Jaxon Smith-Njigba Highlights Deep Class of WRs

Ohio State Buckeyes WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba
Ohio State Buckeyes WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Draft - It used to be rare for a rookie wide receiver to make a big impact, but that paradigm is clearly changing. A rookie wide receiver with 1,000 receiving yards may now be a perennial occurrence. Every NFL season since 2019 has had a rookie wide receiver hit the 1,000-yard mark, and the 2022 season had two (although that may partially be a function of the NFL moving to a 17-game schedule). Wide receivers are no longer just a long-term investment—they can make an immediate impact on a team's passing game.

Playmaker Score, Football Outsiders' metric for projecting top wide receiver prospects, expects that kind of immediate impact from a couple of this year's top prospects, including Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Jordan Addison. But another top-15 prospect, Quentin Johnson, comes in a bit lower than expected.

Playmaker Score analyzes the player's peak college season along with other variables (explained below) to project a player's receiving yards per season in his first five seasons. Below, we take a look at some of Playmaker's top prospects in the 2023 NFL draft, along with some similar prospects from previous drafts. Our similar historical prospects are based on former players who were similar in their Playmaker statistics, so you might see us compare two physically dissimilar players because they were similar statistically.

Playmaker Score projects NFL success for wide receivers based on a statistical analysis of all Division I wide receivers drafted in the years 1996 to 2018, and measures the following:

  • The wide receiver's projected draft position from Scouts, Inc.
  • The prospect's best or "peak" season for receiving yards per team attempt (i.e., a wide receiver with 1,000 receiving yards whose team passed 400 times would score a "2.50").
  • The prospect's peak season for receiving touchdowns per team attempt.
  • The difference between the prospect's peak season for receiving touchdowns per team and the prospect's most recent season for receiving touchdowns per team attempt (this factor is simply "0" for a player whose peak season was his most recent season).
  • A variable that rewards players who enter the draft as underclassmen and punishes those who exhaust their college eligibility.
  • The wide receiver's rushing attempts per game during their peak season for receiving yards per team attempt.
  • A factor that gives a bonus to wide receiver teammates who played for the same college team, entered the draft for the same year, and are projected to be drafted.

Playmaker's primary output projects the average number of regular-season receiving yards that the wide receiver will gain per year over the course of his first five NFL seasons.

Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State: 603 Yards/Season

Scouts, Inc.: No. 22 Overall
Similar Historical Prospects: Dez Bryant, Mike Evans

It may seem odd to say that a player who missed all of last season is the "safest" wide receiver prospect in this year's draft, but that may be the case for Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Smith-Njigba had only one standout season at Ohio State, but it was really good—95 receptions, 1,606 yards, and nine touchdowns. Unfortunately, Smith-Njigba missed most of his follow-up season with a hamstring injury.

There is plenty of precedent, however, for wide receivers succeeding under similar circumstances. Dez Bryant, for example, was stellar as a sophomore but missed most of his junior season due to NCAA rule violations. Stefon Diggs is perhaps a more extreme example, as he was great as a freshman but struggled with injuries his next two years at Maryland. And, of course, there are many wide receivers who simply elected to enter the draft after a great sophomore season, such as Larry Fitzgerald and Ja'Marr Chase.

Also, Playmaker likely underrates Smith-Njigba because he does not get an adjustment for playing with talented teammates. Smith-Njigba's only full season of production came in 2021, where he competed for receptions with future first-round wideouts Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave. However, since Wilson and Olave entered the draft in 2022, Playmaker does not give Smith-Njigba a bump. NFL decision-makers might note that Wilson and Olave each had excellent rookie seasons, and Smith-Njigba was arguably the stronger player at Ohio State. (Njigba-Smith recorded more yards than Wilson and Olave, but he did not score as many touchdowns.) Although possible, it would be surprising if Smith-Njigba was a total bust despite recording what was, at worst, a comparable performance to Wilson and Olave in college.

Jordan Addison, USC: 596 Yards/Season

Scouts, Inc.: No. 14 Overall
Similar Historical Prospects: Roy Williams, Andre Johnson

Jordan Addison falls just a few yards short of Smith-Njigba, for all intents and purposes tying him for this year's top projection. Addison's best year was at Pittsburgh, where he recorded 100 catches for 1,593 yards and 17 touchdowns and won the Fred Biletnikoff Award as the nation's best receiver. The Panthers were a fairly pass-happy team, attempting 543 passes in 2021, and thus Addison's rate stats were not as impressive as his raw numbers might suggest. Still, Addison's production was very good, especially his touchdowns.

Addison also receives a bump for relatively heavy use in the running game. During his best season, he recorded seven rush attempts for 56 yards and a touchdown. It is somewhat unusual for a receiver to get such extensive use in both the passing and running game, which is a good sign for Addison.

Not as good is Addison's drop-off in production. Addison was injured for three games in 2022 but still led USC in receiving. However, he averaged only around 80 yards per game, which is low for a wide receiver who is an expected first-rounder. Overall, Addison is a good but not great prospect.

Josh Downs, North Carolina: 554 Yards/Season

Scouts, Inc.: No. 39 Overall
Similar Historical Prospects: Allen Robinson, Eric Moulds

Josh Downs trails Smith-Njigba and Addison, but that is largely a function of Downs' slightly lower projected draft position. Downs' relatively high projection is due primarily to one factor: his yards per team attempt. In 2021, Downs caught 101 passes for 1,335 yards, even though the Tar Heels passed only 380 times. Downs' resulting 3.51 yards per team attempt is the second-best of all wide receivers invited to the combine this year behind only Arizona's Jacob Cowing.

Downs also gets a small boost from sharing a draft class with teammate Antoine Green, whom Scouts, Inc. essentially projects as an undrafted free agent.

Jalin Hyatt, Tennessee: 551 Yards/Season

Scouts, Inc.: No. 46 Overall
Similar Historical Prospects: Tyler Boyd, Torrey Smith

Jalin Hyatt is Playmaker's favorite prospect in this year's draft if you ignore draft position. Although he falls short of some of the all-time great projections, Hyatt has a lot that Playmaker likes.

For one, Hyatt leads the class in receiving touchdowns per team attempt, recording a touchdown on 3.6% of Tennessee's pass attempts last year. This number will not break any records—for example, during his best year, Randy Moss recorded a touchdown on nearly 7.5% of his team's pass attempts. However, it is still very good, better than any of the combine invites in 2022 and nearly identical to Ja'Marr Chase's peak touchdowns per team attempt.

Hyatt also gets a substantial boost because he enters the draft with teammate Cedric Tillman, whom Scouts, Inc. similarly rates as a second-round pick. Tillman missed roughly half of the 2022 season, but Hyatt still deserves some credit for having to compete for catches with another highly touted prospect for a significant portion of the year.

For those curious, Tillman is not as impressive as Hyatt from Playmaker's perspective. Tillman's peak season was not as good as Hyatt's, and he receives a significant penalty from Playmaker for entering the draft as a senior.

Quentin Johnson, TCU: 548 Yards/Season

Scouts, Inc.: No. 12 Overall
Similar Historical Prospects: Reggie Williams, Laquon Treadwell

Quentin Johnson falls behind Downs and Hyatt in Playmaker by the smallest of margins. However, it is somewhat amazing that Playmaker thinks that Johnson, the consensus No. 1 wide receiver in this year's draft, is just as likely to succeed as two second-round picks even after factoring in draft position.

Johnson is a good prospect, but Playmaker thinks that he is not quite as good as his pre-draft projection would suggest. In 2022, Johnson had 60 receptions for 1,069 yards and six touchdowns. Although those are solid numbers, they generally fall short of the peaks achieved by wide receivers taken in the top half of the first round in recent drafts. Moreover, TCU passed 454 times last year, so it is not like Johnson was stuck in a run-first offense.

Johnson's projection improves a bit when you consider that he was somewhat involved in the running game at TCU and that he competed for catches with Derius Davis, who is projected as a later-round pick in this year's draft. However, those boosts are not enough to bring his Playmaker projection quite up to the level that his projected draft positon would suggest.

Without factoring in draft position, Playmaker would place Johnson in roughly the top 28% of wide receiver prospects on record. That may sound pretty good—and it is—but it also demonstrates that Johnson is potentially overrated. Because there are 259 picks in this year's draft, a pick exactly at the top-28% mark would place Johnson in the very beginning of the third round. Of course, wide receivers drafted in the third round have succeeded before, and Johnson may have shown something on tape that justifies a draft position higher than what his numbers suggest. However, a team that selects Johnson should be sure that there is something that the numbers miss or they might find themselves spending a top-15 pick on a second- or third-round talent.

Zay Flowers, Boston College: 413 Yards/Season

Scouts, Inc.: No. 31 Overall
Similar Historical Prospects: Travis Taylor, Limas Sweed

Zay Flowers' Playmaker projection suffers because he lacks the eye-popping numbers necessary to overcome Playmaker's penalty for wide receivers who enter the draft after their senior years. Wide receivers who enter the draft as seniors have succeeded in the NFL, but they tend to be unusually dominant as collegians. Flowers was a good college player, but his numbers—he caught 78 passes for 1,077 yards and 12 touchdowns—will not make anyone do a double take. Indeed, Flowers' 2.35 yards per team attempt is well below Josh Downs' 3.51 yards per team attempt and Smith-Njigba's 3.25. Flowers' touchdown numbers were better than his yardage numbers, and Flowers was heavily used in the running game, recording 57 rushing attempts in his four-year college career. However, neither metric is enough to overcome the penalty for entering the draft as a senior.

Although not a factor in Playmaker, it is worth noting that Flowers' yardage plateaued as a senior. Although his raw yardage increased from 746 to 1,077 between his junior and senior years, his increase in raw production is almost directly proportional to an increase in Boston College's total pass attempts. For that reason, his yards per team attempt from his junior and senior years are nearly identical.

Like Johnson, Flowers' projection is not bad per se, but it is not good enough to justify his projected draft position. Without considering draft position, Playmaker would rate Flowers only slightly above the average drafted wide receiver, which would place him near the end of the fourth round.

Potential Sleeper—Tank Dell, Houston: 243 Yards/Season

Scouts, Inc.: No. 229 Overall
Similar Historical Prospects: DeDe Westbrook, Anthony Gonzalez

Playmaker projects Tank Dell at only 243 yards per season, but his low Playmaker projection is entirely a function of his low projected draft position. In terms of just his college statistics, Dell's numbers are eerily similar to Jalin Hyatt's. Dell caught a touchdown on 3.4% of his team's passing attempts and recorded 2.90 yards per team passing attempt during his best seasons for those statistics.

However, draftniks are not crazy for ranking Dell in the lower rounds. Dell has one huge red flag: his size. It is true that NFL decision-makers have been perhaps overly anxious about wide receiver size. For example, despite having Jerry Rice-level numbers at Alabama, DeVonta Smith dropped somewhat in the 2021 NFL draft due to concerns with his size, but he already has over 2,000 receiving yards in two seasons. However, Smith was considered small at 170 pounds and Dell is smaller—he weighed in at 165 pounds at the combine.

Dell presents excellent value in the later rounds. In the worst-case scenario, Dell's lack of size proves to be too great an obstacle and he fails to make active roster, which is a common fate for many seventh-round picks. In the best-case scenario, however, Dell overcomes his relatively small size and achieves a level of success consistent with what his college statistics suggest might be possible.

2023 Playmaker Projections
Name College Proj. Round Projection Rating
Jaxon Smith-Njigba Ohio State 1 602.7 81.5%
Jordan Addison USC 1 595.8 82.9%
Josh Downs North Carolina 1-2 554.2 87.6%
Jalin Hyatt Tennessee 2 551.3 95.3%
Quentin Johnston TCU 1 547.8 72.1%
Zay Flowers Boston College 1-2 412.5 50.5%
Cedric Tillman Tennessee 2 375.0 59.5%
Marvin Mims Oklahoma 3 343.7 75.3%
Rashee Rice SMU 2-3 285.7 37.7%
Kayshon Boutte LSU 2-3 283.2 49.4%
Tank Dell Houston 7 243.3 88.4%
Charlie Jones Purdue 3 235.0 33.2%
Trey Palmer Nebraska 7-UDFA 230.4 87.1%
Ainias Smith Texas A&M 5 206.8 59.5%
Jonathan Mingo Ole Miss 3-4 194.8 26.6%
Dontayvion Wicks Virginia 3 181.5 13.9%
Grant Dubose Charlotte 6-7 177.7 71.5%
Tyler Scott Cincinnati 6-7 173.0 70.8%
Jayden Reed Michigan State 4-5 166.9 38.4%
Dontay Demus Jr. Maryland 4 153.7 26.3%
Jacob Cowing UTEP 8 135.8 63.1%
Malik Heath Ole Miss 5-6 132.9 37.3%
Derius Davis TCU 5-6 132.0 37.7%
Puca Nacua BYU UDFA 127.2 68.1%
Ronnie Bell Michigan 5 112.9 20.8%
Johnny Wilson Florida State UDFA 105.4 62.4%
Rakim Jarrett Maryland UDFA 104.1 62.9%
Jake Bobo Duke 5 89.6 16.0%
Jason Brownlee Southern Mississippi UDFA 65.9 44.0%
Matt Landers Arkansas UDFA 65.5 42.1%
Jacob Copeland Maryland 5 64.4 8.7%
A.T. Palmer Wake Forest UDFA 60.6 42.4%
Parker Washington Cincinnati UDFA 56.0 49.4%
Elijah Higgins Stanford 5 48.0 6.3%
Demario Douglas Liberty UDFA 46.6 32.9%
Jalen Cropper Fresno State UDFA 27.1 28.1%
Xavier Hutchinson Iowa State UDFA 22.3 22.6%
Antoine Green North Carolina UDFA 22.0 25.3%
CJ Johnson East Carolina UDFA 15.6 22.9%
Kearis Jackson Georgia 6 14.0 6.3%
Jalen Wayne South Alabama 7-UDFA 10.9 16.8%
Jadon Haselwood Arkansas UDFA 2.3 16.6%
Mitchell Tinsley Penn State UDFA 0.0 16.6%
Malik Knowles Kansas State UDFA 0.0 10.8%
Michael Jefferson Louisiana 7-UDFA 0.0 13.9%
Tre Tucker Cincinnati 7 0.0 7.3%
Bryce Ford-Wheaton West Virginia UDFA 0.0 9.8%
Justin Shorter Florida 6 0.0 3.2%
Michael Wilson Stanford 7 0.0 7.7%
Jalen Brooks South Carolina UDFA 0.0 2.1%
Jaray Jenkins LSU UDFA 0.0 9.5%
Joseph Ngata Clemson 5-6 0.0 1.8%
Frank Ladson Jr. Clemson UDFA 0.0 0.5%

A shorter version of this article originally appeared on ESPN+.


19 comments, Last at 19 Apr 2023, 2:57am

#1 by dmb // Apr 17, 2023 - 10:04am

I was confused by the the "8" listed for Jacob Cowing's projected round; after a couple minutes of digging, it appears that he's returning to college ball in 2023, so I don't think he should be listed. If he remains, I think his school should be Arizona, as he played there in 2022 (and appears primed to do so again in the coming season).

Points: 0

#2 by Raiderfan // Apr 17, 2023 - 10:21am

This is ridiculous to me.  Evans is 6’5” and 230; Bryant was 6’2” and 220.  JSN is listed at 6’0”” and 198.  Not what I would call historically comparable.

Points: 0

#5 by Aaron Schatz // Apr 17, 2023 - 11:37am

"Our similar historical prospects are based on former players who were similar in their Playmaker statistics, so you might see us compare two physically dissimilar players because they were similar statistically."

Points: 4

#3 by IlluminatusUIUC // Apr 17, 2023 - 10:37am

However, it is somewhat amazing that Playmaker thinks that Johnson, the consensus No. 1 wide receiver in this year's draft, is just as likely to succeed as two second-round picks even after factoring in draft position.

Eh, what? Where is this consensus? JSN is higher on every board I've seen so far, including this own site's.

Edit, as a side note, I am inherently skeptical of a man nicknamed "Tank" that weighs in under 170lbs.

Points: 1

#6 by takeleavebelieve // Apr 17, 2023 - 12:09pm

Depends on when the article was written, as QJ really didn’t have the dominant workout numbers that some hoped he would, and also whether they’re referring to mock drafts or scouting reports. PFF still has him as their top WR prospect, for whatever that’s worth. 

Points: 0

#7 by IlluminatusUIUC // Apr 17, 2023 - 12:27pm

The combine was six weeks ago, so that's a hell of a time to sit on content.

Interestingly, the BackCAST formula incorporates combine results (as does SackSEER), but QBASE and Playmaker don't.

FWIW, I have seen in the past FO uses Scouts, Inc. draft boards. While I don't have access to their full draft board, the ESPN Insider preview shows JSN on top: https://insider.espn.com/nfl/draft/draftboard

Points: 0

#8 by dbostedo // Apr 17, 2023 - 8:04pm

I suspect it's supposed to say "the Scouts, Inc. No. 1 wide receiver" and it's just a typo. 

Points: 0

#9 by drnrg // Apr 17, 2023 - 10:41pm

Did you guys fire all your regular contributors?  Or just stop paying them?  Because I have never, in over a decade of site membership, seen this kind of content with no appearance by the regular writers.  I am not finding the value here that I expect.  Be better. 

Thank you. 

--Long-time reader who has bought a pile of your almanacs.  Anyone writing those this year?

Points: 0

#10 by LondonMonarch // Apr 18, 2023 - 4:57am

It was recently reported that Mr Schatz and his new buddies (who I imagine paid him handsomely in the sellout) are not paying the writers. Not clear if that position has improved.

Also odd that Tank Dell is the only one here who gets knocked for his size. Should 173lb Jordan Addison really be a getting a boost for his work in the run game? Seems hard to believe he will see many carries in the NFL.

Points: -3

#11 by dmb // Apr 18, 2023 - 9:59am

While you're right that FO contractors have not been getting paid -- and full-time staff have experienced late paychecks -- I'm not sure where you got the idea that Aaron is somehow responsible for the problem. Bryan Knowles, Mike Tanier, and others directly involved have consistently and publicly asserted that responsibility lies solely with Champion Gaming (FO's parent company), and not Aaron. Examples include:

  • The initial statement released by FO's most recent freelance contractors: "To be clear, our grievance is not with Aaron Schatz or the other editorial members of the site -- the front-facing members of Football Outsiders have been, without exception, extremely supportive throughout this ordeal."
  • This tweet from Tanier: "To be clear, the issues with (Football Outsiders) and Champion Gaming missing payroll and failing to pay contractors has nothing to do with (Aaron Schatz), who is just an employee caught in the middle of an awful situation caused by a parent company that bought a previous parent company."
  • This tweet from Robert Weintraub: "...And to follow what others have already said, this isn't about (Aaron Schatz), a true mentsch."


I suppose you could argue that Aaron is somehow indirectly responsible because he chose to cede control by selling, but controlling ownership has changed hands again since Aaron initially sold... and besides, it seems much more reasonable to simply blame the people who are actually, you know, directly responsible for paying for the work.

Points: 4

#12 by drnrg // Apr 18, 2023 - 11:04am

Thank you for clarifying the situation.  I have no gripe against the great writers/analysts here or Aaron.  I just want them to get paid what they are owed so they can keep producing stuff I love to read and don't have many ways to express that directly to Champion Gaming. 

Points: 1

#14 by dmb // Apr 18, 2023 - 12:13pm

I feel the same way. My reply was mainly directed at LondonMonarch's post, since it was placing the blame on someone who isn't being blamed by anyone actually involved in the situation.

Points: 0

#13 by LondonMonarch // Apr 18, 2023 - 11:59am

"Just an employee" heheheh.

As you rightly point out, once you've sold out then you've sold out. I never really saw what Edj were supposed to provide (let alone did provide) but they always had the ability to flip it again.

See Gawker, Deadspin etc etc. Florio somehow seems to have maintained some independence at least!                          

Points: 0

#15 by rpwong // Apr 18, 2023 - 1:46pm

I never really saw what Edj were supposed to provide

I assume what they were supposed to provide is financial stability. If not for the sale to Edj, it's quite possible that FO would already have vanished like so many other web-based businesses that struggle to generate profits. I can't blame Aaron Schatz for seeing an opportunity to provide more stability for employees and himself, which is not something you often see with independent journalism.

Points: 1

#16 by LondonMonarch // Apr 18, 2023 - 2:51pm

Not sure I would say "Being sold on to a gambling company which refuses to pay the long-standing contributors" is quite what I would describe as "stability".

Points: -4

#17 by dmb // Apr 18, 2023 - 3:16pm

Did EdjSports have a track record of not paying contributors? Because that's who Aaron sold to, not Champion.

Your indignation is justified, but your placement of it is not.

Points: 1

#18 by LionInAZ // Apr 18, 2023 - 11:48pm

I agree, Aaron and the FO founders are not to blame.

I suspect, however, that sportsbook sites will ultimately absorb and corrupt legitimate analytic sites like FO.  Perhaps FO should die to save the profession. The unvoidable consequence of the expansion of sports betting.

Points: -1

#19 by LondonMonarch // Apr 19, 2023 - 2:57am

Did it have any meaningful track record of anything? According to Crunchbase it was founded in 2017 and acquired FO in 2018.

And equally importantly, were there any restrictions to stop it selling on the business to Champion or anyone else?

So far as I can see the answers are No and No.

No doubt Champion are the bad guys, but it's not illegitimate to ask how the organisation came under the control of the bad guys.

Points: 0

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