Financial realities may result in the end of a hometown hero’s tenure with the Minnesota Vikings, though his replacement might arrive right on his heels.
Minnesota owns the 23rd pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, which the team could potentially use to select Ohio State wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba. The likelihood of the team drafting a pass catcher in the first round will increase if Adam Thielen ends up as the offseason cap casualty many are projecting him to be.
Luke Easterling of USA Today’s Draft Wire in his latest mock draft published Tuesday, January 17, has Smith-Njigba falling to the Vikings at the No. 23 spot as the third wideout taken off the board behind Quentin Johnston of TCU (12th to the Houston Texans) and USC’s Jordan Addison (No. 21 to the Los Angeles Chargers).
Vikings Would Pull Off NFL Draft Steal by Selecting Smith-Njigba
Smith-Njigba was part of the fearsome Buckeyes passing attack in 2021, posting a staggering 95 catches for 1,606 yards and nine touchdowns in his breakout sophomore campaign, per Football Reference.
However, the standout receiver barely played last season, logging time in just three games due to injury issues. Those concerns are the only factors that might drive the playmaker into the middle/bottom-half of the first round where the Vikings will have a shot at him, as ESPN’s Mel Kiper has Smith-Njigba currently ranked as the fifth-best player on his big board and No. 1 among wide receivers.
Smith-Njigba had a lost season, finishing with just five catches because of a nagging hamstring injury. He announced earlier this week that he’s entering the draft and will try to heal up before the combine in March. This injury shouldn’t affect his play in 2023, and I still think he could be a star at the next level.
This is the same wideout who led Ohio State in catches (95) and yards (1,606) last season, even on a team with two wide receivers drafted in Round 1 of the 2022 draft. He has stellar burst and explosiveness out of breaks. He’s a hands catcher who can run the entire route tree, and he can make defenders miss after the catch.
Most of Smith-Njigba’s work came from the slot last season — all but eight of his catches came while aligned there. He led the FBS in receiving yards per route run (4.0). There’s a great chance he will remain the top receiver off the board in April.
Thielen Talks Vikings Exit, While Jefferson Primes to Get Paid
Pairing the kind of talent Smith-Njigba brings to the table alongside three-time Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro Justin Jefferson would be a boon for Minnesota, especially if Thielen isn’t back in 2023.
Thielen counts for nearly $20 million against the Vikings salary cap next year and his cap hit would jump north of $21.5 million in 2024, per Spotrac. Cutting Thielen over the offseason would save Minnesota nearly $6.5 million, though they could also look to trade the 32-year-old wideout who made 70 catches for 716 yards and six TDs last season, per Pro Football Reference.
Thielen discussed his potential exit from Minnesota Monday morning on KFAN’s Power Trip Morning Show.
“Obviously, I would love to finish my career here and retire a Minnesota Viking and have my entire career be here. But I also know that this is a business and there’s going to have to be some business decisions being made,” Thielen said. “I have a lot of ball left. I feel great. I feel like I can play at a really high level still. With that being said, I know I’m going to be playing football still [in 2023]. I don’t know how [much longer] that will be, but I will be playing football 100%.”
Meanwhile, the Vikings are about to break the bank on Jefferson. The new franchise leader in single-season receptions and receiving yards, both records set last season, is expected to set the market for NFL wideouts with potentially the most lucrative contract in league history at the position. That would put Jefferson north of $30 million annually, likely with a massive amount of guaranteed money included.
Adam Schefter of ESPN reported on Wednesday that while contract negotiations between Jefferson and the Vikings are expected this offseason, they have not officially begun.