Among the positions the Patriots are likely to target in the upcoming NFL draft, wide receiver is near the top of the list.
Although recent reports suggest Bill Belichick will lean towards trading for a veteran rather than selecting a pass-catcher with a high pick, a specific name continues to be connected to New England, not only in mock drafts but also since watching his performance during the combine this week.
Ohio State wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba has impressed over the last few days, standing out amongst the rest of the wide receiver class participating in the drills at the combine. He has consistently been penned as a first-round talent but solidified his status more by demonstrating the best statistics of all the receivers in attendance in several events.
Because he only played in three games during the 2022 season due to a hamstring injury, his performance at the combine and pro day will drastically improve most teams’ impression of him. But at the same time, Smith-Njigba had a remarkable 2021 season, despite technically playing as the third receiving option on the team behind Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave.
He most notably broke Ohio State’s single-season record with 95 receptions and 1,606 receiving yards, as well as the Big Ten receiving yards record that had been held steady by Lee Evan since 2001. He also made headlines with his performance in the Rose Bowl during that season, totaling 15 catches for 347 yards and three touchdowns.
Since the Patriots are still looking to find a WR1 or will be in the market for a great receiver anyway due to Jakobi Meyers’ pending free-agency status, Smith-Njigba should certainly catch their eye.
He has already gotten the attention of many draft experts, with ESPN’s Mel Kiper and NBC Sports Boston’s Phil Perry landing him in New England in their latest drafts.
Kiper emphasized Belichick’s use of a slot receiver over the years as the reason for the selection, listing Smith-Njigba’s stats as the WR3 in 2021 as the key component that would spike the Patriots’ interest.
"“You talk to four teams, you have four different guys (as WR1), I went with Jaxon Smith-Njigba to the New England Patriots. That slot receiver has been so critical for Bill Belichick and that offense. Think about what he did in 2021, 95 catches, 17-yard average. He out-produced in those two areas, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. This year, injury with the hamstring, wasn’t able to get it done.”"
Perry reiterated that sentiment in his draft, as well, and mentioned Bill O’Brien’s influence on the offense that would make him a solid addition to the receiving corps.
"“Even if he is limited to being a slot receiver at the next level — as he was in 2021 when he posted those gaudy numbers — that carries huge value in the Bill O’Brien offense that will return to New England this year. Mac Jones could use a high-volume target who provides “layup” throws on a consistent basis. Especially if Jakobi Meyers ends up departing via free agency.”"
Despite Belichick’s apparent absence, the Patriots are doing their due diligence at the combine and have met with the receiver over the past week.
Smith-Njigba confirmed the meeting when speaking to reporters on Friday and was complimentary when discussing how it went.
"“Coach Belichick, he’s, you know what type of franchise program they have over there. So, it definitely would be awesome being in that system. Mac Jones, also a great arm talent. Great quarterback. Definitely would like playing there.”"
With free agency kicking off on March 15th, the Patriots’ plans for a receiver will slowly come into focus. They’ve been connected to a few veterans, like DeAndre Hopkins, and could make that trade happen quickly, as the Cardinals have made it known that he is on the trade block.
However, if they don’t make a move, the possibility of Belichick taking a receiver 14th overall remains. Smith-Njigba’s stock is on the rise, and if the Patriots are looking for an instant boost to their offense, he’s looking like the right guy to do it.