Chicago Bears fans are a passionate bunch. It’s one of my favorite aspects of this mildly tormented crowd of fanatical lunatics that I’m proud to be a part of. While any pick other than an offensive lineman at 9th overall in the forthcoming 2023 NFL Draft will likely be met with a raging outcry from Chicagoland, Bears fans need to prepare themselves for the possibility of Ryan Poles going a different direction.
Poles has made it clear since taking the GM job that scheme fit and building through the draft are going to be pillars of how he constructs his roster. So far, he’s lived up to it. While right tackle is still a glaring need, there are plenty of options for him to explore, including providing Justin Fields with yet another weapon.
The Bears have Fields on his rookie contract, and will want to put him in every position to succeed before deciding to pick up his fifth-year option next offseason. Poles added a bonafide No. 1 option in acquiring D.J. Moore, but both Chase Claypool and Darnell Mooney are set to be free agents after the 2023 season.
Enter the possibility of wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba is a ‘Blue Chip’ Talent
Trust me when I tell you that I desperately see the need for an offensive lineman like Paris Johnson, Peter Skoronski, or even Broderick Jones to be the pick at No. 9 overall or after a trade-down if Poles can swing it, but there are other “blue players” that will be on the board at nine. Smith-Njigba absolutely fits the bill.
After missing almost the entirety of the 2022 college football season due to a hamstring injury, Smith-Njigba is healthy and impressing NFL front offices at every stage of the pre-draft process. He tore up the combine by posting elite agility drill times, which is fitting for the skillset that we’ve seen on the field since his incredible sophomore season at Ohio State that saw him post 1,606 receiving yards and nine touchdowns.
At the Buckeyes pro day, Smith-Njigba ran the 40-yard dash, with stopwatches clocking him between a 4.48 and 4.52 second time. To be blunt, I wouldn’t care if he ran a 4.60. Speed is great, but it isn’t critical to success at the next level for a wide receiver with the nuance and understanding of route running that he has.
Amon-Ra St. Brown ran a 4.46. DeAndre Hopkins ran a 4.57. Ceedee Lamb ran a 4.50. Cooper Kupp ran a 4.62.
Sure, speed and explosiveness are typically coveted, but the art of getting open is equally important. For a “slow” wide receiver, Smith-Njigba posted an elite 4.01 yards per route run as a 19-year old sophomore in an offense that also featured Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, who both went in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft.
Smith-Njigba is one of only three wide receivers since 2017 to post a YPRR north of 4.0 in a single season in all of college football. Since 2015, there have only been seven wide receivers from the Power 5 to average over 3.0 YPRR against both man and zone coverage across their entire college career. Those receivers are:
- Ja’Marr Chase
- DeVonta Smith
- Jaylen Waddle
- Tee Higgins
- Jerry Jeudy
- Marquise Brown
- Jaxon Smith-Njigba
Smith-Njigba’s suddenness in and out of breaks and the manner in which he manipulates defenders will translate remarkably well to the next level. He would provide Fields with a high-end second receiving option opposite of Moore. If Chicago wants Fields to take a leap forward, this would be one way to help facilitate that step.
And yeah, they played together, which is objectively fun.
Ever forget the moment we all were introduced to Jaxon Smith-Njigba.— Andrew Harbaugh (@AndrewHarbaugh_) February 21, 2023
Imagine what production the Bears would get out of a reunion between JSN and Justin Fields… pic.twitter.com/FnlOH8HcZu
Day 2 Offensive Tackle Options
If Chicago drafts Smith-Njigba, they’ll have a major question and need entering the second day of the NFL Draft, but Bears fans shouldn’t panic. There are options that could be available to them, and Poles has the flexibility to potentially make moves during the draft to go get a lineman if he has the conviction to do so.
Athletic, zone-scheme offensive linemen that could be available on Day 2 of the draft include Blake Freeland, Matthew Bergeron, Anton Harrison, Jaelyn Duncan, and others.
Blake Freeland followed up strong @seniorbowl and Combine record 37” VJ today at @BYUfootball pro-day w/ 4.42 SS & 7.27 three-cone—both ridiculous times for any OL, let alone a 6’8” giant—and 25 bench reps.— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) March 24, 2023
Best comp is #Vikings Pro Bowler Brian O’Neill.
Checkout those feet! pic.twitter.com/sdpW9bzPum
If Poles elects to take the best wide receiver in the draft class, Bears fans should take a deep breath and wait to see how the rest of the draft shakes out. Just remember that Chicago’s starting left tackle, Braxton Jones, who started all 17 games as a rookie, was a Poles selection in the fifth round last year.