When the Seahawks 2023 rookie class took the field for the first time, Jaxon Smith-Njigba was limited in what he could do taking part in walkthroughs and some of the individual drills in practice.
A first-round pick out of Ohio State and the first receiver selected in this year's draft, Smith-Njigba missed all but three games last season due to a hamstring injury, and while he was healthy enough to participate in his schools' pro day, the Seahawks still elected to take it easy on the 20th overall pick. It wasn't easy for Smith-Njigba to be limited early on, but he also knows it was the right thing to do.
"It's tough, but I was just having fun just being out there with the guys, playing football again," he said last week as the team finished up its offseason workout program. "It was fun. I wanted to do more, but I knew my time was going to come, and it did. I got to compete against these guys and got to do full practices and full speed, so it's been great.
"I think we did it the right way. I appreciate the training staff and coaching staff for doing that. It's been a long time since I've really been out there, so I feel like we did it the right way, and I appreciate them slowly building me up."
As Smith-Njigba notes, he was full speed later in offseason workouts, and he didn't take long to impress coaches and teammates with the skillset that helped him compile 95 catches for 1,606 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore in 2021.
"Oh, man, he's really, really natural," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He's really a natural athlete, gifted in his timing, in and out of breaks and things and his feel. He also has, which we saw this in the (pro day) workout at school, he's got great change of direction in him, and he's got this marvelous ability to get in out of his turns. And his hands are just as natural as can be. He's really a bright football player too, it makes sense to him. We've already moved him all around, he'd been inside, outside and all kinds of stuff. And so that looks like it's just what we were looking for."
While most of Seattle's veterans headed home following mandatory minicamp earlier this month, rookies and other young players, as well as quarterbacks Geno Smith, Drew Lock and Holton Ahlers stuck around for three more days of OTAs last week, a session Carroll described as being something of a passing camp.
That extra work with Smith should only help Smith-Njigba as he attempts to transition to his first NFL season, one that very well could see him become Seattle's No. 3 three receiver along with DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett—though he'll have to earn that role.
"It's been good," Smith-Njigba said of his connection with Smith. "It's been really good. We connected throughout these weeks, so hopefully we can continue that… It's all about reps, all about feeling each other out, and that's what we're doing. It's been great so far. We've got a little connection going, so hopefully we can continue that."
Seattle's veteran quarterback, meanwhile, has been impressed by the rookie receiver thus far.
"He's so impressive," Smith said. "Very smooth route runner. Natural hands. Also, the game is not too big for him. You can see he's got that self-confidence that you look for. He's learning. He's picking up his assignments, learning the offense, like all the other rookies and new guys. So really, Jaxon has been tremendous so far and I'm just looking forward to see him grow and grow as the weeks come about."
Smith's own physical skills and intellect would be enough for him to succeed on their own, but he also has the benefit of joining two of the NFL's best receivers in Metcalf and Lockett while also playing for a position coach as detailed as Sanjay Lal, the Seahawks' receivers coach and offensive passing game coordinator.
"He's come in and he has treated it like he is a vet already," Metcalf said. "He knows how to run routes, his body and how to catch. It's really just teaching him the playbook. He's already ahead of the curve of learning the technique that Sanjay is teaching. He's just fitting right in with the drills and with the plays that what we're calling."
Said Lockett, "I think he's going to be phenomenal, man. It's always hard just being able to get adjusted when you first come in. But the way he runs routes, the way he's understanding the way that Sanjay coaches, the sky's going to be the limit. I think he's going to be really good at all the things that we want him to be able to do. I'm excited to be able to go out there and work with him. Even though you're a vet, you can still learn from the young guys too. So it's always being able to teach each other stuff and iron sharpening iron and just helping each other be better to win."
With the offseason program ending after the ninth OTA, the Seahawks get one step closer to kicking off the season with training camp.