Seahawks take Witherspoon at No. 5, Smith-Njigba at No. 20
RENTON, Wash. (AP) — When the first round ended, the Seattle Seahawks had nabbed the top-rated cornerback, the top-rated wide receiver, and didn’t do any wheeling and dealing of trades with either of their first-round picks.
None of those three outcomes fits directions the Seahawks were expected to go on the first night of the NFL draft.
Seattle held on to both of its first-rounders, selecting Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon at No. 5 overall and coming back to get Ohio State wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Ngjiba at No. 20 on Thursday night.
Both positions were expected to be addressed at some point by Seattle, but not necessarily in the spots the two players were selected. Most believed Seattle — holding the highest draft pick in the long tenure of general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll — would go with a defensive lineman or one of the quarterbacks.
But with three QBs gone in the first four picks, the Seahawks’ leadership bypassed the likes of defensive tackle Jalen Carter and edge rusher Tyree Wilson and instead solidified their secondary before grabbing another offensive playmaker.
“These are two legitimate producers, guys that we’ve seen play and do stuff, totally can fit in,” Carroll said. “Devon Witherspoon is a rare player.”
Witherspoon was regarded as one of the top two cornerbacks in the draft despite being slightly undersized from what Seattle has opted for in the past with players at the position. Witherspoon blossomed in his final season at Illinois where he was the Big Ten defensive back of the year, had three interceptions and 17 passes defensed.
“I’m energetic, physical. I’m a dog on the field,” Witherspoon said. “I’m just very confident in what I do, passionate. I love to show my emotions out there on the field.”
He is the first cornerback to be selected in the first round by Seattle since Kelly Jennings was selected No. 31 overall in 2006, and was picked a year after the Seahawks used two of their draft picks on cornerbacks in Tariq Woolen and Coby Bryant.
That decision turned out to work for Seattle a year ago, getting a starting outside cornerback and starting nickel. They believe Witherspoon is the final piece of the trifecta at cornerback to go along with a trio of safeties in Quandre Diggs, Julian Love and Jamal Adams.
Seattle had never drafted a cornerback higher than No. 90 overall during the Schneider/Carroll tenure.
“I was confident I was going to go pretty high. I (didn’t) know it was going to be Seattle, but I’m glad that it is,” Witherspoon said.
The opportunity to have the fifth pick left the Seahawks with a lengthy list of options and areas that could be addressed.
One of those options included quarterback, but that opportunity seemed to bypass Seattle with the early QB run. That including Anthony Richardson, who was selected with the No. 4 pick by Indianapolis and appeared the best fit for the Seahawks as a developmental option behind Geno Smith.
Instead, Seattle provided Smith another offensive playmaker later in the round.
Smith-Njigba joins a wide receiver group that’s highlighted by DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. But finding a third pass catching option has been a struggle for Seattle’s offense with former second-round pick Dee Eskridge struggling with injuries through his young career.
“I’m a big fan of those guys and for me to be in that room, I know how I am and that is just going to push me to compete harder and find my way amongst those guys,” Smith-Njigba said. "I am looking forward to lining up next to them.”
Smith-Njigba had a breakout season in 2021 when he had 95 receptions for 1,606 yards and dominated the Rose Bowl against Utah with 15 catches for 347 yards and two touchdowns.
Smith-Njigba played just 60 snaps last season because of a lingering left hamstring injury. He finished with five catches for 43 yards and appeared in only three games, but said he's fully recovered from the hamstring issue.
Asked what he does best as a pass catcher, Smith-Njigba said, “I get open.”
“If we would have sat here last year at this time looking at the 2023 draft we would have said that guy is easily a top five, 10 player and then he unfortunately had the hamstring injury,” Schneider said.