for everybody else in the New England offense, especially at the quarterback position.
Patriots contact: Scouting Combine
Verdict: He may not be a size and speed monster at the wide receiver position, but Smith-Njigba has the tools to become a highly productive player in the NFL. If he is available at No. 14 overall or in a reasonable trade-up range, the Patriots would have an opportunity to add true difference-making potential to an offense currently lacking just that at the receiver positions.
Would Smith-Njigba be a good fit for the Patriots? Where do you think he will be drafted? Please head down to the comment section to discuss!