While the 49ers did not have a first round selection for the second year in a row, their division rival Seattle Seahawks made two selections on the first day of the 2023 NFL draft. Seattle came away with two highly touted prospects, and I am here to share my immediate reaction on how I believe these selections impact the 49ers.
Round 1, pick 5: Devon Witherspoon - CB, Illinois
Round 1, pick 20: Jaxson Smith-Njigba - WR, Ohio State
The main takeaway: It’s a passing league but a running division
Witherspoon is a player that many experts had as the top cornerback in the class, and Seattle now pairs him with Tariq Woolen to form what could be the best young cornerback duo in the sport.
With Quandre Diggs and Jamal Adams rounding out their secondary, it appears that the Seahawks have committed to building their defense from the outside in, perhaps aiming to rekindle some of their old magic from the Legion Of Boom era that was headlined by a dominant back end.
In the state of the modern NFL, it's hard to argue with the logic of adding two players who can make such a profound impact on the passing game on both sides of the football.
However, the foremost goal for every team should be finding a way to win in their own division, and as of now, I just don’t see how the Seahawks are going to slow down a 49ers rushing attack that gashed them to the tune of 180 yards per game in their three meetings last season. That was not the result of an outlier performance, either, as the 49ers ran for at least 170 yards in each of those three meetings.
Witherspoon has the tools to be a shutdown cornerback in the NFL, but the 49ers selfishly might have dodged a major bullet regarding how they matchup with Seattle’s defense. Yes, Witherspoon is a good player, and it is far too early to entirely ignore what he brings to the table.
But Seattle’s problem with the 49ers starts and stops in the trenches. Until that gets addressed, it’s very hard not to feel confident that Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers staff will find a way to continuously hammer a major weakness for the Seahawks, that also happens to be the greatest strength of one of the most explosive offenses in the league.
I like the player and I don’t mind the pick at all. Shutdown corners are always going to have value in this league. However, this feels like it won’t do much to move the needle the way Seattle will need to close the gap that currently exists between themselves and the 49ers.
On the other side of the ball, Seattle adds a dynamic receiving weapon to an already potent group that includes D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. Smith-Njigba is the latest decorated Ohio State receiver to come out from a room that boasted two first round picks in Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, the former of which took home Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2022.
This is the pick that should be more concerning for the 49ers, as Seattle now has one of the deepest skill position groups in the league and a quarterback who is now in the upper echelon of the conference.
Smith-Njigba allows the Seahawks to have tremendous flexibility with their position groupings, which can be headlined with an 11 personnel look that also includes Lockett, Metcalf, Kenneth Walker, and Noah Fant.
Before the addition of Smith-Njigba, Seattle already had an elite offense that was capable of lighting up the scoreboard on any given Sunday. This is the kind of move that puts a team like that over the top, and stresses out even the most talented of defenses that they will come across.
The 49ers averaged 29.6 points per game in their three meetings with Seattle last season, so it’s plausible that the Seahawks enter the 2023 matchups fully embracing the fact that they might have to counter physicality with finesse, and just aim to win these games in a shootout.
No matter how strong this 49ers defense is, Seattle having that many playmakers on the field at a given time is something that will likely pose major problems for San Francisco as these two teams jockey for control of a division title race that is likely going to stay exclusively between them.
Ultimately, if you’re the 49ers, you're probably a breathing a sigh of relief that the Seahawks didn’t make a move on day one of the draft that would directly address the biggest mismatch you present to them. However, you can’t ignore that Seattle added two quality prospects who will most likely improve them, even if it doesn’t present major problems in your own matchup.
This Seahawks team entered the draft as a young upstart team fresh off a playoff appearance nobody saw coming prior to the 2022 season. They leave round one with two players who many had as the top players at their respective positions heading into this class, adding another layer of intrigue moving forward to an already riveting rivalry between these two west coast franchises.