Dynasty Player Spotlight: Jaxon Smith-Njigba
Stay The Course, Weather The Storm
Welcome back to the Dynasty Player Spotlight series.
Each week, we take a look at some key performances from NFL play and deliver actionable analysis that dynasty managers should use to their advantage.
If you missed last week’s entry about Lions TE Sam LaPorta, you can find that here.
We can all safely admit that Week 6 was pretty ugly.
Only three QBs cracked 20 or more points in 4-point per passing TD leagues, both the Eagles and the 49ers ended their reign as the league’s last undefeated teams, and we got another slew of injuries to big-name players like Jaguars QB Trevor Lawrence and 49ers RB Christian McCaffrey.
Oh, and there will be six teams (Bengals, Cowboys, Jets, Panthers, Titans, Texans) on a bye in Week 7! Yay!
This is the point of the NFL calendar when you glare at your computer or phone screen, look at your lineups, and question why you endure the emotional and intellectual pain of sifting through borderline no-name players and figuring out how to cobble together a W.
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Trust me, I’m not thrilled about contemplating how much FAAB money to throw at Rams RB Royce Freeman either.
But sometimes in life, you’ve got to remember to embrace your inner mid-2000s MTV star Andy Milonakis: when life hands you lemons, you make beef stew.
Find the positives, keep grinding away, and don’t let fatigue or offseason mistakes be the reason that you throw in the towel. Fantasy football (especially playing in a dynasty format) is a marathon, not a sprint.
In that spirit, let’s talk about a player who hasn’t seen a ton of luck so far this season and highlight why dynasty managers should still be excited about his long-term prospects.
This week’s subject is Seahawks WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
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Not Great, Bob!
This rookie has been a bit of a bummer this year.
Through six weeks, Smith-Njigba (or JSN for short) ranks as the WR85 in PPR points per game (5.4) and unfavorably compares to his first-year counterparts in several statistical categories:
- Ninth in targets (23)
- Eighth in receptions (16)
- 13th in receiving yards (113)
- 12th in yards per route run (0.84) among those who’ve seen at least 10 targets
Considering that JSN was taken as the first WR off the board in the 2023 NFL Draft, many had hoped he would’ve made a more significant impact.
This is someone who played on the same team as current NFL stars Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave at Ohio State and bested all of them with 95 catches and 1,606 receiving yards as a sophomore in 2021.
Unfortunately, he’d only logged a 66% route participation rate, a 16% target share, a 7% air yards share, and a pathetic 3.3-yard aDOT entering Week 6. That’s not what you want to see from a player who drew comparisons to Lions WR Amon-Ra St. Brown.
But if you look under the hood, there are valid reasons why JSN hasn’t paid off to date.
Both of the Seahawks’ starting tackles, LT Charles Cross and RT Abraham Lucas, sustained severe injuries in Week 1 vs. the Rams.
Cross (toe) returned to play for the first time on Sunday, and Lucas is still on IR as he rehabs his knee injury. On top of that, two of their interior guards (Phil Haynes and Damien Lewis) have missed time due to lower body injuries throughout the early weeks of 2023.
As a result, Seattle has had to piecemeal together essentially an entire offensive line. Their situation got so dire that they signed 41-year-old OT Jason Peters to their practice squad on September 12.
No offense to the former All-Pro, but it's never a good sign when you're poaching dudes in their 40s off the street to play in the NFL.
But why harp on the o-line? What does any of this have to do with Smith-Njigba?
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The Seahawks have played in a lot of 12 and 13 personnel packages this season.
If you’re unfamiliar with what that terminology means, it’s shorthand to describe how many WRs, RBs and TEs are on the field at the same time:
- 11 personnel denotes that three WRs, one RB and TE are on the field
- 12 personnel is two WRs, one RB and two TEs
- 13 personnel is one WR, one RB and three TEs
The purpose of rolling out multiple TEs is to either create a mismatch on multiple levels of the field for passing plays or, in other cases, to have an extra blocker on the field to help keep the QB clean in the pocket.
Sometimes, it’s easy for fantasy managers to forget that TEs are also asked to perform pass protection responsibilities. The guys who are generally good at this skill are largely unknown to fantasy fanatics, but it is a vital dimension to the game of football.
The Seahawks ranked fourth-highest in 12 personnel rate (37%) and fifth-highest in 13 personnel rate (12%) entering Week 6. That translates into only having two WRs or fewer on the field a whopping 49% of the time.
They’ve had to deploy those personnel groupings without healthy offensive linemen to help protect QB Geno Smith. As a result, JSN has struggled to find playing time over his teammates, D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett.
This tracks considering that Smith-Njigba ran 89% of his routes and compiled 85% of his yardage from the slot in his lone breakout campaign at Ohio State in 2021. Someone primarily operating as a slot receiver will generally sit in 12 or 13 personnel groupings as they are not typically potent blockers.
So even when Seattle has called pass plays over the past several weeks, it served their best interest to leave Smith-Njigba on the sidelines in favor of larger-bodied TEs who can keep Geno Smith safe from pass-rushers.
Not A Big Surprise
As a result of all of this, JSN is the odd man out.
“Cool. That sucks. What a waste of a pick!” you might say.
But if you’d kept up with our offseason coverage of these rookie prospects, JSN flopping out of the gate shouldn’t have been a shocking revelation.
My colleague Jared Smola highlighted the risk of a tricky situation like this happening in Smith-Njigba’s pre-draft profile.
Granted, the present circumstances of the Seahawks are a heightened example of Smola’s reasoning, and we’re not in the business of predicting mass injury waves to a team’s o-line. Still, it’s worth revisiting this quote:
“It's much more likely that JSN settles in as the Seahawks' No. 3 WR this season. It's a tough spot for fantasy production, considering Metcalf and Lockett soaked up 45.0% of the team's targets last year. All other Seahawks WRs combined for 75 targets on a 13.1% share.”
Even had it not been for the complete decimation of Seattle’s offensive line, it’s not as though an immediate breakout was always coming.
He plays with two former All-Pro wideouts, and picking a WR in the first round of the NFL Draft doesn’t immediately dictate that the incumbent talent is trash and no longer important.
Remember: "old guys" still matter in dynasty, folks.
Tyler Lockett is still #GoodAtFootball.
And while there’s nothing more than anecdotal value to bringing this up, it’s also fair to question whether or not JSN was immediately ready to play following a late-August wrist fracture that was initially believed to sideline him to open the season.
Sometimes, things just take time.
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Brighter Days Ahead
Now that we’ve explored some of the explanations behind Smith-Njigba’s struggles, we have to point out some positive signs of growth from Week 6 vs. the Bengals.
Smith-Njigba set career highs in snaps (52), routes run (39), overall route participation (81%), and receiving yards (48) this past Sunday.
As Pro Football Focus’ Nathan Jahnke points out in a recent article, the rookie had been playing on between 45-60% of Seattle's offensive snaps in every game before this weekend, so this is uptick in usage is significant.
JSN also registered a 7.2-yard aDOT in the contest and saw a season-high 32.5% route participation rate while lined up wide in formations. This is another positive sign that the rookie is perhaps developing a more diverse skill set beyond the slot.
It’s not a lot to go on, but we’re not grasping at straws either.
Backstory Fun Facts
Another important item to remember is that it's still possible for the Seahawks to shift toward deploying more 11 personnel packages and involving all three guys as the team gets healthier.
Seahawks OC Shane Waldron served as the Rams' passing game coordinator from 2018-20 before leaving for Seattle. He belongs to the greater Mike Shanahan coaching tree and served under both current Rams HC Sean McVay and current Bengals HC Zac Taylor, both of whom deploy 11 personnel at league-high rates annually.
While there's a healthy dose of hypothesizing going on here, it's conceivable that the initial plan for this offense was to feature TEs at a much lower rate after taking Smith-Njigba with the 20th overall pick in the draft this past April.
It's neither JSN's or Waldron's fault that the Seahawks have experienced the considerable number of injuries they have. If you're looking for the best short-term optimistic argument for Smith-Njigba, it's that he plays for a coach from a background of perhaps at least wanting to play three WRs on the field at the same time under normal circumstances.
But I digress...
Ultimately, we’re talking about an uber-talented WR on a 3-2 team that ranks 11th in passing yards per game (227.8), eighth in offensive points per game (24.8), and seventh in PROE (+2.7%).
There’s still a large delta between where JSN slots in our PPR dynasty WR rankings (WR26) and where he sits in Expert Consensus rankings (WR19). This isn’t meant to be a beckoning call to go out and buy high on a player who has a long way to go in terms of showing that he can be a difference-maker in lineups.
That said, Lockett turned 31 years old a couple of weeks ago, and there’s a potential out in his contract looming this offseason. Cutting ties with the veteran would incur a minor $1.165 million cap hit following June 1 of next summer.
Room for Smith-Njigba to grow still exists, and the potential opportunity he has to elevate himself into a more prominent role as the Seahawks’ No. 2 opposite Metcalf in 2024 is still apparent.
Remember, dynasty leagues are a marathon. The longer JSN doesn’t have a huge breakout week, the cheaper he’s likely to become on the open trade market.
One of the core principles behind our dynasty strategy here at Draft Sharks is to not give up on WRs too quickly.
Stay vigilant. Brighter days are ahead.