It’s hope season, football fans!
Free agency and draft season is the time of year where every fanbase feels like they can get better. Hope springs eternal. Just ask Chicago Bears fans, who think they’re about to go from the worst record in the league to winning the division. Delusional, but admirable in its own way.
On the other hand, the Minnesota Vikings could use a little hope.
The slow roll of the Vikings releasing franchise stalwart Adam Thielen after months of speculation was pretty soul crushing. Many rational, pragmatic fans feel like it was the right move. Even if they’re correct, though, it doesn’t change the fact that it sucks. And regardless of how you feel about the move, it vaults wide receiver from a tertiary need to one of the biggest holes on the roster.
Opposing defenses bracketed Justin Jefferson, daring for any other wide receiver to win a one-on-one matchup. Thielen and K.J. Osborn left us wanting in that regard more often than we’d like. After releasing Thielen, this team is looking pretty desperate for a suitable Robin to Jefferson’s Batman.
And that’s why my No. 1 draft crush this season is Ohio State wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
I know I’m not exactly highlighting some sleeper that draft Twitter isn’t already in love with. Smith-Njigba is the worst-kept secret in college football. Search his name and scroll, you’ll see every fanbase in the league talking about how he’s a perfect fit in the Shanahan offense or the Daboll offense, etc. You’ll see tweet after tweet about how he’s exactly the type of player that the New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers, or Bears need.
Well, duh. Really good players that get open, catch the ball, move the chains, and score touchdowns are a perfect fit everywhere. He’s a fit in literally every offense in the league. But we’ve all convinced ourselves he may slide due to mild concerns about his 40 time and because he sat out 2022 with a hamstring injury. Don’t you worry, though, I’m here to drink the JSN Kool-Aid just like everyone else.
I’d volunteer for an insufferable darkness retreat with Aaron Rodgers if it meant Smith-Njigba is lining up next to Jefferson this fall.
In the clip above, draft guru Daniel Jeremiah talks about what Smith-Njigba brings to the table, comparing him to players like Cooper Kupp and Amon-Ra St. Brown. These are high-end comps, but fitting for Smith-Njigba. They’re perfect examples of the combination of route running, short-area quickness, and toughness in traffic that make JSN so tantalizing.
Vikings sometimes get too caught up in the idea of a specific archetype of receiver to pair with Jefferson. Many talked themselves into a deep burner like Jameson Williams last draft season, which is certainly a valid opinion. But I think it misunderstands what this offense is really calling for.
They don’t need 4.3 speed opposite Jefferson. They need someone who can win and make plays consistently against single coverage. I don’t really care how they win their matchup, I just care that they win their matchup — over and over again.
And that’s what Jaxon Smith-Njigba does. He wins. Over and over again.
The Vikings are picking at No. 23, which is definitely on the low end of Smith-Njigba’s draft projections. Just about every fanbase has talked themselves into what a great pick he’d be from the mid-teens on down, and it’s easy to see a coaching staff banging the table to draft him before he can slide to Minnesota’s spot.
Unfortunately, GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah is not exactly flush with draft capital at the moment after several trades during last year’s draft and the midseason trade for T.J. Hockenson. That makes an aggressive move too far up the board for JSN unlikely.
However, Adofo-Mensah has shown a propensity to make a deal and get his guys when he sees a market efficiency to do so. Minnesota would be sweating out receiver-needy squads ahead of them in the Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Chargers, and Baltimore Ravens at No. 20, 21, and 22, respectively. That means we should all watch when Tampa Bay goes on the clock at No. 19 with bated breath (assuming they haven’t moved up for a quarterback.)
This Vikings team is clearly focused on finding a new young core of players to build the future of the franchise around. As Kwesi Adofo-Mensah makes tough calls on many of our favorite franchise stalwarts, he’s also got to be focused on finding the next wave of franchise cornerstones in this draft.
I believe Jaxon Smith-Njigba has exactly the skillset to be our next fan favorite. He’s the type of player who helps bolster the entire offense and could make Jefferson even more effective.
If the opportunity to make him a Viking presents itself, don’t run to turn that card in. Sprint.