RENTON, Wash. — It’s just after 1:45 p.m., and the fans filling the north and east ends of the Virginia Mason Athletic Center are hollering for the attention of their favorite players. Geno Smith, DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and Riq Woolen are among the most popular, along with Bobby Wagner.
This is the time of year when the fans are also excited to see the rookies, particularly the ones taken high in the draft. Devon Witherspoon, the No. 5 pick, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, taken with the 20th pick, have eyes on them wherever they go.
Throughout Tuesday’s practice, The Athletic followed every move of Smith-Njigba, the highest-drafted receiver of the Pete Carroll era who is expected to help take the Seattle Seahawks’ offense to the next level. Below is an account of Smith-Njigba’s day as he prepared to make his preseason debut Thursday night against the Minnesota Vikings.
1:53: Smith-Njigba isn’t involved much in special teams outside of competing at punt returner, so he spends this period on a separate field working with receivers coach and passing game coordinator Sanjay Lal, who is known for being extremely detail oriented when it comes to route running. They rep a handful of routes, starting with wheel routes up the sideline, both from the backfield and in the slot. We’ve already seen this one pay off for Smith-Njigba, mostly notable on a deep ball against Witherspoon for a touchdown in the spring. They also drill out routes and in-breakers from the slot, mostly within the 5- or 10-yard range. Quick-game stuff.
1:58: Senior offensive assistant Nate Carroll and third-year receiver Dee Eskridge join Smith-Njigba and Lal. On Friday, Eskridge was suspended six regular-season games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. He’s eligible to practice but isn’t suited up. Carroll flanks Smith-Njigba as a receiver, and Lal serves as a slot corner while Smith-Njigba reps more out-breaking patterns as well as a few that break inside. Smith-Njigba is dangerous in those scenarios because he often won’t be pressed at the line and has the freedom to break either direction.
2:00: Time for goal line work. Players take reps from Smith and backup quarterback Drew Lock, alternating pre-snap locations from left to right. Smith-Njigba starts on the left, lined up against Nate Carroll pretending to be a press corner. He takes a step inside, then quickly jabs back outside, swipes Carroll’s arm down then jogs ahead before rising and high-pointing a pass from Smith in the end zone.
Smith-Njigba does the same from the right side, lined up against Lal at the 5-yard line. Lal mirrors Smith-Njigba at the line instead of attempting to press him. Smith-Njigba chops his feet inside, then breaks toward the back pylon, where he leaps and grabs another ball from Smith. He practices catching it at the highest point, pulling away from a defender’s outstretched arm and cradling it with both arms as he lands. There are a lot of details to consider in what looks like a simple route on air.
The drill ends with Smith-Njigba repping a goal line slant on air, maneuvering to avoid a jam attempt from a defender and catching the ball in front of Lal. Smith-Njigba cradles the ball to simulate catching in traffic while Pete Carroll runs and yells in his face to keep the rookie on his toes.
JSN content pic.twitter.com/lnIzE62vyN
— Dugar, Michael-Shawn (@MikeDugar) August 8, 2023
2:05: More routes on air, going the length of the field. Smith-Njigba is among the three receivers to take the first rep, along with Metcalf and Cody Thompson. The rookie lines up primarily in the slot, testing the defense underneath. An out route from Smith. A comeback from third-string quarterback Holton Ahlers. Smith-Njigba has the ability to line up all over the field, as we’ll see later in practice, but it’s clear Seattle values him in the short and intermediate areas.
2:11: Seattle begins its team run period. Smith-Njigba is again with the first group, this time aligned outside against left cornerback Tre Brown. This drill is intended to rep the run game, but the offense usually mixes in a few play-action calls.
A few plays into the session, Smith-Njigba runs a nice dig route from the slot and appears to attract the defense’s attention over the middle, then Smith launches a deep shot to Metcalf in one-on-one coverage against Brown. Incomplete. Smith-Njigba stays on the field when Lock and the second unit come on a few plays later. Again operating from the slot, Smith-Njigba catches a screen pass from Lock and darts around the edge, thanks to a block from receiver John Hall, and sprints for first down.
Practice host Andy Dooley screams “Smith-Njigbaaaaaaaa” to the crowd as the receiver dashes up the sideline. The Seahawks had one of the worst screen offenses in the league last season — they produced a league-low three first downs and were third-worst in screen yardage, according to TruMedia — however, that rep is an example of how Smith-Njigba can potentially give the team a boost.
2:20: But running those screens against the first-team defense is a bit harder, as Smith-Njigba and the offense saw during the red zone blitz period. Facing third-and-short from the 20-yard line, Smith throws a screen to Smith-Njigba, but it likely would have been blown up by nickel corner Coby Bryant and Wagner short of the first down in a live setting.
On the next snap, though, Smith-Njigba gets a free release from the slot, runs a crossing pattern and catches a pass in stride from Smith for a score. Members of the defense argue that he would have been stopped short, but it appeared that Smith-Njigba would have easily beaten Wagner to the pylon for a touchdown because there wasn’t a cornerback on that side of the field.
Metcalf is Smith’s favorite target, but because of how QB-friendly those underneath routes can be when run properly, Smith-Njigba gets a lot of looks in obvious passing situations.
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“I couldn’t imagine him not being part of the mix right from the beginning,” Carroll said of Smith-Njigba earlier in camp. “It just comes too easy for him. We’re looking for the spots we can put him in, how to move him around and see how much he can handle. There’s nothing that’s holding him back. He’s hitting it off with Geno really well.”
2:38: Another team period begins, and Smith-Njigba continues to be deployed all over the field. He starts out on the outside against Brown, who jumps all over an out-breaking route, forcing Smith to progress to another read: Metcalf running toward the sideline with safety Quandre Diggs closing in on him. Metcalf makes the catch and moves the sticks. That play demonstrates how an underneath threat can give Metcalf more room to operate.
Later in the drill, Smith-Njigba wins a rep in the slot against fellow rookie Jerrick Reed (who had safety help over the top), but the ball goes elsewhere. On third-and-4, Lock throws a strike to Smith-Njigba for a first down, layering the ball past nickel Jonathan Sutherland and in front of linebacker Jon Rhattigan.
Whether with the starters or backups, Smith-Njigba demonstrates a savvy when running routes that allows him to build chemistry with his quarterbacks.
“I like how Jaxon plays,” Woolen said. “He runs crisp routes, he’s a smart player, and he gets in and out of cuts. You watch him and you would kind of think that he was a pro. He went to Ohio State University last year, but he seems like he was on the Seahawks last year just with us. I like his approach to the game and I feel he’s just ready to show on the field.”
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2:44: Between reps, Smith-Njigba stands near Smith and jams to whatever DJ Supa Sam has on the playlist. While Lock throws a 58-yard touchdown to Thompson, Smith-Njigba bobs his head to Drake’s verse on the song “Meltdown” by Travis Scott.
2:55: The “move the ball” period begins, and as expected, Smith-Njigba lines up in multiple spots. His lone target that I saw during this session was a first-down catch on a wheel route from the slot against Bryant. It was the exact route Smith-Njigba repped with Lal earlier in the day. With the outside receiver clearing out the side, Smith-Njigba has a chunk of the field to work with, and he separates from Bryant and nabs the back-shoulder pass from Smith to move the chains. Their connection continues to grow.
“Big play, Jaxoooooon,” Dooley screams to the crowd.
3:19: When practice ends, there’s a long line of veterans here for Military Appreciation Day who want Smith-Njigba’s autograph. He honors their requests for 10 minutes before he’s led to the VIP section, where he’s popular among the children. In addition to an autograph, one young fan gets to briefly play catch with Seattle’s new No. 3 receiver. Another gets his jersey signed. A couple of teenage boys get a Smith-Njigba selfie. The rookie is in high demand.
JSN, very popular pic.twitter.com/d0ITAZEnf5
— Dugar, Michael-Shawn (@MikeDugar) August 9, 2023
3:35: Smith-Njigba finally jogs toward the locker room, young fans still screaming “Jaxoooon” as he flies by and disappears into the facility. Practice isn’t open to the public on Wednesday, so the next time Smith-Njigba sees the 12s, there will be thousands of them screaming his name Thursday night at Lumen Field.
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