2023 NFL Draft Injury Impact: Ohio State WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba

03/06/2023
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Despite being one of the top wide receiver prospects in the 2023 NFL draft, Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba brings with him elite talent, but several injury concerns. 

Every year, several prospects’ draft grades take a hit based on injuries and Smith-Njigba is no exception. After playing sparingly during his freshman year in 2020 during the abbreviated Big Ten COVID schedule, Smith-Njigba broke out for 95 receptions for 1,606 yards and nine touchdowns in 2021. His yardage mark broke the school record set by David Boston back in 1998. 

Regrettably, he did not get a chance to build on his sophomore year due to a hamstring injury that cost him all but three games in 2022. As with any significant injury heading into the NFL Draft, extreme scrutiny will be placed on the health of JSN and others as they invest draft capital.

Below is Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s full publicly reported injury history, injury concerns, and how this could affect his draft stock and career heading into the NFL.

High School

2019 Season

Shoulder injury, side not specified

In the fifth game of the season playing for Rockwall, Smith-Njigba took a shot to his shoulder during the first play of the game trying to catch a pass, forcing him to leave the game briefly. After returning, he took another blindsight hit to the shoulder after getting spun around, ending his night. 

Imaging the following day revealed that he avoided a fracture or any significant injury to the area. The article stated that he avoided a fracture or tear, but it’s important to note that an x-ray would not pick up an injury such as a labrum or rotator cuff tear. Due to the injury, he missed the following game against Horn that season. Based on the described mechanism of injury and time missed, it’s possible he suffered an AC joint sprain.

2020 Season

Ankle injury, side not specified

Shortly after his high school career ended, Smith-Njigba suffered an ankle injury while practicing in San Antonio for the Under Armour All-American Bowl. He was observed using crutches but the side nor the exact injury was detailed. It’s unclear whether this was a high-ankle sprain or a low lateral ankle sprain.

College 

Undisclosed issue

Playing for Ohio State, Smith-Njibga missed the Big Ten title game against Northwestern game in the 2020 season for undisclosed reasons. The team did not disclose what players had tested positive for COVID or whether they missed due to injury. 

2022 Season

Left hamstring strain

Smith-Njigba battled through a left hamstring game, appearing in 3 games and missing 10 total contests. He originally injured the hamstring in the season opener against Notre Dame, suffering the injury on a hit going out of bounds in the first quarter.

He briefly missed some time, returning in the second quarter, securing two receptions for three yards on the day before exiting after one series in the third quarter.

After the game, head coach Ryan Day indicated that it was a low-grade hamstring injury. Initially, the coaching staff had thought he would be available for Arkansas State, but later in the week, they had expected him to miss a game or two, which is what happened when he missed the following week against Arkansas State. He later returned to play against Toledo, securing two receptions in the first half.

As the game was a blowout, it’s unclear whether he would have returned to play in the second half. There were no reports at the time that indicate that Smith-Njigba re-injured the muscle, but it’s possible that he was further injured in practice.

He then proceeded to miss the next three games before returning to play against Iowa. During that game, he caught only one pass for seven yards before leaving the game. JSN was observed on the sideline talking with trainers as he worked out his left leg. Following the win, Day stated that the team had him on a pitch count and he was expected to come out after 20 plays

Regrettably, Smith-Njigba then missed the next six games as he rehabbed, ultimately not returning for the season. In addition, there were no reports of surgery necessary or required to address the injury.

To understand why his hamstring injury was so difficult to work through this season, the anatomy, cause, and severity of the injury should be understood. 

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Hamstring Anatomy 

The hamstrings are made up of three muscles in the back of the thigh consisting of the biceps femoris on the outside and the semimembranosus and semitendinosus on the inside. Together these three muscles attach to parts of the upper femur and bottom of the hip which is called the ischial tuberosity.

Hamstring Anatomy

Credit: Orthoinfo.AAOS.org

 

At the other end, they connect to the top of the tibia and fibula, which are the lower leg bones. Due to the muscles crossing over two joints, they have different functions based on hip or knee position. Together, these muscles allow the leg to extend and drive the body forward, along with bending the knee. They also assist with medially rotating the leg when the knee is bent.

Risk Factors & Cause

Risk factors for injuring the hamstring include older age, previous hamstring injury, tight hip flexors, tight hamstrings, poor core stability, and previous knee injury, among others contributing to a hamstring strain. During times of injury, the muscle can be overworked, overstretched, or fatigued, leading to part of the muscle tearing, also known as a strain. 

These types of injuries occur when an athlete suddenly tries to decelerate and change direction, hurdling a player or trying to push their body faster and faster. This can also occur during blocking, trying to maintain their ground as they’re being pushed forward and backward, eventually, the muscle gives out, causing the injury. 

The eccentric contraction of the muscle where the muscle lengthens under load is a common reason for the strain to occur in the above-mentioned mechanisms. The most commonly injured hamstring muscle is the biceps femoris when referring to strains in the area.

Severity Grades

Grade 1 tears are the least severe in which a small portion of the muscle tears during excessive activity. This can heal up rather quickly with several days of rest, stretching and light exercise can remedy the muscle. These can last one to two weeks before returning to unrestricted play.

Grade 2 hamstring tear is where a moderate portion of the muscle tears with a greater force, leading the player to limp and be unable to properly use the affected leg as intended. Typically, there is greater bruising and swelling with initial difficulty placing weight, keeping the athlete off it for some time. Bruising, poor functional control and tenderness may occur during this time which could cause the athlete to miss anywhere from four to eight weeks before they are back to playing shape. 

Hamstring Strain Grades

Credit: Thornleighphysio.com.au

Grade 3 hamstring tear is where the muscle nearly or completely tears. It can also pull a chunk of the bone away from the bony attachment known as an avulsion. This is due to the muscle attaching to the anchor point, meaning the harder the muscle contracts, the harder it pulls on the anchor point, leading to eventual overload. At this level of injury, the muscle is quite weak and function is no longer normal. 

With this injury, the athlete is in danger of missing significant time or can be potentially season-ending. Recovery time with surgery can be anywhere from three to six months with some resources stating closer to eight months. Thankfully, most hamstring tears do not require corrective surgery.

NFL Outlook

Jaxon Smith-Njigba is perceived as a day-one prospect by nearly all the various draft pundits. His NFL Combine testing backs up what is on film with the exception of the 40-yard dash, which he did not participate in. 

JSN plans to do this at his Pro Day later in March. He said that he was fully healed as of mid-February and needed more reps to be fully ready. 

Looking at all concerns as he moves to the next level, the only issue appears to be the hamstring. Diving into the injury, wide receivers make up 20.8 percent of all hamstring injuries, only second to defensive backs. Incidence of overall recurrence after initial hamstring injury can vary greatly, but several studies range placing the risk at around 30-38 percent. Risk factors for same-season re-injury are fewer weeks with return-to-play, and suffering an in-game injury which stands at just shy of 12% occurrence. 

With players trying to achieve a quick return to play, the week-to-week injury recurrence rate is highest when the player returns within two weeks (13.4%) of the original injury and the risk for further injury lasts for up to 12 months. Regrettably, JSN was in both timeframes when he suffered the re-injuries. 

Finally, addressing the time of the year when he suffered the injury, the risk for a hamstring injury is greatest in the early portion of a sports season. When looking at the NFL, over half of all hamstring strains occur during the seven-week training camp. Looking at injuries as a whole, they make up 12% of all injuries seen during training camp, second only to knee sprains. 

JSN’s injury fits everything above for an injury recurrence: the time of the season, position, an initial quick return to play, and in-game injury. 

Looking back, Smith-Njigba possibly suffered a tweak of his hamstring which was a Grade 1 strain against Notre Dame. Likely feeling good, he was able to come back after missing one game. It’s not clear if he suffered the re-injury against Toledo or in practice, but the recurrence was serious enough that it required missing the next three games.

It’s not clear how bad the second aggravation against Iowa was, but it was significant enough that he was unable to get fully healthy to return for the 2022 season.

As to why he was unable to return for the rest of the season, either he looked to preserve his draft stock or the injury simply wasn’t responding to rehab. I am believing it is the latter as his family took offense to the comments that ESPN’s Todd McShay stated about JSN back in December.

JSN will not be immune from injury once he gets to the NFL. He will likely have another hamstring strain or soft tissue injury at some point in his career. That in itself is not concerning. The hope is that he can avoid a recurrence heading into his rookie season to avoid making this a trend. Given his performance at the NFL Combine, he appeared to give himself the full time to get healthy. From an outside perspective, this latest injury appears to be a one-off. 

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Comparable Injury

Looking at a comparable situation, Tampa Bay Buccaneers S Antoine Winfield Jr had a similar hamstring injury coming out of Minnesota in 2020 and was ultimately drafted early in the second round. While he has had several injuries including a concussion, ankle, and foot injuries in the NFL, the soft tissue issues appeared to have been an isolated incident. He did come with some injury baggage that I highlighted back in 2020.

Buffalo Bills Outlook

Smith-Nijgba is certainly in play for the Buffalo Bills as they pick 27th overall. While they have avoided players with soft tissue injuries in the first two rounds dating back to 2018, eventually a player would be available that has them buck that trend. If they pass on him in the first, he won’t last long into the second round.

Unless the Bills have another positional need in the first round, there should not be any hesitation in taking Smith-Nijgba if available. The hamstring strain does not concern me as he has been a durable player prior to this injury and has given himself ample time to get healthy. I would be more concerned if his game translates to the NFL as he has had only one season of production.

The Bills need to add offensive weapons everywhere they can and Smith-Nijgba could help add a new wrinkle to the offense in 2023.

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