RENTON, Wash. — Jaxon Smith-Njigba exploded off the line and broke slightly inward, subtly but resolutely separating from starting cornerback Michael Jackson.
The Seattle Seahawks rookie receiver glanced back at quarterback Geno Smith. But he might as well have glanced at the sky because the sun blinded him.
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“So I just reached one hand out there and hoped for a prayer and it just stuck,” Smith-Njigba told Yahoo Sports during a recent visit, underselling the role of his natural ability, not to mention what the Seahawks describe as quick chemistry between quarterback and receiver. “Those are the plays that I like the most: when my anxiety’s really high, when the ball’s in the air, I don’t know if I’m gonna catch it or not, and I end up coming down with it.
“I love feeling that feeling.”
The Seahawks hope Smith-Njigba and his teammates will be feeling it a lot this season.
There’s reason to believe they will, beginning with the pedigree of the Seahawks receiver room. Seattle’s triumvirate should rival that of any club — especially when factoring in receivers alone.
Smith-Njigba, the 20th overall pick of the 2023 NFL Draft, doesn’t arrive in the league with the expectation to carry the team that first-round skill players sometimes do. Instead, he’ll line up alongside nine-year veteran Tyler Lockett and 2019 second-rounder DK Metcalf, each of whom have averaged more than 1,000 yards and 8.75 touchdowns each of the last four seasons.
How much room is there for another receiver to excel? It’s a good problem to have.
And the Seahawks are working to make sure that indeed their passing attack is a problem.
Geno Smith’s accuracy allows Seahawks WRs to play free
Seahawks offensive coordinator Shane Waldron has a rule: No boring routes.
Receivers should understand the rhythm and timing of plays to understand how much wiggle room exists and where. Quarterbacks should understand the concepts that their receivers are executing, as well as the personal touches that will differentiate the same route executed by different players.
“The subtleties of how you throw to a certain guy because we have such different body types,” wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal told Yahoo Sports. “The ball positioning, rather than just trying to get the ball to the right guy.
“Geno’s accurate enough that we’ve had some pretty good success [in] the first part of camp.”
Smith’s 69.8% completion rate led the league in 2022, his 4,282 yards and 30 touchdowns to 11 interceptions a reminder that his knack for discerning between his teammates’ styles trumped defenders’ ability to adjust to them.
In 2022, Smith found the 6-4, 235-pound Metcalf for 1,048 yards and six touchdowns while also connecting with the 5-8, 182-pound Lockett for 1,033 and nine touchdowns. He learned to throw Metcalf high but also deep enough to account for his elite long speed that’s powered further by aggressiveness.
“He might be one of our best route runners,” Lal said, “and we now somewhat take it for granted that a long-lever guy can drop his hips, change direction and do what he’s doing.”
Smith-Njigba, who totaled 1,606 yards and nine touchdowns with Ohio State in 2021 before a hamstring limited him to three games in 2022, will diverge from Metcalf as he taunts defensive backs with a level of twitch in his first step to full speed that surprised Lal. The 21-year-old former five-star recruit is creating his role as a ball tracker with elite short-area burst and savvy hands. He’s learning to fine-tune his route-running to adjust from Ohio State techniques to the Seahawks’ preferred method.
“He picked it up really quickly,” Lal said. “The other day we worked the change-of-pace move and we were like, ‘OK, you can use it on this, this and this.’ And yesterday he said to me, ‘Oh, I could have used it on this route.’ I missed it.
“That’s the fun part of how he’s coming along and how we can, much like Tyler, not change what he is but just enhance what he is.”
Lal helps Smith keep track of the nuances, alerting the quarterback in one-on-ones which move his receiver will use to defeat the corner. Those tips can translate to team drills and eventually live play, as Smith begins to understand not just who’s open in his progressions but also what anti-boring flairs he should interpret as intended rather than errant.
“It’s always good that he knows and understands [when], ‘OK, even though I saw him inside-release on an outbreaking route, I trust know he’s gonna win at the top, because this was planned,’” Lal said. “The nuances of making it more person-specific versus position-specific, we’ve been able to get to much sooner.”
Why Lockett, Metcalf snaps don’t need to limit Smith-Njigba
The Seahawks began to rely more heavily on their passing game with Smith last season, attempting the 15th-most passes in the league after ranking 31st the prior year with Wilson.
The result: a bump from the 16th-best scoring offense to the ninth, contributing to their rise from fourth in the NFC West to second.
The goal this season, as in any, will be to win the division. The San Francisco 49ers, who advanced to the conference championship three of the last four years (and the Super Bowl in one of those), should be Seattle’s stiffest competition. Boasting the No. 1 defense and scoring defense, the Niners paired Kyle Shanahan’s mystical offensive attack with a defense that stifled any run attempts. Their one mortal game element: passing defense. While the Niners ranked second overall in rushing defense, that number fell to 20th in passing yards and completion percentage allowed.
Waldron will confer with defensive-minded head coach Pete Carroll on which looks are most likely to create problems for which defenses.
“You talk about the why, and why that’s a stressful play,” Waldron told Yahoo Sports. “Not just it worked one time because someone made a mistake, but, ‘Hey, this is really putting a stress on the defensive structure.’ And then you can bring that to life with a structure that you might see throughout the course of the year in the game plan.”
Game plans early may need to heavily favor the passing game, as Seahawks running backs Ken Walker III (groin) and Zach Charbonnet (shoulder) each battle preseason injuries. Pair that bill of health with the Seahawks’ penchant toward 11 personnel (featuring three receivers) last season, and it’s easy to justify marching out the triumvirate.
According to Sports Info Solutions data, the Seahawks employed three-receiver packages on 75% of their pass plays last season, fifth most in the league.
The possibility of lining up beside two 1,000-yarders excites Smith-Njigba so much that the rookie described his opportunity as “easy” four times in an interview with Yahoo Sports — not because he can eschew work but because the blueprint for what he’s chasing is easy to find and then work toward.
“I can learn a lot from those guys,” said Smith-Njigba, who has also learned to retrieve peanuts, water and Gatorade for the veterans. “Easy just to watch those guys and see how they go about their business on and off the field for me to have a great example.”