It took a while, but the Green Bay Packers found explosive value in wide receiver Christian Watson, and they have a chance to repeat that success just one season later.
The Packers can look in a handful of different directions to add targets that will either keep Aaron Rodgers around for another year or two, or help Jordan Love look better in his first season as a starter in 2023, though the best value may again reside in the NFL Draft.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba produced staggering numbers for the Ohio State Buckeyes two years ago before losing most of last season to a hamstring injury. As a result his draft stock has fallen, with SB Nation’s Acme Packing Co. dubbing the WR “a borderline first-round prospect after a disappointing 2022 season.”
However, they listed him in the same article as a legitimate first-round prospect for the Packers with the No. 15 overall pick, second only behind Quentin Johnston of TCU.
Looking back at [Smith-Njigba’s] 2021 tape, you can see the skill set that made him such an intriguing name coming into this draft cycle. He’s a smooth and elusive slot receiver with the ability to beat defensive backs by creating separation at the route stem or simply with speed.
The pre-draft process will be crucial for Smith-Njigba to clear out medically and put up legitimate athletic testing numbers. If he’s able to do that, then he could be an intriguing slot option for the Packers in the first round.
WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba Offers Packers Value in Middle of First Round
Still, there remain well-founded concerns around Smith-Njigba’s health. But hamstring issues, while often lingering and debilitating, don’t offer reason for the same long-term apprehension as injuries that involve serious trauma to the head or to major joints like a knee or a shoulder.
Because of that, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. continues to rank the receiver as the sixth-best prospect across all positions heading into the NFL Combine.
“This injury shouldn’t affect his play in 2023, and I still think he could be a star at the next level,” Kiper Jr. wrote on his Big Board, which was most recently updated on January 25.
Positional value and team need also enter heavily into the equation at the top of any draft, which is why Kiper projected Smith-Njigba to go seven spots later at No. 13 to the New York Jets in his most recent mock draft, which was also released on January 25.
The Jets picked Garrett Wilson at No. 10 last April, and he had 83 catches for 1,103 yards as a rookie. But in 2021, his teammate Smith-Njigba was the Buckeyes’ top wideout, as he put up 1,606 yards, doing damage mostly out of the slot.
After an injury-plagued 2022 in which he caught just five passes, however, there are big questions about his health. … I’m a big fan of Smith-Njigba, and I think he could be a star in the right situation.
Packers Will Consider Several Trade Targets at Receiver, Tight End
Based on Kiper’s current assessment, the Buckeyes receiver won’t be there for the Packers to select or pass on, as the Jets select two picks ahead of Green Bay. As such, Kiper’s best guess is the Packers will take tight end Michael Mayer out of Notre Dame.
However it ultimately shakes out, Green Bay will almost certainly be in the mix for upgrades to the passing game wherever they can be found, whether they take a shot on Smith-Njigba, Mayer or go another way with their first overall pick.
This year’s free agency class is weak to below-average, with perhaps the most intriguing name being that of Odell Beckham Jr., to whom the Packers were linked at several points last season.
The trade market is a better bet, as it carries promising possibilities like wideout DeAndre Hopkins of the Arizona Cardinals and potentially tight end Darren Waller of the Las Vegas Raiders, though they both come with the baggage of already being in their 30s and present less than ideal risk-reward ratios on lucrative multiyear contracts.
But, with the Rodgers Super Bowl window closing more with each passing year, fans should expect the Packers to take a couple of big swings to improve the air attack in 2023 — and nothing is off the table.