Since the Cleveland Browns are returning the entire starting offense and then some for 2021, there's far more certainty on that side of the ball, but that doesn't mean there aren't exciting players to watch develop in this year's training camp which starts in less than a week.
David Njoku, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Drew Forbes are all players with immense physical gifts trying to realize their potential. Of the three, short of injury, only Njoku has a real chance to start this year, but all three players have a chance to be critical parts of the offense, be it in 2021 or future seasons.
1. David Njoku, Tight End
In 2018, Njoku amassed 639 yards on 56 receptions with four touchdowns. That's the last time he played a full season. Despite a ton of promise heading into 2019, he suffered a wrist injury that kept him out more than half the season and when he finally came back, he was in the dog house with the coaching staff and management. The coaching staff and front office are now gone while Njoku remains.
This past season, Njoku had a promising opening game followed by an injury and finally got back on track the final six games of the season including the playoffs.
Like in 2019, he has a chance to capitalize off his immense talent and promise and finally become the fully formed threat that can dominate in the NFL this team has been waiting for since they drafted him in 2017. Njoku grew up a great deal emotionally in 2020 and became a tremendous blocker as well as a better pass catcher.
If Njoku can finally put it all together, along with Austin Hooper, the Browns can have a truly dynamic duo at the tight end position which would fit perfectly within Kevin Stefanski's offense. Add in players like Odell Beckham coming back from injury and it unlocks an almost unending amount of possibilities to attack opposing defenses at all levels of the field.
Save for Beckham, no one has the potential to transform the Browns offense the way Njoku does because he's a special athlete and can be a matchup nightmare. Especially attacking vertically, Njoku can create space for everyone else in the offense.
2. Donovan Peoples-Jones, Wide Receiver
Peoples-Jones is intriguing because he was coached so poorly in college at the University of Michigan, it's difficult to get a sense of just how much upside he possesses. When the Browns selected him in the six round of the 2020 NFL Draft, he had a ton of physical talent, but little clue on how to maximize it, none of which was his fault. He was able to carve out a niche in the passing game and had a couple monster plays that made it seem like he had more than 16 receptions in 14 games.
Two of them included a game winning touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals and a 75-yard touchdown against the Tennessee Titans helped build that legend.
What has been great about Peoples-Jones is both how intelligent he is as well as his work ethic. All indications are he's doing everything in his power to put himself in the best possible position to build on his role within the offense as a rookie. He's got size, strength, explosive ability and good overall speed, plus his hands have always been impressive. The hope is Peoples-Jones can continue to add more nuance and technical prowess to his running into his game to create more separation from defenders.
It's not likely that he's going to suddenly get a huge amount of targets this year, but he should be able to increase his workload and add to the ways he can contribute to the offense.
It would also be extremely helpful if Peoples-Jones can make real strides as a punt returner to avoid having to potentially dedicate a roster spot to that role. He is impressive with the ball in his hands dating back to returning at Michigan. Last year, the way he fielded punts, he looked like he'd never done it before, which made every punt return a perilous adventure.
3. Drew Forbes, Guard
Much of the focus will likely be on Nick Harris in his second year and seeing if he's ready to man that center spot potentially for 2022, but Forbes has the makings of a special player and this could be his coming out party despite the fact he'd still be be a backup this season.
Two things get lost in Forbes opting out of 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns. First, Wyatt Teller became a franchise guard but the team was serious about seeing who would win the job there. Teller may have been the favorite, but they didn't mention Forbes simply as an empty gesture.
The other thing that gets lost is even though Forbes was not with the team in 2020, he wasn't sitting at home doing nothing. He was training under the guidance of offensive line coach Bill Callahan, so Forbes, who was an elite athlete, was working to get himself better for 2022 not unlike so many collegiate athletes that opted out and focused on training for the NFL Draft.
The Browns have three elite athletes starting on their offensive line in Joel Bitonio, J.C. Tretter and Jack Conklin. It's one of the reasons they are so effective running the zone scheme because they have the individual athleticism to do virtually anything.
|Name||Drew Forbes||Joel Bitonio||J.C. Tretter||Jack Conklin|
Forbes is slightly less athletic than the other three and even that's only a matter of degrees. When the Browns decided to run this run scheme, it made Forbes go from a possible tackle like he was at Southeastern Missouri State to being a perfect fit for this scheme as a guard.
Not only is he an incredible athlete, but he's physical, relentless and a finisher. Relative to his level of competition, he looked like Orlando Pace in college, but even as much as the talent skyrocketed transitioning to the NFL, Forbes was able to look pretty solid as a rookie, looking better than expected when the Browns were searching for answers after trading Kevin Zeitler.
Now, entering his third year even if he was effectively on hiatus for a year, but still training, the speed of the game will not be the issue it was before and he's being coached by one of the best line coaches on the planet in Callahan.
This training camp and preseason should allow Forbes to showcase his immense talent. Should he end up primarily playing at right guard with James Hudson at right tackle, that pairing will be one of the more entertaining things that will be on display in the preseason as they are both maulers.
Aside from maybe Jedrick Wills, it's incredibly unlikely any of the Browns starting offensive linemen will play in the preseason, so the Browns should provide an ample helping of Harris, Forbes and Hudson. Forbes could put on a show.
Last but not least, it stands to reason the Browns want to get an extension done with Teller for age in addition to his talent. He's young, 26, and the Browns don't want to get old up front. However, if it becomes clear that Teller is going to wait to test free agency, Forbes could be the next right guard. If Teller signs an extension with the Browns, Forbes could be the heir to left guard behind Bitonio who has two more years on his contract.